KTVQ: Missing & Murdered Indigenous Persons website is expanding across Montana

by Colter Anstaett

The issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) is something many people, especially on the Blackfeet Reservation, consider a crisis. But there was perhaps a little more hope Thursday that progress will be made in addressing the issue.

“Right now, we have this current website,” said MMIP Montana director Drew Landry, gesturing to the MMIP MT website on his computer.

The website and accompanying database were created at Blackfeet Community College to raise awareness about MMIP cases and help law enforcement respond to new cases quickly. The database will officially be unveiled at a town hall at the University of Montana on Saturday from 2-5 p.m. in Ali Auditorium.

Landry explained, “Somebody puts the name of their missing loved one in (on the website), we’ll get this report. Immediately, an e-mail also goes to Blackfeet Law Enforcement and then we figure out where this person went missing. We contact that family member and we walk them through the process of filing a missing person report.”

Saturday’s event will mark the formal participation of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes (CSKT); the coalition hopes to have all Montana tribes’ formal participation by the end of the summer. He encourages each tribe to have a liaison who can help get cases to law enforcement when they come in.

“We feel fortunate that we’ve developed a system to at least encourage people to report these crimes in a timely manner and to have a database, but we won’t be successful until we have other tribal nations all around Montana join us,” said Landry.

The database was made possible in part thanks to the effort of the sister of Ashley Loring Heavyrunner to raise awareness about Ashley’s disappearance from the Blackfeet Reservation in 2017. “Kimberly spoke with elected leaders, she went to Washington, D.C. I believe she worked with (U.S. Sen.) Jon Tester and eventually legislation came around, so in 2020 there was a grant available for tribal colleges. We were able to acquire that grant,” said Landry. AT&T donated to help fund the website project, and Dillon Software in Kalispell assisted with the design.

“I’m very very excited,” said Rhonda Connelly, whose nephew was found dead after being reported missing on the reservation. Connelly was looking forward Thursday to Saturday’s unveiling, and her family continues to search for answers in her nephew’s case. “We started compiling a list (of missing and murdered indigenous people) back in 2016, Belinda, Diana and myself. I’d like to see what (the database has),” she said.

Also since 2016, Connelly, Belinda Bullshoe, and Diana Burd have been organizing walks to raise awareness about the MMIP crisis, hoping to get answers for families.

The most recent was last weekend, and they say for the first time the Blackfeet Tribal Council agreed to meet with some families in response Thursday. “I think it’s big progress. I don’t think it had to do with just the walk, but with (everything) prior to that. These families, hopefully, will get answers,” said Bullshoe.

Burd believes more needs to be done at the state and federal level: “They’re blaming our police, which could mess up, I’m not sure. They don’t share that with us. They say they can’t give out any details to a case, the state can’t give us what they came in and collected because it will interfere with the case they don’t usually prosecute anyway.”