Benji Headswift and Ray Kingfisher raised their voices high and beat a drum in tandem in a song to remember missing and murdered Native Americans around the world as a crowd of onlookers gathered for a dedication to Indian Law Week at the University of Montana.

"We sang this memorial song in memory of those who are lost and have never been found," said Headswift, a Northern Cheyenne man and UM student in Native American Studies. "Even though we can't see you, we know you're still around, and we're still searching for you.

"We have you in our thoughts."

With their blessing in the atrium of the Alexander Blewett III School of Law building, Indian Law Week started on campus for 2019. Hosted by the School of Law and Native American Law Student Association, NALSA, the theme this year is "Together We Rise: Tribal Movements for Protecting the Sacred and Promoting Justice."

Marissa Mahkuk Compton, a second-year law student and vice president of NALSA, said the issue of missing and murdered Native Americans is significant. Recent national and state news reports note law enforcement agencies have not kept accurate records of missing and murdered Native Americans, and data under represent the problem.

"It was important for us to be able to pray for missing and murdered peoples and their families," said Compton, a Montana student enrolled in the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation.

Signs around the atrium with red dresses and outfits noted related statistics, including:

  • Four out of five Native women are affected by violence, according to the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.
  • More than 50% of Native two-spirit or LGBTQ students experience physical violence at school, according to GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network.

Although many reports have focused on women, Compton said the problem isn't limited by gender.

Recent coverage from the Billings Gazette noted the FBI failed to capture 88 Native American homicides in Montana from 1999 to 2017, and nationwide, roughly half of the Native homicide victims were missing from the federal agency's data based on an analysis against information coroners provided to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Many people don't realize the height of the problem," Compton said.

She said a fellow UM student is building a database to help track the numbers. Compton also said one key solution is better communication among different jurisdictions.

Montana lawmakers are among those recently taking up legislation that addresses the crisis; Hanna's Act passed its second reading in the Senate on Monday with funding intact, but an earlier amendment previously stripped money for a specialist to coordinate law enforcement efforts.

Named for Hanna Harris, who was murdered on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 2013, the bill passed earlier with no opposition in the House. 

This week's events at UM include a discussion Wednesday on land use and the politics of the Badger-Two Medicine, land near Glacier National Park and Browning that's held sacred by the Blackfeet people. It also includes an honoring Friday of Mary Frances Garrigus, who earned her law degree in 1918 and was the first Native American woman to graduate from the UM School of Law.

Dean Paul Kirgis said the School of Law has a history of working with tribal communities, including through its Indian Law Clinic, the oldest such program in the country. As such, he said UM is an appropriate place to recognize missing and murdered Native Americans and use the law school to help. 

"This is now one of the most pressing issues facing tribal communities, and it's important for us to be part of a solution," Kirgis said.

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