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Death and Disappearance in Indian Country Cities

Kenny Still Smoking touches the tombstone of his 7-year-old daughter, Monica, who disappeared from school in 1979 and was found frozen on a mountain, as he visits her grave on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning this past summer. A study released by a Native American nonprofit says numerous police departments in cities nationwide are not adequately identifying or reporting cases of missing and murdered indigenous women. 

The campaign on behalf of missing and murdered indigenous women continued Tuesday night, with a lecture and film screening hosted by the Missoula County Democrats.

Native American women have long endured far higher rates of violence than other racial groups. The past year has seen a surge in awareness of this problem, and a suite of new proposals to address it. Perhaps the best-known of these is Savanna’s Act, currently before Congress, which would require the U.S. Department of Justice to develop protocols for missing-persons cases in Indian Country, and improve tribal access to criminal databases.

Meanwhile, Montana lawmakers are debating Hanna’s Act, which would authorize the state Department of Justice to assist with these cases, and create a missing persons specialist within the department.

“What we're doing, and everything that we're doing with the legislation, it goes hand-in-hand,” Ivy MacDonald told the audience over Skype. She and her brother Ivan, members of the Blackfeet Tribe, have been pressing for passage of these bills, and portraying the issue through film.

At Tuesday’s meeting, which drew about 40 guests, organizers screened three clips from their upcoming documentary, "When They Were Here.'' The first featured Susan Irvine Adams, who was found dead in Arlee about six decades ago, a trauma that lingers for her family.

The second featured members of the Box Elder High School girls’ basketball team, who highlighted the issue by wearing ribbons in their sneakers. “We wanted to show sort of the resilient side of some of these young women taking it upon themselves to raise awareness,” Ivy said.

The third clip showed the search for Bonnie Three Iron, who was found dead on the Crow Reservation in April 2017. Her friends and family members voiced deep dissatisfaction with police, a common sentiment among those whose Native loved ones have gone missing.

For Ivan and Ivy MacDonald, the topic is personal.

“Like with most indigenous people and families and communities, we had our own experience,” he said over the phone. Their cousin, 7-year-old Monica Still Smoking, was found frozen on a mountain on the Blackfeet Reservation in 1979; they’re also related to Ashley HeavyRunner Loring, who vanished in 2017 and has yet to be found.

“It’s just kind of always been a topic that’s been ever present in our lives,” he said.

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The documentary began about two years ago, when he was completing his master’s degree in film studies at the University of Montana. “I approached Ivy and said, ‘Hey let’s do a short film,’” he remembers. 

Since then, it’s grown into a full-fledged documentary, one that he expects to go into production this summer. They’re currently fundraising to accomplish that goal, and will “pitch” the documentary to film and television industry representatives at the Big Sky Film Festival this month.

Already, he says, “just to see the big focus that’s there now has been kind of inspiring. … We just hope there can be some movement and this change around this film.”

Both of Montana’s U.S. senators have been active on the issue. Michael LaValley, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s tribal liaison, gave an update and handed out a fact sheet on the various steps the Democrat had taken. In addition to Savanna’s Act, he and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., have co-sponsored the Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment (SURVIVE) Act, which set aside Crime Victims Fund money for Indian Country. Tester has also introduced a bill that would direct the Government Accountability Office to comprehensively study the handling of missing-persons cases in Indian Country.

Amid these developments, Carole Meyers of Missoula came away encouraged from Tuesday’s event.

“I hope we have more meetings like this,” she said. A member of the Oneida tribe, of Blackfeet and Seneca descent, she said “our voices need to be heard [on this issue], and they’re going to be heard.”

“To be more involved is essential,” she said, especially when it comes to discussing the issue with friends and contacting Congress.

“The seeds have been planted, and so we need to sprout them.”

"When They Were Here'' will be featured at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival's Big Sky Pitch event on Thursday, Feb. 21 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the University of Montana's UC Theater. Visit bigskyfilmfest.org/docshop/big_sky_pitch/ for details. For more information about the documentary project, or to make a donation, visit whentheywerehere.com/.

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