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Coordinated response plan developed to address MMIP cases

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PABLO — The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, in collabroation with federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement and community organizations, has finalized the nation’s first Tribal Community Response Plan as part of a pilot project to address cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP).

Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana Leif Johnson and FBI Executive Assistant Director Terry Wade joined CSKT Chairwoman Shelly Fyant, Councilwoman Ellie Bundy and other members of the working group for a press conference last Thursday at tribal headquarters in Pablo. 

“The tragedy of MMIP is a harsh reality,” said Fyant in her opening remarks. “Unfortunately no tribal nation has gone untouched by this crisis.”

As of March 25, Montana had 166 missing persons and 48 (or 29%) are identified as indigenous. Of those, 22 are under age 21; 27 are female and 21 are male; 14 are considered runaways; and 19 have been missing for more than a year. Nationwide, approximately 1,500 American Indian and Alaska Native missing persons have been entered into the National Crime Information Center database.

Councilwoman Bundy, who serves as presiding officer for the state’s MMIP task force, is keenly aware of the struggles families face. 

“This is not just about a document being developed or a team coming together successfully to get a job done,” she said. “It’s about always remembering why we make the commitment every day to do the work and who we make that commitment for – it’s for those who are missing, those who have been murdered and the families who will forever hurt.”

The Tribal Community Response Plan addresses several key areas, including law enforcement response to emergent cases, victim services, media and public messaging, and community-based resources – all with sensitivity to tribal resources and cultural protocols.

Bundy said the Tribes had “a head start” in crafting the plan, due to “strong community relations with a lot of the organizations who we can reach out to for assistance.”

Many of these community partners attended meetings, offered suggestions and are part of the plan’s resource guide. In addition, Bundy said the creation of a missing persons liaison should dramatically improve communications between family and law enforcement, and free up investigators to focus on missing person cases.    

“We’ve heard from families that they didn’t feel heard or weren’t getting the information they needed,” she said. “Sometimes all the family really needs is to know someone is reaching out to them, to serve as an advocate for them.”

Acting U.S. Attorney Johnson attributed “public outcry over this issue” for finally galvanizing support “at the highest levels of government … to develop culturally appropriate guidelines to respond to MMIP.”

The plan that emerged from this collaborative effort “is the Tribes’ plan,” he emphasized, facilitated by the Department of Justice “to provide quick and effective response to MMIP cases that can run from the routine to the very complex in a hurry.” 

The guidelines hammered out should facilitate a coordinated response, helping tribal officials and law enforcement more quickly address missing person cases, both Indian and non-Indian, on and off the reservation. 

Johnson is also optimistic that the collaborative plan developed by CSKT can “help inform consultations with other tribes” in Montana and across the nation.

“It’s a big day,” said Wade, who oversees the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch. “The things we will learn and implement with people here can be utilized nationwide.” 

The FBI, as the lead investigative agency, brings considerable technical expertise, assets and personnel to the search for a missing person. 

“But a lot of the things we can’t bring and can’t replicate are the things tribal departments and local departments bring,” he noted. “And that’s relationships with the community, knowledge of the community and knowledge of the terrain.”

He contrasted the bureau’s work in major metropolitan areas with the challenges presented by vast western landscapes and far-flung reservation communities. “You lose sight on the East Coast of how large some of these communities are.” 

The Flathead Reservation, for example, encompasses four counties and 10 different law enforcement agencies.  

“There have been instances where a lack of communication between different agencies across jurisdictions has hampered cases,” he said. 

The Tribal Community Response Plan lays the groundwork to address those communication gaps, and improve coordination. “That can only happen with people knowing each other, getting together, bringing resources and working out issues – sometimes difficult issues,” Wade said. “That can only happen when we sit down at a table and work together.”

Gathering and sharing data is also an important piece of the puzzle. According to Ernie Weyand, MMIP coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Montana, it’s being addressed at both the state and national level. He praised Montana for doing “a tremendous job in data collection and analysis.” 

Participants lauded the creation of the first Tribal Community Response Plan in the nation as a milestone on the path to addressing an issue that has crippled tribal communities. 

“This topic, as you can imagine, is heavy, dark and difficult,” Bundy said. “But today we celebrate a silver lining that offers hope.” 

The press conference occurred on the same day that Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland announced the formation of a new unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide leadership and direction for solving cases of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.

“Violence against Indigenous peoples is a crisis that has been underfunded for decades. Far too often, murders and missing persons cases in Indian Country go unsolved and unaddressed, leaving families and communities devastated,” she said. The new unit “will provide the resources and leadership to prioritize these cases and coordinate resources to hold people accountable, keep our communities safe, and provide closure for families.”  


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