U.S. Attorney General William Barr visits Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes

Char-Koosta News 

PABLO — U.S. Attorney General William Barr made a swing through western Montana Friday to announce the federal government initiative to address the sad — how did we get this far — epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People at the headquarters of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. 

Prior to addressing the CSKT Tribal Council, Flathead Nation citizens, the public and press, Barr and entourage motored to the top of Ravalli Hill to get a peek at a portion of what is left of the American bison. However, the bison were playing a bit of peekaboo and were only visible through binoculars and a spotting scope high on the east Mission Mountains facing ridge. 

CSKT Attorney Shane Morigeau

CSKT Attorney Shane Morigeau points out bison in the distance for United States Attorney General William Barr.

Barr was given a bit of history of the National Bison Range located in the heart of the Flathead Indian Reservation. He seemed to be unaware of the background. Later in the day Barr would host a meeting in Kalispell concerning the drug — especially methamphetamine — problem in Montana. 

Following the stop at Ravalli Hill, Barr et al, headed to Pablo for a non-press meeting at Salish Kootenai College with several tribal people and others involved in seeking to address the MMIP issue. Then the Attorney General motored across Highway 93 to publicly announce the federal strategy to address the MMIP issue.

According to the Seattle Indian Health Board’s Urban Indian Health Institute 2018 report there were 5,712 cases nationwide of missing and murdered Indigenous females. However, just 116 were reported to the U.S. Justice Department database.

The study points out that problem is not just endemic to Indian Reservations and rural off-reservation communities. 

Three members of Council stand with Barr

Three members of Council stand with Barr after a lively discussion on the MMIP issue. From left, Shelly Fyant, William Barr, Myrna Dumontier, Charmel Gillin.

The study documents 506 unique cases in 71 cities across America, most notably in the West. According to the study, 71 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in towns and cities, however little to no research has been done on violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women in urban areas — Seattle and Albuquerque top the MMIP list.

The report’s database goes back to the 1940s, but two-thirds of the cases collected occurred between 2010 and 2018. Researchers emphasized that the scope of the problem is likely much greater than that, given the amount of data that appears to be missing.

Studies by the National Institute of Justice paint another dark picture of unresolved violence in Indian Country. The Institute estimates that 1.5 million American Indian women have been the victims of violence; also, more than 50 percent have experienced various levels of sexual violence.

It is not just an America problem. The issue has been on the minds and in the hearts of the victims, families and tribal people for years on both sides of the America-Canada border. It is estimated that up to 4,000 women have gone missing or been murdered in Canada, over the last several decades.

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The oppressive weight of the issue and the lack of concerted local, state and federal investigative assistance, coupled with the lack of adequate tribal law enforcement on reservations has exacerbated the problem and spurred local affected tribal people and tribal governments to take on the issue and create public awareness. 

That is what happened on the Flathead Indian Reservation where the MMIP problem is personal with the unresolved disappearance of 23-year-old Jermain Charlo. She was last seen in Missoula on a downtown surveillance camera June 15, 2018. 

As a result, the Charlo’s unresolved disappearance is being addressed by the Tribal Council and the subsequent working group was established to seek a resolution. The CSKT have paid for a missing person (Charlo) billboard near Missoula and have offered a $10,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest of the person or persons responsible for Charlo’s unsolved disappearance. The investigation is ongoing in Missoula spearheaded by Missoula Police Department detective Guy Baker. 

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U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana, Kurt Alme told the Tribal Council, et al, that his responsibility is to work for the safety of every American and that the Department of Justice would upgrade its role and work with Indian Country to address the issue. 

“In Montana, we recognize that Native American women face too much violence, and too often go missing and are murdered. The missing need to be found and brought home, murderers and abusers must be brought to justice, and violence against women must stop. With the Attorney General’s leadership, this initiative will provide an improved, nationally coordinated response when a Native American goes missing,” Alme said in a prepared statement. “It will complement the steps taken by our office this year to bring public training to all seven Montana reservations on how to find missing loved ones; to partner with the Montana Department of Justice, the FBI and the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) to provide two statewide trainings on using missing persons databases and alerts; and to partner with the MTDOJ (Montana Department of Justice) and the tribes on the statewide missing indigenous persons task force to collectively find solutions to this issue.”

