Char-Koosta News 

ZOOMVILLE — At last week’s Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force meeting, Flathead Nation Tribal Councilwoman Ellie Bundy was elected to serve as presiding officer. 

The outgoing MMIP Task Force presiding officer, deputy attorney general Melissa Schlichting, announced that she was taking a position in the U.S. Attorney’s General Office.

Bundy serves as one of two St. Ignatius District Tribal Council representatives along with D. Fred Matt. She has long been involved in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People effort.

Missing persons specialist Tina Chamberlain said there was a 22 percent increase in missing persons cases in the seven-month period from February to August 2020. 

As of last week, there were 179 active missing cases in Montana; 52 of them were American Indians. That equates to 29 percent the missing cases from a population that comprises 7 percent of the total Montana population. Twenty-five of the missing cases are male, and 27 are female. Thirty-nine of the missing were 21 years old and younger. Twenty-two of the juveniles are on the books as runaways; 17 have been missing for more than a year. 

Schlichting said an overriding issue of all the missing people in Montana is when to delist them. As an example, she said a person that is presumed drowned is listed as a missing person, and remains on the missing list until a body is recovered. That presumably could be addressed by a change in official missing persons protocols.

Chamberlain announced that kinks were still being worked out in the “completely new” missing persons and information website. It should be ready by February. Another new feature will be a smartphone app that will help the law enforcement and other authorities as well as the general public get up-to-the-minute information about suspected or reported missing people.

“We will continue to use the old website until the new one comes online,” Chamberlain said.

A National MMIP and Operation Lady Justice update was given by Ernie Weyand, federal missing persons Montana coordinator. He gave an overview of the recent Tribal Community Response Plan meeting in Pablo. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are one of six Tribal Nations tapped to lead the fine tuning of the federal-backed TCRP to meet its specific needs. It will serve as a base model for the other Tribal Nations in Montana and across the nation to use and tweak to meet each Nation’s specific needs. Along with the CSKT, Tribal Nations in Alaska, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Oregon will participate in the TCRP pilot projects. The CSKT are the first Tribal Nation to work on the development of the TCRP.

The goal of a TCRP is to improve responses to emergent American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) missing person cases by establishing a collaborative response from Tribal governments, law enforcement, and other partners through culturally appropriate guidelines. The U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies developed draft guides to assist in developing TCRPs with input from tribal leaders, tribal law enforcement and their communities.

The TCRP set up development guidelines for Victim Support Services, Community Outreach, Law Enforcement, and Media and Public Communications.

Tribal governments and AIAN organizations have expressed concerns of missing and murdered members of tribal communities. In response, in November 2019, by Executive Order, President Donald Trump established a task force on missing and murdered AIAN persons, and Attorney General William P. Barr launched a national initiative to address Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP).  In addition, in October 2020, President Trump signed Savanna’s Act into law. All three responses include direction to develop guidelines or protocols to apply to address or respond to missing AIAN person cases.

“The goal is to work with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes development of the first Tribal Community Response Plan in the nation,” Weyand said. “The CSKT are first because they are way ahead of the game with its Community Task Force. They’ve been at this for a couple of years now. Ellie and the CSKT team are in the process of putting their plan in writing.”

Once the TCRPs are finalized, the U.S. Department of Justice will have 60 days to develop regional guidelines throughout the United States

Weyand said he was impressed by the involvement of numerous law enforcement entities that include: the CSKT Law Enforcement Department (Tribal Police); the Sheriff’s Offices from Lake, Missoula, Flathead and Sanders counties; the Polson and Ronan Police Departments; and the Montana Highway Patrol as well as federal law enforcement agencies.

“We felt we were ahead of the game going in, but we were able to find gaps in our plan,” Bundy said, adding that she too was satisfied about getting 10 various law enforcement entities involved and coming together under the TCRP law enforcement guidelines. “The biggest piece from law enforcement is that all of those agencies are willing to have one plan in place, so we don’t have 10 different protocols when someone goes missing. They all agree to work on CSKT’s plan.”

Bundy said the CSKT would soon be finishing tailoring the TCRP to CSKT needs and then it will be available to share the plan with other Tribal Nations in Montana and nationally and then assist them in tailoring it for their specific needs.

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