SAY THEIR NAMES: MMIP is an epidemic. Experts say the solution lies in sovereignty

Great Falls Tribune

DIANE MEDICINE HORSE, AMY JOHNSON, JODY HOWARD, VALEN HOTOMANIE, HOWARD BURLISON, LEVI YELLOWMULE, ROBERT ALEXANDER, ROBERT STEWART, JAMES LIMBERHAND, FREDA KNOWSHISGUN, RICHARD ROASTING STICK, ASHLEY LORING, JASON AZURE, JERMAIN CHARLO, SHACAIAH HARDING, HUB WILLIAMSON, KAMILLE SAMUELS, RONALEEN BENALLY, KIMBERLY LAMBDIN, MARTINA SWIMMER-MEYER, DARREN SIMONS, XAVIER MORIGEAU, RANSOM SIMPSON, ALLEN RAY, CHARLES BEARCRANE, PERCY JACKSON, JUNE JACKSON, ELAN BEARCRANE, MIRANDA KENMILLE, TRESSE FIRST, ZARA FREIBURG, CANDACE LAFORGE, BAJA-KNUK SPOTTEDELK, BREANNA SPOTTED EAGLE, ANALISIA LONGEE, SHANIA BURNS, LIGHTENING KELLUM, GEORGE RIDES AT THE DOOR, KERRI ABRAHAM, ANTONE BIRDTAIL, DARCIE ROWLAND, JAELIYAH AZURE, THOMAS REDMOND JR., TEIGANLEIGH COBELL, MICCAYLA DECOTEAU, HEATHER JONES, SIERRA OLSON, KAILY LAMBERT, AALAYLAH QUEQUESAH, SHANAIHA YOUNGRUNNINGCRANE, NATHAN GROESBECK, ELIANO ALVARADO, ASHANTI THOMAS, CHEYANNA QUEQUESAH, DOMINIC LAVERDURE, DANOKOO HOAGLEN, ARDEN PEPION.

These are the names of the 57 Indigenous people who were reported missing in Montana as of April 27, though the number is likely higher. A consequence of genocide, colonialism and oppression, Native Americans go missing and are killed at disproportionately high rates nationwide.

Ashley Loring has been missing for 1,441 days. Jermain Charlo disappeared in 2018 after leaving a bar in Missoula. Sixteen-year-old Shanaiha Youngrunningcrane was last seen at prom in Browning. The list goes on and on. And on.

With jurisdictional challenges among law enforcement entities and little public outrage, political consequence or media attention, cases of missing or murdered Indigenous people often go unsolved. When justice is not done, the cycle of violence continues.

Hanna Harris, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, was killed in 2013. May 5 is her birthday, and it’s also a national day of awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous people.

May 5 is a national day of awareness for the thousands of Indigenous people who go missing and are killed each year. It’s also Hanna Harris’ birthday. A member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Harris was killed in 2013.

This year, she would’ve turned 29.

Her legacy prevails through Hanna’s Act, which authorizes the Montana Department of Justice to assist local law enforcement in missing persons cases. Many honor Harris and other Indigenous people on May 5 by wearing red, sharing stories on social media and attending community events.

Gov. Greg Gianforte in April signed three bills addressing the missing persons crisis in Montana. Two bills will extend a task force and grant program to help tribes report missing people and the other will create a review commission under the state Department of Justice to recommend policy changes. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is also creating a missing and murdered unit to pursue justice for Indigenous families.  

While families of victims say these policy changes offer hope, experts say a clear solution to the missing and murdered Indigenous people (MMIP) epidemic lies in sovereignty. Their advice? Restore criminal jurisdiction to tribes.

In a study that surveyed 71 U.S. cities, the Urban Indian Health Institute found there were 5,712 reported cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls in 2016, though just 116 of those cases were logged in the Department of Justice database. A 2016 National Institute of Justice report found that more than four in five Indigenous people had experienced violence in their lifetimes. And Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies in 2017 found that homicide was the fourth leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native girls ages 1-19, and homicide was tied with cancer for the third leading cause of death among their male counterparts.

The disproportionately high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous people is a nationwide crisis, and experts say Montana is an epicenter.

Native Americans make up 6.7% of Montana’s population, but they comprised 32% of the state’s active missing persons cases, as of April 27. Of the 57 missing Indigenous people in Montana, 20 were missing for more than one year, 32 were female, 25 were male and 29 were under the age of 18.

‘People know how to manipulate the system’: Limitations and overlaps in criminal jurisdiction

Prior to colonization, Native American tribes had policing and criminal justice systems.

But in 1817, Congress passed the General Crimes Act, which gave federal courts jurisdiction over crimes committed by or against non-Natives in Indian Country. Additionally, the Major Crimes Act of 1885 gave federal courts shared jurisdiction with tribal courts for some crimes (which now include murder, manslaughter and kidnapping, among others) committed by or against Indigenous people in Indian Country. 

In 1978, the Supreme Court solidified the General Crimes Act in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, ruling that tribes could no longer exercise jurisdiction over non-Natives who commit crimes in Indian Country.

“That decision created quite a crisis,” said Mary Kathryn Nagle, a partner at Pipestem & Nagle, P.C. who specializes in tribal sovereignty. “Because of it, if you’re not Indian, you can go on tribal lands and commit crimes. People know how to manipulate the system, and many figured that out.”

In 2013, the Violence Against Women Act contained a provision that restored tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Natives who commit domestic violence, dating violence or violate protection orders in Indian Country. But the act did not restore tribal criminal jurisdiction in cases of homicide or other major crimes.

