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Michael Balsamo and Iris Samuels
Associated Press/Report for America

HELENA, Mont. — Jermain Charlo vanished in June 2018. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal member hasn't been seen since.

Valenda Morigeau, Charlo's aunt, reported her missing to the Missoula Police Department in the days after her disappearance. But Morigeau said the detective initially assigned to the case failed to take the report seriously and was slow to act, a pattern she said is common when Native Americans report missing loved ones.

"You would think that there would be more urgency to go find the person that is missing," Morigeau said. "Here we are, three years later, because they assumed she was avoiding responsibilities."

Charlo's case brought the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women to the fore in the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes. Now, almost three years after her disappearance, the tribes on Thursday became the first in the nation to complete a community response plan — a Justice Department initiative aimed at creating collaboration between law enforcement agencies, including tribal police, county police and federal authorities, when Native Americans go missing on tribal land.

Still, there are major holes. Among the most glaring: There is no plan for when a tribal citizen goes missing off a reservation or outside tribal lands, as Charlo did. 

In 2018, an Associated Press investigation found that 633 Indigenous women made up 0.7 percent of open missing persons cases despite being 0.4 percent of the U.S. population.

The situation is especially alarming in states such as Montana, which have large Native American populations. Native Americans make up less than 7 percent of Montana's population but account for 25 percent of reported missing person cases.

It is not a federal crime for an adult to go missing, and the FBI generally would only step in if there was clear evidence that a crime has been committed that led to a disappearance. The federal government could lend its resources to local law enforcement officials to help in the search.

"The things that we will learn and implement from the work that the good people here have done can be utilized nationwide," said Terry Wade, an FBI executive assistant director, at a news conference Thursday on the Flathead reservation.

The Justice Department sees its work with local law enforcement and tribal communities as a major initiative. President Donald Trump initiated a federal task force and his then-Attorney General William Barr, who visited the Flathead Reservation in Montana, committed to hiring 11 coordinators at U.S. attorneys offices across the country.

The new plan aims to increase communication among local law enforcement officials, especially in places where there is overlapping jurisdiction. For example, in the immediate area around the Flathead Reservation, there are eight police and sheriff's departments in addition to the Montana Highway Patrol, the tribal police and federal investigators.

As part of the initiative, the police departments are now sharing dispatch information, meaning that when one sheriff's office receives a missing persons report, it can be shared quickly and widely. Also, the U.S. attorney's office and the FBI would offer resources and make a sheriff's office aware of how the federal government could help.

Craige Couture, police chief for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said the plan will eventually extend to address cases that occur beyond tribal land and even in other states.

Over the past two years, the federal government has tried to put in place the tribal plans, holding listening sessions and working with tribes to "establish model protocols," said Ernie Weyand, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Person coordinator for the Justice Department in Montana.

Weyand, a former FBI official and the first coordinator to be hired, has helped to develop the protocols with other coordinators and tribes across the country.

"They are a community deeply affected by its members who have gone missing or been murdered," Weyand said in an interview.

Officials around the Flathead Reservation are also working to create a common missing person policy, shared by all the agencies working on the reservation, and have discussed storing information on a secure information server, he said.

It seems to be working. 

In early 2020, when 16-year-old Selena Not Afraid disappeared from a New Year's party in Big Horn County, Montana, the reaction was swift and the response from law enforcement was robust. The FBI dispatched its elite child abduction team and offered its vast resources to the local sheriff's office.

It was too late. But unlike so many others who have never been found, her body was discovered 20 days after she went missing. An autopsy found she died of hypothermia. Her family still questions how she died.

Rae Peppers, a former Montana state House member who has worked to address the crisis through legislation and nonprofit work, said several of the federal initiatives have come across as disingenuous and unproductive.

"It looks like we're at a standstill," she said, calling Trump's efforts "a political move and not a compassionate move for the Native people."

But President Joe Biden's administration has brought the prospect of revitalized efforts. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced Thursday the formation of a new unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to address the missing and murdered Indigenous persons crisis, with a goal of coordinating different federal resources to investigate cases.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland attends a Cabinet meeting with President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 1, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The move on the part of Haaland marks the fulfillment of a hope by Native activists, including Peppers, that the first American Indian to lead the Department of Interior would bring greater attention to the crisis.

"Violence against Indigenous peoples is a crisis that has been underfunded for decades. Far too often, murders and missing persons cases in Indian country go unsolved and unaddressed, leaving families and communities devastated," Haaland said in a statement. 

In tribal communities in Montana, hardly anyone can remain untouched by the crisis. Peppers recounts that no charges were pressed in the killing of her neighbor, who was her husband's cousin.

Peppers said the Tribal Community Response Plan could prove effective, but it remains to be seen whether such an initiative can translate to all tribal communities and whether it brings real change.

Native Americans who have seen their neighbors and loved ones disappear agree that while the political attention may be new, the problem is not.

"It's a crisis that has happened clear back to Columbus' time," Peppers said. "It's always been, 'Oh, another dead Indian.' That was always the discussion, and it's still like that."

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