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RONAN — As lawmakers in Washington and Helena seek to improve the handling of cases involving missing and murdered Native American women, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are also tackling the issue.

On Wednesday night, some tribal leaders met in Ronan to begin forming a working group to guide the tribes’ approach to this problem. Jami Pluff, the policy analyst leading the effort, explained that “the (tribal) government wants a work group that basically is going to create an action plan for how the tribal government is going to address this issue.”

The problem they’re addressing stretches back decades, but has only recently risen to prominence. U.S. Department of Justice-funded research indicates that Native American women face a murder rate 10 times higher than the national average. According to data Pluff obtained from researcher Annita Lucchesi, there have been more than 1,600 cases of Native women who have been murdered or gone missing in the United States.

On the Flathead Indian Reservation, one high-profile case has been that of Jermain Charlo, a 23-year-old Dixon resident who vanished from Missoula in June 2018, prompting an ongoing search by the Missoula Police Department, in coordination with the Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ police, the FBI, and the Missoula, Lake, Sanders and Flathead County sheriff’s departments.

Charlo’s aunt, Valenda Morigeau, came to Wednesday’s meeting, where tribal Police Chief Craige Couture discussed the handling of missing-persons cases. He says that his agency is already better-equipped to handle such cases than some of its counterparts on other reservations, thanks to its access to the National Criminal Information Center Database.

A missing-person case reported to tribal police immediately goes out to local officers, he said. But for that information to reach a wider audience, Couture explained, family members must make a report.

“You have to come in and sign to have them put [it] on a national database,” he said. “We can’t broadcast over the nation unless you physically come in and sign that document.”

That’s a vital step, he continued. “Getting it in that national database is huge because so many more cops see that,” boosting the odds of a quick resolution.

While family members in other cases described indifference from federal and tribal authorities when they reported missing loved ones, Couture stressed the importance of fast reporting. “It’s important to us to get that information as soon as possible, because of all the connections we have here” on the reservation, he said.

The Flathead Reservation is the only one in Montana covered by Public Law 280. Unlike the joint federal-tribal policing that takes place on other reservations, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal police and courts share jurisdiction with those agencies in Lake County. Pluff, the tribes’ policy analyst, credits this policy with easing coordination with local authorities.

Now, “I think the biggest issue that we’re looking at is helping support the families,” said Pluff, and “really just raising the awareness … that people need to be more safe.”

Last month, she presented a report to tribal council detailing the issue and possible next steps. “In my experience, I think that grassroots organizations in the community are the ones that really move things,” she said. To that end, her report recommended that the tribes create a working group to support legislation on the issue, raise awareness and secure resources for missing families.

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The tribal council endorsed the idea by resolution, and Wednesday’s meeting was the first of three to determine how it will take shape. During the discussion, she and other participants identified tribal websites and social media as key tools to foster awareness of the issue.

Pluff also has her eye on lawmakers. Savanna’s Act, currently before Congress, would require the U.S. Department of Justice to prepare guidelines for missing persons cases in Indian Country, and improve data collection and tribal access to criminal databases. Meanwhile, the Montana Legislature is currently considering Hanna’s Act, sponsored by Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer, which would authorize the Montana Department of Justice to assist with all missing persons investigations, and create and fund a missing persons specialist within the department.

“We really need to support this legislation, and so this working group would really be following (it) and making sure that the tribal government gets the support” necessary to help it pass.

“Our tribe has always been really forward moving and progressive in Montana, and they wanted to take this issue on right away,” she said.

Pluff plans to hold two more meetings this month to plan the working group, then report back to council. The next two meetings will be held Wednesday, Feb. 13, at 6:30 p.m. at Elmo Hall, and on Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 5:30 p.m. at the Arlee Senior Center.

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