Opinion

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Reporter's Notebook

An Important Story

The Beacon partnered with the Solutions Journalism Network to cover a critical issue: missing and murdered Indigenous women

A few months ago, we at the Beacon saw an opportunity to cover a very important story in the way we believed it needed to be told.

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), and the issues surrounding the overwhelming rate at which they disappear, have been stories we’ve covered before, but given the vastness of the subject matter, it felt as though one story didn’t do the problem justice.

Then, through the Montana Newspaper Association, we were put in touch with the folks at the Solutions Journalism Network, an organization that trains journalists to not only report on problems, but also on how people are responding to those problems.

We wrote a grant and received one of 20 that Solutions Journalism gave out this year. Our focus was on finding out why there isn’t a single database tracking MMIW, and what people in Montana are doing about a nationwide problem.

Thanks to Solutions Journalism, we had the budget to go the extra mile, literally: money from the grant paid for our reporters to travel great distances within Montana’s borders to talk to the people who have been affected the most.

The grant also allowed us to build a website solely dedicated to this one topic, which you can view at www.MontanaMMIW.com.

We went into this project knowing we weren’t breaking the news on this problem. Indigenous women disappearing and their families finding little resolution have been problems longer than we’ve been writing about it. But we thought it was important to have the information all in one place: Who these women are, who is looking for them, and what is happening at a local, state, and national level to change the status quo.

We’ve met families broken with grief, and we’ve met communities full of love and spirit. There is pain, but there is also the sense of a community coming together to wrap around its wounded. The generational trauma these families suffer is devastating, but the resilience they show in the face of the worst fears — losing a mother, a sister, an aunt, a cousin, a daughter without knowing what happened to them — shouldn’t be overlooked.

Still, despite the community support and the beauty that can come out of that, the issues surrounding MMIW run deep. I met with state Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, and Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer, in Crow Agency earlier this month to discuss their history with MMIW and the five bills they are bringing to the 2019 Legislature.

The bills offer legal tweaks to help facilitate the search efforts for Indigenous women, including a bill named after Hanna Harris, a woman who was murdered in Lame Deer five years ago. That bill, Hanna’s Act, gives the Department of Justice the authority to get involved in any missing persons cases reported here. It also creates a specialist in the DOJ whose sole focus is missing persons.

Another bill simply allows all law enforcement authorities to accept a missing persons report, which remedies at least one area of the jurisdictional quagmire surrounding these issues.

These and the three other bills are small fixes, but Peppers and Stewart-Peregoy believe they’re the start to effectively dealing with the root issues surrounding MMIW. Other states, including Washington and North Dakota, are offering their own legislative fixes.

We hope you read these stories and take them with you, and that we all shoulder some of the burden for these families by paying more attention and demanding action to find these women and prevent more of their cases from slipping through the cracks.