Tribunal on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women to be Held in Browning

Two-day event is the first of its kind in the U.S., scheduled for Oct. 4-5

By Myers Reece
Kimberly Loring Heavy Runner pictured in Browning. Heavy Runner's sister, Ashley, went missing in 2017 and has never been found. Beacon File Photo

The Blackfeet Nation will host the first Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) tribunal ever held in the U.S. on Oct. 4-5.

The two-day event, held at Blackfeet Community College, will record public testimony from MMIW survivors and victims’ families, as well as provide “private sessions for witnesses who may be hesitant to share their accounts in a public forum,” according to a press release. It is open to all tribes across the nation.

“This is not just a Blackfeet or Montana tribes’ tragedy, it is an Indian Country tragedy, and a national and international disgrace,” Blackfeet Nation Chairman Tim Davis said. “This is a multi-generational epidemic the federal government has done nothing to address — even less than the Canadian government — which was found to be complicit in ‘deliberate race, identity and gender-based genocide’ by its own National Inquiry into MMIW.”

The report Davis referenced, Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, was published on June 3. To view the expansive report, visit www.mmiwg-ffada.ca.

The U.S. and state of Montana have also been taking steps to address the issue of MMIW, including the most recent Montana legislative session producing a suite of bills signed by Gov. Steve Bullock. That legislation led to Attorney General Tim Fox appointing a missing persons task force and hiring a missing persons specialist, as well as changes to state law regarding missing persons reports and law enforcement guidelines.

The tribunal press release states that tribal members constitute 7 percent of Montana’s population, but the state identifies 26 percent of missing persons as Native American, which may be a low estimate. The 2018 Urban Indian Health Institute Report said Montana has the fifth-highest incidence of MMIW cases.

The release says Billings is a hub along an Interstate 90 corridor known for the trafficking of Indigenous women and children into sex slavery.

“For those abducted into sex-slavery, the I-90 corridor is a second ‘Highway of Tears,’” Davis said, comparing it to a highway in British Columbia cited in the Canadian government report.

The Blackfeet tribunal is being held in conjunction with the Global Indigenous Council and is endorsed by the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council. The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council credits the work of both organizations in partnership with the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association in raising MMIW awareness and says the three organizations’ alliance has worked to secure meaningful MMIW legislation in Washington D.C.

The alliance worked closely with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, on an act that directed the Government Accountability Office to conduct a full review of how federal agencies respond to missing and murdered Indigenous cases. Davis noted that both Tester and Montana’s other U.S. senator, Republican Steve Daines, “have been steadfast in supporting our combined efforts on MMIW.”

“This is a human rights issue,” Davis said. “This is a life or death issue. This is not a right or left issue.”

The release noted that Tester expressed dismay at federal law enforcement’s failures to adequately respond to the MMIW epidemic during a December 2018 Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing into the crisis. Among the witnesses who testified at the hearing was Kimberly Loring Heavy Runner, whose sister Ashley went missing on June 12, 2017 on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and has never been found.

“Unfortunately, Ashley’s story is not unique, but the same as many other MMIW,” Kimberly testified. “Don’t forget Ashley. Remember her name. Ashley Loring Heavy Runner is important. Our people are important.”

For more information about the tribunal, including how to RSVP, visit www.mmiwtribunal.com.