BROWNING – A week after recounting her sister’s disappearance to 15 U.S. senators, Kimberly Loring called home.
“We got Ashley’s story to Washington, D.C.,” she told a group at Blackfeet Community College via speaker phone. “Just imagine if we did that for everyone. We can get answers, and we can show them … our people that have gone missing and gotten murdered.”
Loring had testified about this problem, and her 18-month-long search for Ashley, before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Dec. 12, an appearance arranged by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.
The problem of missing and murdered indigenous women was personal for those who gathered to discuss it Tuesday in Browning.
About 40 guests listened to a panel discuss the searches for Ashley HeavyRunner Loring, as well as Matthew Grant, who went missing in December 2016 and was found dead shortly afterwards.
They’re far from the only cases. Native American women face a murder rate 10 times higher than the national average, according to federal statistics. One researcher, doctoral student Annita Lucchesi, estimates that the total number of U.S. and Canadian missing persons cases since 1900 could be as high as 25,000. One member of Tuesday’s audience, Kenneth Still Smoking, lost his daughter Monica in 1979. “They found her frozen to the mountain,” he remembered.
In recent years, awareness of these crimes has surged. And as searches for answers in Loring’s and Grant's disappearances continue, their friends, neighbors and tribal leaders are already pursuing change.
Theda New Breast, who’s practiced healing with Native women for nearly four decades, credits the #MeToo movement with this shift.
“When #MeToo happened, women began to find their voices in America,” she said, “and now it's starting to happen with indigenous women, because they're following suit with not allowing women just to be raped or just to be missing and forgot about like they're disposable.”
Since March, she’s been carrying a posterboard around the United States and Canada, inviting Native Americans to add the names of loved ones who go missing. She got six more names at Tuesday’s meeting.
The consensus holds that stemming this trend requires improving law enforcement’s response to disappearances. On some reservations, including the Flathead, local and tribal law enforcement and courts share jurisdiction. But on the Blackfeet reservation, law enforcement falls to tribal police, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the FBI.
The system has a light touch when someone goes missing, Kimberly Loring told the Indian Affairs Committee. “They searched for three days to look for Ashley … and after those three days they stopped,” she said.
Kimberly also recalled weeks without contact from either agency; key pieces of evidence getting misplaced; authorities stating that Ashley was a legal adult and could leave whenever she wanted; an officer from an unspecified agency leaking information to a suspect; another officer, who she knew, telling her that “these guys are not taking Ashley’s case seriously.”
The FBI got involved after 10 months, but Loring told the senators that if law enforcement had searched for her sister "when she first went missing, if they would have taken her seriously, we would have my sister.”
The issue also applies to men.
Another member of Tuesday’s panel, Rhonda Connelly, had similar critiques of the search for her nephew, Matthew Grant, who went missing in December 2016, and was found dead in a Browning alley about two weeks later.
She told the audience, when she first reported his disappearance, “they said just, ‘Oh, don't be concerned, he's probably just partying,’ and that's very upsetting.”
Still Smoking, who lost his daughter nearly four decades ago, had harsher words. Asked what he would like to see changed, he replied, “the law, the g--damn cops around here.”
But Tribal Police Chief Jess Edwards defends his agency’s performance. “We, the Blackfeet law enforcement, never, ever stopped [Ashley’s] case or Matthew Grant,” he said. While he declined to provide details of active investigations, he maintained that “we are still following leads.”
However, Edwards is quick to say that he needs more resources. His department’s tasks include emergency response on a reservation larger than Delaware, helping patrol the U.S.-Canada border, and managing the summer crush of visitors to Glacier National Park — all with just 24 sworn officers.
“It’s not enough,” he said.
For the most part, New Breast shares that assessment. “They're doing the best they can,” she said of tribal police. “I think that they might need more training around trauma, and they need more resources, they need more officers on the ground.
“And,” she added, “they need more women involved. If you only have men involved you have a skewed perspective, and once women are involved, they think about children, they think about families, they think about safety, and so I think that that's what we need.”
“This boils down to funding,” Edwards said. “We need the BIA office in Billings to start helping with that.” Edwards said the Bureau currently provides the Blackfeet with $2.2 million for law enforcement; he would like to see that increased to $3 million. The Bureau of Indian Affairs did not reply to a request to verify those numbers.
Reservation residents and policy-makers are also watching how these resources are used. During the Indian Affairs hearing, Senator Jon Tester, D-Mont., grilled the BIA’s Charles Addington on how the tribal and federal agencies work together.
“So what you’re saying is when a missing and murdered indigenous woman is reported, you’ve got tribal police, BIA and FBI that are working to find that person?” asked Tester, former chairman of the committee.
“It could be, depending on the area and where it’s reported at, the BIA may be the lead investigative agency, the FBI may be the lead investigative agency,” Addington replied.
“So what determines that?”
“It depends on the agents that’s available, it depends on what’s reported, the uniform police department could be doing searches, it depends on what’s reported,” Addington said.
After further questioning, Tester concluded that “something is not happening that needs to happen, that is happening in other places in the country, but it’s not happening when it’s applied to indigenous women … . I don’t know if it’s manpower, I don’t know if it’s money … maybe it’s lack of cooperation between the entities.”
A bill currently before Congress, Savanna’s Act, 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.
It’s passed the Senate, but is now stuck in the House Judiciary Committee, whose chair, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., hasn’t yet brought it to the floor. If it doesn’t pass the House in the few remaining days of this year, it will have to be re-introduced in the next Congress.
But on the Blackfeet Reservation, hopes for its passage are high.
“I think it's long overdue,” said Tim Davis, chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. He predicted that “it's going to be beneficial over time, because those are the resources that we've lacked.”
“Communication’s the big thing in all agencies,” Edwards said. “I do think it will provide that.”
Diana Burd with the local Silent Warrior Coalition urged the group at Blackfeet Community College to press Congress for its passage. “We can pass that through just by bugging them,” she predicted.
As the Blackfeet await congressional action, other pieces of federal aid are already coming in. The U.S. Department of Justice recently added the Blackfeet to its Tribal Access Program for federal databases. The tribe has also received a grant for tribal prosecution services.
These gains, and those to come, are too late to prevent the death of Matthew Grant, although the search for his killer is ongoing. Ashley HeavyRunner Loring’s whereabouts are still unknown. Human remains were discovered on the reservation earlier this month and sent to an FBI crime lab for analysis, but Kimberly pointed out that “as of right now we do not know if that's Ashley.”
As grim as this pattern of death and disappearance may seem, for Rhonda Grant Connelly, Matthew’s aunt, it’s also a powerful motivator.
“Matthew, I promise you I will continue on seeking justice,” she said.
“The dead cannot cry out for justice. It is the duty of the living to do so for them.”