Montana Public Radio

Hundreds Turn Out For Montana Native Women's Vigil In Missoula

Jan 21, 2019

On Saturday, as Women’s Marches happened across the country, about 500 people turned out for an un-affiliated demonstration in Missoula: A vigil for missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.

Native American women from across the state organized the rally to demand action on bills aimed at keeping crimes against indigenous women from falling through legal loopholes.

"We are demanding action," said the event's main organizer, Lauren Small Rodriguez. "You are here to help create that action. So remember that when you hear these stories, that we need to follow through. When we’re done here we need to follow through and contact Congress, contact our state representatives and say this is enough."

The crowd carried candles, signs, and photos of lost loved ones as they walked around the oval on the University of Montana campus. Small Rodriguez led a color guard made up of three Northern Cheyenne women military veterans.

Northern Cheyenne military veterans Glenda Littlebird, Lauren Small Rodriguez and Charlotte Moore (left to right) carry the flags of three of Montana's tribal nations at the MMIW vigil. January 19, 2019.
Credit Josh Burnham / Montana Public Radio

Under a light drizzle, Small Rodriguez introduced tribal leaders, policy experts, and the families of victims.

One after another, the mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters and sons of Montana’s missing and murdered Native women took to a small stage to share their stories.

Paula Castro is the mother of Henny Scott, the 14-year-old high school freshman whose body was found just three weeks ago outside Lame Deer.

"I just want to thank everybody for their prayers, and being here, and to know Henny now," Castro said. "I wish you would have got to know her when she was alive."

Castro and others described not being taken seriously by police when they tried to file missing persons reports. They said they were told that their daughters were drunk or had run away.

Malinda Harris, whose daughter went missing in 2013 said police initially sent her home saying, "she’s probably out with her friends, drinking, scared to come home."

More than two dozen Native American women and girls went missing in Montana in 2018 alone.

Now a movement to get justice for these victims may be gaining political traction.

Last month, the U.S. Senate held a hearing on the topic, led by Montana Democrat Jon Tester. Two weeks ago he wrote a public letter to the Federal Bureaus of Investigation and Indian Affairs criticizing the handling of Henny Scott’s case in which it took 13 days for law enforcement to notify the public that a missing persons report had been filed.

Two bills that aim to prevent jurisdictional issues from keeping cases unsolved or unprosecuted are being brought up in the Montana Legislature this session.

House Bill 20, introduced by Representative Rae Peppers from Lame Deer, would require all officers in the state, regardless of jurisdiction, to file a missing child report as soon as a child is reported missing. A law which would have sped up the search for Henny Scott.

"So remember that bill," Small Rodriguez said at the vigil. "House Bill 20."

Another bill is called Hanna’s Act after Hanna Harris, a 21-year old Northern Cheyenne woman who was murdered in 2013. It would have the Montana Department of Justice employ a missing persons specialist to help coordinate local, state, tribal and federal law enforcement.

Malinda Harris, Hanna’s mother, said Saturday that she hopes the bill will keep other families from going through the uncertainty she did. Wondering what happened to her daughter for nearly a year before arrests were made.

"To come together and keep everybody informed instead of leaving us in the dark," Harris told the crowd, "‘cause I got left in the dark for six months, nine months."

People shared their stories and called for action on behalf of their missing loved-ones during a Jan. 19 vigil for missing and murdered Indigenous women in Missoula, MT.
Credit Josh Burnham / Montana Public Radio

But for many of the victims’ families who were there Saturday, uncertainty is something they still live with every day.

Marla Loring Momberg stood tall in the crowd holding up a picture of her niece, Ashley Loring HeavyRunner who went missing from the Blackfeet Reservation in 2017 and has not been found.

"She’s loving, kind-hearted, a true cowgirl. She was a little cowgirl and she’s very missed," Loring Momberg said. "We just want closure. We want answers. It’s been too long."

Organizers of last year's Missoula Women's March decided not to hold one this year. In an op-ed published Friday in the Missoulian, they wrote that instead of promoting what they called a laundry list of issues at a Women’s March, they wanted the community to show up as allies for Saturday’s vigil and stand in solidarity with Montana’s Native community.