The final version of a bill that extends Montana’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons task force includes amendments that would both decrease its funding and extend its sunset date. The bill is currently awaiting transmission to Gov. Greg Gianforte for consideration.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, first brought forward the need for a statewide task force to address the MMIP crisis in 2019, which the Legislature passed. Now four years and two legislative sessions later, the task force is extended for 10 additional years with funding to support the force’s employment.
The bill’s update comes after the White House released a proclamation declaring May 5, 2023, as national Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day.
The bill, which originally requested $50,000 to keep the program going, saw the funding amount slashed to $5,000 until the next biennium. Another amendment extended the sunset date from two years to 10, securing the task force across the next five legislative sessions.
Since the Legislature originally approved the program in 2019, it has used its budget allocation to fund task force members and a tribal collaboration program.
During the session, lawmakers debated cutting the funding to $5,000. In the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, which requested the amendments, lawmakers said the task force still had leftover funds of $18,750 granted by the Legislature during its 2021 session for tribal collaboration.
“The balance on this account wasn’t all used last time, and so what I did was reduce that appropriation [from] $50,000 to $5,000 so that they can do a little bit of analysis through this next biennium of what’s going on with that,” said committee vice chair Rep. Carl Glimm, R-Kila. “They need to get a little bit better plan on some sideboards for how that money is spent.”
Attorney General Austin Knudsen said there is a genuine need for a Montana MMIP program.
“I mean certainly tribal members are more apt to go missing,” Knudsen said. “That’s absolutely true, but one thing that kind of surprised us, and this is just something we found out really within the last year, is that when you look at the numbers, it’s not just females that go missing off the reservation.”
Knudsen said there are currently 170 active missing persons cases, which the DOJ tracks weekly. Of the total active cases, 41 involved Native people, 21 females and 20 males.
“We’ve actually got over a 99% case clearance rate, and that sounds wonky, but what that means is over 99% of these people we find and bring home,” Knudsen said.
In 2022, 1,972 people were reported missing in Montana. Only 16 have not been located.
The attorney general also noted the collaborative efforts the task force has participated in, including the Looping in Native Communities grant program.
The program was created to help raise awareness and resources for tribal communities and create opportunities for the public to share feedback and personal testimonies.
The Blackfeet Nation is the only tribe in Montana that applied for funding, according to Knudsen. Blackfeet Community College created its own community reporting portal in 2020 to help mobilize response when a person is first reported missing, according to the DOJ website.
According to the program’s website, the competitive grant is awarded to a tribal college to create and administer a central administration point for the Looping in Native Communities network, a program established to support tribes in identifying, reporting, and finding Native American persons who are missing. The grant from the Montana Department of Justice is a match of $25,000 to a single tribal college.
Sources from the DOJ said one reason the Blackfeet Nation was the only tribe to apply for the funding is lack of outreach and tribal preparation.
“The task force required that in order to receive the funds, the tribal council for that tribe applicant had to pass a formal resolution that they knew a tribal entity was applying and that they were supporting the work for their tribe to be connected to and access and maintain the MMIPMT.com site,” said Dana Toole, special services bureau chief with the state DOJ. She said of the eight tribal governments in the state, five passed resolutions within their governmental body and three didnt.
Other collaborative efforts made by the task force include a symposium of other organizations and programs that deal with missing persons and human trafficking in both tribal and urban settings that meets twice a year.
This story is co-published by Montana Free Press and ICT, a news partnership that covers the Montana American Indian Caucus during the state’s 2023 legislative session. Funding is provided in part by the Headwaters Foundation.
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