The Montana Department of Justice released its 2021 Missing Indigenous Persons report, which revealed an uptick in cases.
According to the report, in 2021, Montana law enforcement entered 2,114 missing person cases into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database. Of those, 650, or 30.7%, were identified as Indigenous.
In the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) 2017-2019 report, Indigenous people accounted for, on average, 26% of missing persons cases in Montana, though they comprise about 6.7% of the state's population.
Dana Toole, special services bureau chief with the DOJ’s Division of Criminal Investigation, said it’s hard to determine the meaning behind the increase, as missing persons data changes every day, sometimes hourly.
What’s in the report?
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The DOJ report revealed that of the missing Indigenous people in Montana in 2021, 67% were women and 33% were men. Toole said on a daily basis, those numbers are closer to 50-50.
Of the missing Indigenous people in Montana in 2021, more than 80% were under the age of 18. Toole said this number is consistent with all missing persons in Montana, meaning that non-Native people under 18 also go missing at higher rates than any other age.
“We have a real problem in Montana with youth being reported missing,” she said.
Of the 650 missing Indigenous persons entries in 2021, 457 were unique. That means that 193 missing persons cases concerned people who were reported missing at least twice.
Toole said a number of factors contribute to a person being reported missing more than once.
“Someone who’s got a lot of stressors in their life or perhaps is unsafe or in very stressful situations repeatedly, may try to leave and get reported missing,” she said. “Then, they’re found, but the patterns in their lives don’t change, so they leave again.”
The report revealed that 229 missing Indigenous people were located the same day their disappearance was reported, and 167 were found within one or two days of being reported missing.
The report also showed a slight increase in missing Indigenous persons cases during the summer months, when the weather gets warmer and students are out of school.
In May, there were 66 reports of missing Indigenous people, in June, there were 52 and in July, there were 79. February had the lowest missing Indigenous persons cases with 38.
Of the various state and tribal law enforcement entities that handle these cases, the Billings Police Department saw the highest number of missing persons cases in 2021 with 119.
Toole said she thinks the Billings Police handle a greater amount of cases because they are located near two reservations — the Crow and Northern Cheyenne — and because many Native people also live in communities neighboring the reservations.
“All these folks go to Billings for major services, like shopping, medical care, school, etc.,” she said. “It makes sense they have more reports because of all those factors.”
Of the 650 missing Indigenous persons cases in 2021, 32 were still missing as of Jan. 1, 2022. As of Thursday, seven Native people who went missing in 2021 were still missing. Five are under the age of 18.
Arden Pepion, 4, has been missing since April 22, 2021. Leo Wagner, 27, has been missing since April 27, 2021. Randolph Plenty Hawk, 59, has been missing since July 14, 2021. Wanda Lou Dawn Fast Horse, 14, has been missing since Nov. 5, 2021. Lacie Rides The Bear, 16, has been missing since Dec. 6, 2021. Chandler Long Tree, 16, has been missing since Dec. 24, 2021. Tyana White Hawk, 16, has been missing since Dec. 26, 2021.
As of Thursday at noon, there were 184 missing people in Montana, of those, 47, or 25.5%, were Indigenous.
Challenges of data
Comprehensive national data on the missing Indigenous persons epidemic is limited, and Montana is one of a few states to collect and analyze numbers.
A 2021 Government Accountability Office report found the total number of missing or murdered Indigenous women is unknown “because federal databases do not contain comprehensive national data.” It also revealed that federal entities, including the Department of Justice and Department of the Interior, have failed to meet required deadlines.
Toole said when it comes to Montana data collection, missing Indigenous persons reports can be filed with a number of law enforcement agencies — including state, tribal and federal entities.
“There’s no statewide, centralized place all the reports go,” she said. “That’s why legislation that requires all entities to enter those reports into the National Crime Information Center is so important.”
The National Crime Information Center (NCIC) is a federal database that helps users manage and resolve cases. The Montana Legislature in 2019 passed House Bill 54, which requires all missing person reports to be entered into the database within two hours for a person under the age of 21 and within eight hours for a person older than 21.
Toole said data is critical not only in understanding the scope of the problem but also in identifying effective solutions.
“In order to make relevant and effective public policy decisions and allocate any resources or funding to the problem, our policy and lawmakers need accurate information about the problem,” she said. “If we only know part of the story, we may make assumptions about the causes, reasons for and impact of the problem. Data helps us know the full story.”
The Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force, which was created in 2019 with the passage of the Looping in Native Communities Act, reviewed and approved the DOJ’s report. The task force plans to use it to inform their future discussions and decisions.