U.S. Attorney General William Barr

U.S. Attorney General William Barr addresses the Tribal Council in regards to the federal government’s strategy to address Missing and Murdered Indigenous People.

Attorney General Barr then addressed the Tribal Council. “The president is aware of the issue. The Department of Justice would like to move ahead with the Missing and Murder Indigenous People,” he said, adding “This community has really been the vanguard of self-government in so many ways and has taken an initiative on this issue.

“American Indians and Alaska Native people suffer from unacceptable and disproportionately high levels of violence, which can have lasting impacts on families and communities. Native American women face particularly high rates of violence, with at least half suffering sexual or intimate-partner violence in their lifetime,” Barr said. “Too many of these families have experienced the loss of loved ones who went missing or were murdered. This important initiative will further strengthen the federal, state, and tribal law enforcement response to these continuing problems.”

Then Barr unveiled the federal government’s strategy to combat the MMIP epidemic, in a three-pronged approach that includes:

• The establishment of MMIP coordinators in 11 states that will serve with all U.S. Attorney’s offices in those states as well as others that request such assistance.

To jumpstart the effort DOJ is initially funding the effort at $1.5 million that will be used to hire the MMIP coordinators in the 11 states.

The states, include: Alaska, Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

The MMIP coordinators will work closely with federal, tribal, state and local agencies to develop common protocols and procedures for responding to reports of missing or murdered Indigenous people.

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• The establishment of FBI rapid deployment teams charged with bringing needed tools and resources to law enforcement. The resources and personnel which available include: Child Abduction Rapid Development Teams; Cellular Analysis Support Teams; Evidence Response Teams; Cyber Agents for timely analysis of digital evidence/social media; and, among other such resources, Victims Services Division Response Teams. 

The FBI resources will be made available upon request by tribal, state and/or local law enforcement agencies. 

The MMIP coordinators will assist the FBI in the development of protocols.

• The availability of Comprehensive Data Analysis. FBI will perform in-depth analysis of federally supported databases and analyze data collection practices to identify opportunities to improve missing persons data and share the results of the analysis with partners in the effort.

Also the MMIP Initiative will include a coordinated effort by more than 50 U.S. attorneys on the Attorney General’s Native American Issues Subcommittee, the FBI, and the Office of Tribal Justice, with support from the Office of Justice Programs and the Office of Violence Against Women.

Following his presentation, Salish Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee Director Tony Incashola, and Kootenai Culture Committee Director Vernon Finley spoke and presented Barr with a blanket of friendship. 

“In 1805 the Salish people first met Lewis and Clark,” Incashola said. “We could have turned them away but we didn’t — we gave them blankets.”

Gift Blanket

Kootenai Culture Committee Director Vernon Finley (left) and Salish Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee Director Tony Incashola pose with gift-blanket draped U.S. Attorney General William Barr.

The Bitterroot Salish gave the wayfarers more than blankets. There was food, supplies, horses and the way west to the Pacific Ocean beginning on the Lolo Trail. 

Incashola said it was the spirit of the Bitterroot Salish to live in peace and that the blanket is representative of that guiding spirit.

Finley turned back recent time a bit when he compared the sad murder of 6-year-old Jon Bonet Ramsey, and the national attention paid to the case. Meanwhile he contrasted the legal and public attention that one-person got to that of the thousands of Missing and Murdered Indigenous people.

“I can’t help but notice the difference when the whole nation thought about her,” Finley said adding that the national attention paid to MMIP is drastically miniscule in comparison — however the federal initiative is welcome and hopeful even though long overdue. “It’s heartening to hear that this is more than photo ops and hollow words, it’s a promise," Finley said. "The blanket we gave you is not just for a photo op. It will give you the strength it takes to carry out your words.”

Time will tell.

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