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Conference seeks local solutions to keep indigenous people safe

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PABLO – Those who filled Salish Kootenai College’s conference rooms last month were united by two factors: they knew the experience of having a loved one or community member go missing, and they were determined to keep indigenous people from harm in the future.

The attendees were at a three-day conference to seek solutions and educate community members on the issue of missing and murdered indigenous people. The conference focused on instances of human trafficking. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ working group on MMIP facilitated the free event. 

CSKT council member Shelly Fyant was an organizer for the event. She said the Flathead Reservation needs to find solutions for preventing people from going missing and finding them if they do disappear. Fyant worked with CSKT policy analyst Jami Pluff to organize the training. 

Fyant used the example of Jermain Charlo, a woman from the reservation who disappeared in June 2018. She has not been found. “Someone knows what happened to her,” Fyant said. “And yet, the case isn’t solved and she hasn’t returned. It’s a very real issue for us here.”

In January 2019, CSKT passed a resolution to seek solutions to the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. The resolution dedicated a working group to implement changes that would support indigenous women and girls and protect them from violence and trafficking. The conference was held in an effort to take action on the resolution.

“It’s such an important issue in our area and nationally,” Fyant said. “We wanted to educate people about the dangers of human trafficking.” 

The conference gave people with a variety of perspectives on the issue a chance to collaborate and share knowledge, Fyant said. About 125 people came to at least a portion of the event. Attendees were invested in the issue for a wide variety of reasons. There were parents and grandparents, social services professionals, attendees from the medical field, religious and community leaders and generally concerned citizens.

According to Fyant, the working group identified tactics for keeping people on the Flathead Reservation safe. The group will develop a Facebook page to spread information about MMIW. It will also create a tip line, not run by law enforcement. Fyant said the tip line is intended to create opportunities for those who would feel uncomfortable speaking with a police officer to share information that could save a person in danger. 

The group also plans to work on educating students in local schools about the dangers of human trafficking. The group will print and distribute posters across the reservation to spread information about preventing human trafficking.  

One presenter was HTC Solutions, a national organization that trains communities to recognize and respond to human trafficking, particularly in Indian country. Attendees also heard presentations from local and state leaders. The event highlighted the impacts of violence and kidnapping on indigenous women. Families of missing and murdered women spoke. 

Presenters shared information about the human trafficking industry to give attendees a look at what they are up against. Human trafficking is a several billion-dollar industry in the United States, Fyant said. 

A number of women who had been trafficked or approached by human traffickers spoke at the event. Fyant said her eyes were opened to the presence of human trafficking in the Mission Valley. “It’s so scary to me that it’s here,” she said.

Fyant said native women are more likely to be trafficked, murdered or kidnapped than non-native people. She attributes high rates of human trafficking on reservations to people living in unstable conditions. Those who are experiencing poverty or homelessness and children in foster care are all at risk to be trafficked, she said.

On other reservations, the problem of missing and murdered indigenous people has been compounded by law enforcement’s failure to act, Fyant said, but on the Flathead Reservation that isn’t a problem. Tribal and non-tribal law enforcement agencies work together effectively to search for missing people. 

Fyant said some takeaways from the conference could be implemented immediately, including procedures. If a loved one goes missing, report it to police immediately. There’s no need to wait until someone has been gone for days, she said. Police accept missing person’s reports immediately. People should check in with their loved ones regularly, especially if they may be at risk of being trafficked. 

The event made the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women seem personal and immediate, according to Fyant. “Behind every one of those stories is a human,” she said. “That’s somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister, somebody’s mother.”

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