Now, jurisdiction among tribal, state and federal law enforcement entities varies depending on the severity and location of the crime and ethnicity of the victim and perpetrator. Generally, in Montana, if an Indigenous person commits a felony specified in state law off-reservation, state agencies have jurisdiction. But when someone commits a major crime on a reservation, jurisdiction gets more complicated, and Indigenous people can become involved in various justice systems, according to a Montana Budget and Policy Center report. 

A report by the Montana Budget and Policy Center outlines criminal jurisdiction over major crimes in Indian Country.

If an Indigenous person in Montana commits a major crime against another Indigenous person on a reservation, for example, federal and tribal law enforcement entities share jurisdiction, according to the same report. If a non-Native person commits a major crime against a Native person in Indian Country, federal law enforcement has jurisdiction. But if the same non-Native person committed the same major crime in the same place against a non-Native person instead, the state would have jurisdiction. Though, of course, because each case is different, exceptions exist. 

Tribal nations are also limited in their sentencing abilities and cannot tax reservation residents to fund tribal law enforcement. As a result, tribal law enforcement agencies often lack the funding and resources necessary for intensive investigations. Three or four officers can be responsible for patrolling the entire 1.5 million-acre Blackfeet Reservation, for example. 

Family members of MMIW victims often express frustration with law enforcement.

When Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, 18, went missing in August 2019, her body was found five days later, according to a record kept by Pipestem & Nagle, P.C. But law enforcement didn’t notify Kaysera’s family for almost two weeks, according to the same record.

The Big Horn County Attorney’s and Sheriff’s offices did not reply to requests for this story. 

Because Kaysera’s body was found half a mile from the Crow Reservation border, the FBI does not have jurisdiction in her case. Instead, Big Horn County has jurisdiction.

Nearly two years later, Kaysera’s cause of death is undetermined and no arrests have been made in her case. Like many family members of MMIP victims, Kaysera’s family said law enforcement didn’t take them seriously.

“Everyone we talk to in Big Horn County brushes us off,” said Grace Bulltail, Kaysera’s aunt. “The police don’t seem to care enough to listen or to do a basic investigation. It’s just disregard for her. It’s laziness. It’s just disrespect.”

Annita Lucchesi, founder and executive director of Sovereign Bodies Institute, an organization that collects data and conducts research on MMIP, said Indigenous male perpetrators are more likely to be convicted when a Native woman is killed, compared to white male perpetrators.

“Only one in two alleged white male killers of a Native woman are ever charged,” she said. “Even when there is a person of interest, that person is not being properly investigated and prosecuted, so that’s really reflective of bias (within law enforcement).” 

Kaysera’s family has held protests, rallies and marches to put pressure on law enforcement to investigate her case. Now, through fundraisers and events, her family is building a reward fund to incentivize people who might have information on her death to come forward. The fund now offers $20,000 for any information that leads to an arrest or conviction of the person responsible for her death.

“We will stay in this fight,” said Yolanda Fraser, Kaysera’s grandmother and legal guardian. “We will not stop. We will not go away. Kaysera is loved, and she didn’t deserve to be treated like this.”

It’s not uncommon for family members of MMIP victims to investigate their loved one’s cases. Often, when a loved one is missing, families will put themselves in danger and under financial stress to collect evidence, conduct interviews and host community searches. 

Hanna Harris’ mother, Malinda Harris Limberhand, said she “took on the role of detective” in her daughter’s case. She asked for help on social media and even interviewed a man and woman she thought were suspects.

“When I reported her missing, the police said they were busy. They said I could investigate myself, but later they said I ruined the crime scene. To me, it felt like they had no interest in helping my family. We were pushed to the side, and we felt like we didn’t matter,” she said.

The man and woman Harris Limberhand interviewed later admitted to killing Hanna. While her daughter is gone, Harris Limberhand said she considers herself one of the “lucky” MMIP family members because she saw justice in Hanna’s case.

But if Hanna’s killers hadn’t come forward themselves, Harris Limberhand said she worries law enforcement wouldn’t have convicted them.

“I pray for the families that don’t get the closure they need to move forward,” she said.

‘The cards are stacked against Native people’: Challenges in legal intervention

Nagle has tried to intervene in MMIP cases. Though she collects evidence, transcribes interviews with suspects and encourages law enforcement to interview witnesses, Nagle said her efforts are often ignored.

“They can ignore these cases because what’s the consequence of ignoring the death of a Native woman? What happens to you? I haven’t seen a single person face any consequences for ignoring a homicide of a Native woman or girl,” she said.

“I try to do law enforcement’s job for them, but unfortunately, I don’t have the badge. So, unless law enforcement decides to do their job, there’s not much I can do.”

While it’s illegal for law enforcement to avoid investigating a case based on a victim’s identity as an Indigenous person, Nagle said that kind of discrimination is very hard to prove in court.

“The cards are stacked against Native people in proving these prejudicial claims. We can bring them, but they’re very hard to win,” she said. 

As states begin to establish MMIP task forces and commit more resources to the epidemic, some experts say the solution is clear.

“Tribal sovereignty is the only thing that’s going to fix this issue,” said Lucchesi of the Sovereign Bodies Institute. “Tribes have to have the self-determination to protect their people and hold perpetrators accountable. Until that happens, there will be no change.”

Because tribal law enforcement entities are limited in their jurisdiction and in their sentencing abilities, Nagle said the U.S. should restore criminal jurisdiction rights to tribal nations and provide more funding to tribal law enforcement and governments. According to Nagle, support for an Oliphant “fix,” which would restore tribal criminal jurisdiction over anyone who commits a crime in Indian Country, is gaining support.

“There are clear pathways to a solution. We just have to get them to a place of priority and reality,” she said.