Too few found: Tester, Daines seek answers on missing Native American women

Since the first of the year, more than two dozen Native American women in Montana have gone missing, and only two have been found – one of them alive.

That, Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines said, is a problem that needs an immediate solution.

“We’ve got to find a solution to this – it simply cannot go on as it’s gone on for the last couple of years,” Tester said Wednesday during a hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

“You cannot step foot in Indian Country without hearing a heartbreaking story about this growing problem. We need to know what’s happening and what exactly can happen to solve this problem.”

Advocates pushing legislation to address the issue told members of the Senate that law enforcement doesn’t take missing Native American women seriously. Women on Montana’s reservations are vulnerable as a result.

The murder rate of Native American women in Indian Country is nearly 10 times higher than the national average for all races, according to a study for the U.S. Department of Justice by sociologists at the University of Delaware and University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

Kimberly Loring-HeavyRunner, a Blackfeet woman who now lives in Missoula, has been looking for her sister, Ashley, since she disappeared along the reservation in June 2017.

HeavyRunner said witnesses recall her sister running from a vehicle. While her sweater was found beside the road – stained with oil and what appeared to be blood – it was later lost by law enforcement.

“We went with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the tribal police, and they searched for three days to look for Ashley,” HeavyRunner said. “After those three days, they stopped.”

HeavyRunner said the FBI didn’t show up for 10 months.

“I believe law enforcement did not take Ashley’s case seriously, as well as other girls that have gone missing and been murdered in Indian Country,” she said. “We went weeks without even speaking with them. They didn’t call and give us any information.”

Tester requested Wednesday’s hearing back in August after meeting with tribal leaders in Montana who told him that 20 Native American women had gone missing in the state since the beginning of 2018.

Representatives of the BIA, the FBI and the National Institute of Justice all agreed there’s a problem, though no solutions were offered at the hearing.

“I am asking you to recognize that indigenous women matter, and the way our missing and murdered women cases are handled needs to be corrected,” HeavyRunner said. “We are going missing, we are being murdered. We are not being taken seriously.”

Daines also sought answers at Wednesday’s hearing and invited HeavyRunner to share her story and address the committee. At nearly three hours long, the hearing marked one of the year’s longest committee meetings for Indian Affairs.

“After nine months of no information, the FBI finally stepped in to help the investigation,” Daines said of the HeavyRunner case. “Kimberly has been working diligently to find her sister and raise awareness in Montana and around the nation about her case. She has logged more than 40 searches for her sister. It’s a story that’s all too familiar.”

Tester also questioned why so few of Montana’s missing Native American have been found.

“That seems a bit excessive to me to not be able to find a few of them,” Tester said. “There’s got to be a reason for this. Something is not happening that needs to happen, that’s happening in other places in the country but isn’t happening when it’s applied to indigenous women.”