Missing and Murdered Native American Women: An Epidemic?
Montana is a Rocky Mountain state that borders Canada and is often referred to as “Big Sky Country” with its numerous spectacular mountain ranges, western prairie terrain, and the Badlands. Best known as the “Crown of the Planet,” Montana is the home of the majestic Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Beartooth Highway, and Big Sky Resort.
Montana has changed little over time, with an abundance of wildlife and breathtaking views. It's a place where Buffalo still roam the plains.
Crow Nation is located in south-central Montana, bordering Wyoming on the south, with its northwestern boundary approximately 10 miles from Billings. There lives a federally recognized tribe called the “Apsaalooke” which means “children of the large-beaked bird.” White men later misinterpreted the word as “crow.”
On the horizon, a highway sign is the only thing that one sees on the desolate strip of Interstate 90, that marks the entrance to the sovereign Native American Territory of the Crow Tribe. There are no gas stations, convenience stores or roadside attractions.
The Crow Nation is the largest of seven tribal lands, with the territory of 2.3 million acres. With a vast amount of ranch ground, the reservation has three enormous mountain ranges, two major rivers, and a dozen tributaries.
The Crow and Northern Cheyenne are both in close proximity to two major cities attracting crime, and bordering state and federal parks. Like each of the seven federally acknowledged Native American reservations in Montana and the nine tribes that call the land home, the Crow and Northern Cheyenne share centuries' worth of challenges with a contentious history, including many strange disappearances and murders.
The Problem of Indigenous Disappearances
Montana’s Indian Country is amid an epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous people, mostly women and girls. The Billings Gazette reported that more than a dozen indigenous women went missing during 2018, and indigenous women nationwide are being killed or trafficked at rates that are much higher than the national average of non-indigenous women.
According to the state Department of Justice (DOJ), more than 5,400 reports of missing people have been filed in Montana during the past three years. Most missing person cases are closed within a day or two. However, while Native Americans make up only 6.7 percent of Montana’s population, an unbelievable 26 percent of Montana’s missing person reports are Native Americans who have been missing for over a month.
When missing person reports are taken by police, they enter the data into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a national database at the FBI that cross-references the missing person’s description with unidentified persons (alive and deceased). The database also makes the person’s information available to other law enforcement and Coroners nationwide.
Once entered into NCIC, if the missing person is determined to be in imminent danger, police can also issue a statewide alert, similar to the AMBER Alert that is distributed to local media and text messages to anyone in the region that has a mobile phone. Failing that criteria, police can also issue a Missing Endangered Person alert, which is similarly sent out to the public.
“One thousand plus missing person reports generated each year in Montana preclude the state from issuing alerts unless the person reasonably appears to be in danger,” said DOJ spokesman John Barnes.
The crisis is often exacerbated by several factors. Many reservations are in very rural areas with little access to the Internet or cell phone service. Tribal law enforcement is understaffed to oversee such large areas of land to initiate searches and properly investigate disappearances. Also, many of the missing are part of a marginal population so the cases don’t get much national attention.
When disappearances follow one after another, the Crow tribe is often forced to turn to outside law enforcement for help, but the help doesn’t appear to happen fast enough. In 2008, the Montana Missing Persons Clearinghouse, within DOJ, implemented the first-ever searchable online database that is updated in real-time and includes a description of the missing person and photos.
Even with new statewide advancements in raising awareness of missing persons, for the families whose loved ones are missing, the law enforcement response can sometimes feel underwhelming.
The Disappearance of Freda Knows His Gun
In October 2016, down on her luck, Freda Knows His Gun, 34, was 740 miles away from home and needed money. She went to the Walmart in Kennewick, Washington, to call a friend to ask for an online money transfer to get home, and promised to return to the Montana Crow Tribe in time to take her children trick-or-treating for Halloween.
Despite an error in Freda’s name that caused a slight delay, within fifteen minutes the money arrived. However, Freda was nowhere to be found, even though she had been waiting at the Walmart customer service counter.
Aldean Good Luck, Freda’s cousin, told the Billings Gazette, “Her friend called and corrected the name and it wasn’t even fifteen minutes when she called Freda back and her phone was no longer working.”
It’s hard to determine what may have happened to Freda, but her family and three children continue to wait, overcome with the ambiguity of the loss. It was hard to know who to turn to, the family told the Billings Gazette. What complicated matters is she was last seen in Washington but a resident of Montana. The Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement within the Crow Agency registered Freda as a missing person.
The FBI eventually became involved in Freda’s case, but there have only been dead ends. According to Freda’s sister Frances Knows His Gun, the FBI called and asked her if she had ever heard of the drug “hot shot” and explained that once you take it you forget who you are. She responded she had never heard of it and that was the last time she heard from them.
Freda’s mother Barbara Susan Stewart is now raising Freda’s three children with the help of other family members. One daughter is now in high school, another getting braces, and many life moments are passing without their mother.
Her forehead permanently creased with worry, “I would know in my womb if she was dead," Barbara told Aljazeera. “I don’t know if she is mad at me, but it doesn’t matter. She needs to come back. Her children need her. I can’t give them what they need.”
The Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) movement is big in Canada and the United States and working to raise awareness and change laws pertaining to missing indigenous women. However, critics wonder why missing men are not getting as much attention.
The truth is that nobody knows how many indigenous men and women are truly missing and that is part of the larger problem. Contributors stem from centuries of discrimination, the lack of accurate record-keeping, jurisdictional issues and historical laws that collide with demands of modern-day law enforcement. To raise awareness, several protest marches, social media outreach, and community-building programs have been organized to ensure missing persons are never forgotten.
Not Invisible Act and Savannah's Act
A bill addressing the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women, the Not Invisible Act is now under consideration by the US House and Senate. The legislation was introduced in the House on April 2, 2019, by Haaland, a member of the Pueblo Nation of Laguna, Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin; and Cole, a member of the Cherokee Nation. The bill is building steam.
According to CBS News, the bill would create an advisory committee comprised of law enforcement, tribal leaders, survivors, and family members of the victims, to make recommendations to the Department of Interior and of Justice on how to address this crisis. It would also designate an official within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to improve violent crime prevention efforts across federal agencies. It is expected to pass with no opposition.
The Not Invisible Act compliments Savanah’s Act introduced to Congress on January 25, 2019. The bill will direct DOJ to review, revise, and develop law enforcement protocols to address missing and murdered Indians to include: providing training to law enforcement; implement a system to notify citizen of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NAMUS); conduct outreach; develop guidelines specific to missing and murdered Indians; provide technical assistance to Indian tribes; and report statistics. Savannah’s act is also expected to pass without opposition.
However, with each agonizing day that passes, for families of the missing, it’s simple. Missing persons have become an epidemic, and their loved ones need help sooner rather than later.