Three years ago, as a senior at Polson High School, Marita Growing Thunder hand-sewed a colorful ribbon dress every single day of the school term as part of a yearlong project dedicated to raising awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women.
She dedicated each dress — about 180 in all — to an individual missing or murdered Indigenous woman (MMIW), a feat she said is dwarfed by the knowledge that tens of thousands of women remain unaccounted for and don’t have a dress.
But she’s encouraged their identities won’t be lost.
Since beginning her project, MMIW has become a familiar acronym, and Growing Thunder has drawn even greater attention to the scourge of violence against members of Indigenous communities by making an annual pilgrimage across the Flathead Indian Reservation where she grew up, walking 80 miles from the northern edge near Rollins south to Arlee in an effort to raise awareness and educate the public about the social injustices surrounding cases of MMIW.
Native American women are murdered and sexually assaulted at rates as high as 10 times the average in certain counties in the U.S. — crimes overwhelmingly committed by individuals outside the Indigenous community where they occur.
Today, as the nation comes to grips with the disproportionate degree to which Indigenous people suffer abuse and violence, the movement has broadened to include all persons and adopted a more inclusive acronym (MMIP). Meanwhile, local and federal law enforcement are working with tribal communities to repair the historic lack of attention and resources paid to the endemic violence, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) has followed in Growing Thunder’s foot steps, emerging as a leader in the movement and adopting progressive new strategies to address it.
“Our community worked hard to elevate this issue so it is encouraging to see the effort continue to develop and grow,” said CSKT Chairwoman Shelly R. Fyant, who evoked Growing Thunder’s mission during a recent press conference to unveil a pilot project that allows the Tribes to develop a first-in-the-nation Tribal Community Response Plan.
Fyant’s remarks came during a Dec. 1 tribal council meeting attended by Kurt Alme, the now-former U.S. Attorney for Montana who explained that he stretched his tenure as the state’s top federal law enforcement official until Dec. 1 in order to mark the historic occasion in person along with tribal leaders, as well as representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and local law enforcement.
“I am honored to partner with Chairwoman Fyant and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to launch this important pilot project in Montana,” Alme, who has been tapped to serve as the budget director for Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte, said. “We have been working hard to complete draft guides to assist our joint efforts to develop a Tribal Community Response Plan specific to the needs, resources and culture of the Flathead Community.”
Fyant, who during the Dec. 1 council meeting wore a tee shirt bearing the visage of Jermain Charlo, a tribal member who went missing two and a half years ago, thanked Alme for his attention to the issue, which included partnering with the Montana Department of Justice, the FBI and the BIA to provide statewide training for law enforcement on use of missing person databases and alerts, such as Amber Alerts, and for the public on what to do when a loved one goes missing. Alme and the U.S. Attorney’s Office also partnered with tribal governments to provide training to community members on all seven of Montana’s reservations from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) on what to do when a loved one goes missing.
“I appreciate Kurt’s commitment to addressing the tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous persons. Kurt’s collaboration and communication with Tribes, and his dedication to building strong partnerships, have served as exactly the type of leadership that was needed to combat MMIP,” Fyant said.
Fyant also gave Growing Thunder credit for her strength in confronting the epidemic in her own community, even when the rest of the country was slow to grasp its significance.
“CSKT is very pleased to be part of this pilot project, but unfortunately our efforts to create this working group came about through the disappearance of one of our own,” Fyant said. “I became aware of this epidemic because of Marita Growing Thunder’s work, and I want to recognize that as we build new partnerships to further this cause.
“We know how important partnerships are and we will continue to collaborate with stakeholders in our community to implement this plan,” she added. “We remain committed to working hard and applying resources to ensure our people receive justice.”
CSKT is one of six tribes selected to develop a Tribal Community Response Plan (TCRP), in accordance with Attorney General William P. Barr’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative, and the Operation Lady Justice Task Force, both of which are in furtherance of the goals of the recently enacted Savanna’s Act.
Working group meetings with representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the CSKT, law enforcement (including the Flathead Tribal Police Department, Lake County Sheriff’s Office, Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, Sanders County Sheriff’s Office, Polson Police Department, and Ronan Police Department) and community organizations will begin this week to develop the TCRP. The TCRP will include guidelines for law enforcement agencies, victim services, community involvement, and media and public communication.
To foster support for the project, CSKT’s Tribal Council passed a resolution establishing a work group to address the issue of MMIP. CSKT developed their own Missing Persons Protocol with Tribal Law and Order and authorized the development of a social media and tip line. CSKT also hosted a training on human trafficking and its correlation to MMIP and held numerous community meetings on safety awareness. An Arlee Youth Group was formed and has hosted Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women presentations on student safety awareness. The Council also voted unanimously to increase the reward money to $11,000 for any information that leads to solving the case of Charlo, the missing woman who went missing in 2018. The Council helps support a Jermain Charlo billboard near Missoula.
“In some ways, this work is going to be never-ending,” Fyant said. “But this is another step in the right direction.”
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