Native advocates and the Blackfeet Nation late last week held what is being called the first-ever Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Tribunal in the U.S. The testimony from the families of missing and murdered Native people will be delivered to Congressional lawmakers in a push for policy change. Most family members focused on their frustrations with law enforcement.
The sister of Ashley Loring Heavy Runner, a member of the Blackfeet Nation who went missing in 2017, gave passionate testimony Friday at the Blackfeet Community College. Kimberly Loring said tribal law enforcement and officers with the Bureau of Indian Affairs didn’t take the search for her sister seriously.
"They didn’t want to search for her. My sister doesn’t deserve this. My sister is a loving person and she had plans, and being a missing and murdered indigenous woman was not one of them."
Loring, who lives out of state, added that she continues to travel home to the Blackfeet Reservation to search for her sister without the help of law enforcement.
"We were supposed to go explore the world together, but instead I’m exploring the woods for my sister."
Other family members also spoke during the tribunal Friday and Saturday, including Malinda Limberhand who talked about the search for her daughter Hanna. Hanna is the namesake of a 2019 state law requiring the the Montana Justice Department to hire a missing persons specialist.
The Global Indigenous Council, which funded the tribunal, says it plans to to compile the statements and send them to U.S. lawmakers. Congress is considering a handful of bills aimed at combating the issue through more collaboration between law enforcement agencies and better data collection to understand the scope of MMIW cases nationwide.
Over 5,000 Native women were reported missing in 2016 in the United States, but experts say that’s likely an underestimate.
Loring also used her testimony to expressed frustrations with Blackfeet Nation leaders in the room, including Chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Tim Davis
"That’s why I came to my tribe several times and asked them if we could search, if you guys could come help search. We will pay for the tribe to help us. So I hope by doing this meeting, Mr. Tim Davis, I hope you guys will learn by listening to all these stories to say that we can spark a change in our own people. How are we going to help the people if we can’t help ourselves?"
Chairman Davis acknowledges that cases like Loring Heavy Runner’s can be put on the back burner by tribal law enforcement, but he says tribes need more support from the federal government.
"We need more resources. That’s the bottom line here, is we don’t have enough officers to cover the entire reservation," Davis says.
Currently, only 17 officers police the 1.5 million acre reservation, and all are stationed in Browning. The tribe is currently asking the Bureau of Indian Affairs for funding and training resources for 23 additional tribal officers. The tribe is also supporting calls to restore some of the FBI’s services in the state, which were recently cut.
Former Blackfeet officer and one of the state’s new Missing Person Specialists Misty LaPlant also attended and says the state is making progress on the issue. Out of 162 missing people statewide, 46 are Native Americans, a small drop from recent numbers.
"And so we were at 31 percent and now we’re down to 28 [percent]. I’m happy about that. It seems minuscule when you look at the big picture, but that’s how many more people were located safely and are off the list. I’m really excited about that."
LaPlant also sits on the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigious Women task force and says she will bring some of the issues raised at the tribunal up at its meetings. The task force is due to suggest additional legislation during the 2021 legislative session.
Several Democratic presidential hopefuls sent recorded messages supporting the tribunal’s work over the weekend. Cathy Russell, vice chair to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign delivered statements of support in person. Montana Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines also sent statements encouraging the work.
Ashley Loring Heavy Runner’s sister Kimberly is happy to see the MMIW issue getting attention.
"Because this is reality that we are going through this everyday of not knowing where Ashley is, and we really need change and we really need help to find her."
The Global Indigenous Council and the Blackfeet Nation are working to send statements from Loring and others to members of Congress urging lawmakers to fund current legislation like Savanna’s Act, which is aimed at collecting data nationwide, so it can be successful in combating the crisis.