As Congress and Montana lawmakers consider laws to address high rates of missing and murdered Native American women and girls, people in Indian Country have a question for the law enforcement officers and government officials tasked with protecting them.
"What can we do as individuals, as community members? What should I be looking for? How can I better protect myself so I don’t become a victim, so my other nieces are safe?"
Naomi Robinson posed this question at the first meeting of a new workgroup on the Flathead Reservation that’s forming to find local solutions to what’s being called a national epidemic.
In January, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council passed a resolution to create and help fund the workgroup to develop a missing and murdered indigenous women and girls action plan, coordinate grassroots efforts and work with other tribes.
Jami Pluff is a policy analyst for the tribes spearheading the group’s formation.
"And so those are the kind of things we hope that this workgroup will do. To come up with these ideas and then come up with a plan to present to council."
Wednesday’s meeting in Ronan was the first of three community meetings Pluff is holding to gather volunteers and brainstorm solutions.
Councilwoman Carole Lankford suggested posting a protocol on the tribe’s website outlining who to contact and what to do when a person is believed to be missing.
"If you've never had a missing person, you don't have a clue."
Tribal Police Chief Craige Couture said it’s vital for families to report missing persons to law enforcement in the area where the person was last known to be, and that the family comes to the station in person to sign forms so he can add them to the National Crime Information Center’s missing persons database.
"I would rather have you call every time and it turn out to be false, than to wait an extra 24 hours and think, ‘if I only had called sooner.’"
Couture acknowledges that tribal police on the Flathead Reservation have resources some other tribes in Montana don’t, like access to the federal database and they don’t have to rely as much on federal law enforcement agencies. He also says his force is made up entirely of tribal members. He says that makes a difference.
"So when they come to work here, they know their history. They know their ancestors' history. They know who the chiefs were. They know what's vested in them. They understand how important it is for them to not let down, not only their families, but their entire tribe. So I think they bring that to work with them every day."
Valenda Morigeau, who’s 23-year-old niece, Jermain Charlo, has been missing from Dixon since June of 2018, fired off a list of precautionary measures she says is her new normal.
"When you go to your car, look underneath your car. Always take a glance in the backseat. Don't be playing on your cell phones when you're walking to your car because you're a prime target."
Morigeau suggested more opportunities for self-defense courses, and to train employees of the tribe and its corporations, including Kwa Taq Nuk Resort and Rising Wolf Casino, to identify human trafficking, which Police Chief Couture says often goes hand in hand with drug rings that target reservations.
By the end of the evening, Policy Analyst Jami Pluff had a list of proposals she plans to bring to tribal council by the end of the month.
"We're going to do education in the schools. We’re going to have an event to raise awareness. We’re going to raise money to get a billboard in Pablo. We’re going to have this fundraising event. Self-defense classes for the young women, like you said, be aware of your surroundings, keep track of your kids, because I really think a lot of people don't realize that it is right here."
As the Flathead Tribes identify local solutions, they’re also backing state and federal legislation aimed at easing coordination among tribal, state and federal law enforcement agencies and requiring faster reporting for missing children.
Montana lawmakers are considering two bills to do that.
Montana Senators Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Steve Daines are co-sponsoring another recently introduced federal bill that would commission a review of how federal agencies respond to reports of missing and murdered Native American people and recommend solutions based on their findings. The Canadian government is wrapping up a similar inquiry this spring.
Pluff will host two more meetings to plan the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls workgroup:
- Wednesday, February 13 at 6:30 p.m. at Elmo Hall (following the Elder's meeting).
- Wednesday, February 20 at 5:30 p.m. at the Arlee Indian Senior Center (held jointly with Arlee District meeting with a meal at 5:30 p.m.).