State Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy speaks at a hearing on House Bills 35, 36 and 98 on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. State Sen. Jason Small, sponsor of SB4, listens in the background.

Nearly two years after the Legislature first created a task force to begin studying the disproportionate rates at which Indigenous people go missing in Montana, people working on the issue are asking lawmakers to pass a slate of bills to continue and expand on the work.

On Thursday, members of the House Judiciary Committee heard from lawmakers, tribal leaders and community members supporting proposals that would build on the work of the state’s Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force, which has been meeting since 2019. Four measures — one introduced in the Senate and three in the House — would re-authorize the task force to continue meeting for at least two more years, create a grant program for missing person response teams and establish a commission to review missing person cases. 

Despite increased attention to the issue and nearly two years of work, supporters of the measures said they are only beginning to get a grasp on the scope of the problem and how to address it. 

“We just now opened the door, so to speak, in this process,” said Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency. “It’s not going away, and in fact, it’s getting worse.”

Stewart Peregoy is a member of the Legislature’s American Indian Caucus and the State-Tribal Relations Interim Committee, which helped develop the bills last year. The Montana Department of Justice, which oversees the task force, was among the institutions advocating for the package of bills on Thursday. 

A Senate proposal, Senate Bill 4, passed the Senate on Thursday and now heads to the House for consideration. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, would extend the Missing Indigenous Persons Task For an additional two years. House Bill 98, one of the bills the committee discussed Thursday, and sponsored by Stewart Peregoy, would similarly extend the task force. If the Legislature doesn’t extend the task force, it is set to disband in June. 

“The beauty of these bills, and that slate of bills we passed last [session, is that they] brought everything to the forefront. It keeps the fight alive. It makes people understand what’s going on.”

State Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby

In Montana, Native Americans are four times more likely to go missing than other groups in the state, according to a report released by the task force last fall. Native American women also face high rates of sexual, domestic and physical violence

Since the task force started meeting in June 2019, it has gathered data showing how many Indigenous people go missing and highlighted difficulties — like the jurisdictional mazes that can delay law enforcement responses — in solving those cases. The group’s work has also led to the creation of a website that allows people to report a missing person and provide assistance during the investigation process. That website was launched on the Blackfeet Reservation last fall, and will eventually be available to all tribal nations in the state.  

Beyond those accomplishments, supporters of the new measures said the task force and others working on the issue could use an extension to better understand why Indigenous people, especially minors, go missing at such disproportionate rates. Although Indigenous people make up less than 7% of the state’s population, they accounted for about 26% of missing persons cases between 2017 and 2019, according to the task force’s report. Native Americans accounted for as much as 33% of the 110 Montanans reported missing at the end of 2019, according to the report. 

“We need to get a better understanding about the correlation to substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect and human trafficking,” said Ellie Bundy, presiding officer of the task force and a Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council member, in testimony to the committee on Thursday. 

Bundy said continuing the task force would help show families and friends of people who have gone missing that the state is aware of their cases and is working to resolve them. 

“This task force reminds them that we care, that we’re still seeking answers and that we’re working toward solutions,” she said. Extending the task force, she said, “will help keep hope alive.”

House Bill 35, sponsored by Stewart Peregoy, would establish a missing person review commission of experts to examine old cases and make recommendations for improving investigations in the future. The commission would be modeled after Montana’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission. House Bill 36, also sponsored by Stewart Peregoy, would create a program for volunteers, community members and law enforcement agencies who want to form missing person response teams to apply for grants to cover training costs.

Combined, the three bills would cost about $196,000 over the course of the biennium, according to fiscal notes attached to the bills and the text of HB 98. 

“The beauty of these bills, and that slate of bills we passed last [session, is that they] brought everything to the forefront,” Small said in testimony Thursday. “It keeps the fight alive. It makes people understand what’s going on.”

The committee has yet to take action on the three House bills. 

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Chris covers Native American issues as a Report for America Corps member based in Billings. He also monitors the Montana Supreme Court, federal courts and criminal justice issues. Before joining MTFP in 2020, Chris most recently covered tribal affairs and Wyoming's Wind River Reservation for the Casper Star-Tribune, and has also reported for the Wisconsin State Journal. Contact Chris at caadland@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 4, and follow @cjaadland on Twitter.