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CSKT announces completion of groundbreaking missing persons response plan

by CAROLYN HIDY
Lake County Leader | April 3, 2021 10:00 AM

PABLO — Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Chairwoman Shelly Fyant, along with officials from the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Montana, announced in an April 1 press conference the completion of the first-in-the-nation Tribal Community Response Plan (TCRP) to address investigations of missing and murdered indigenous persons.

The TCRP will help guide law enforcement and other community action regarding missing persons, standardizing and streamlining response protocols and reporting, throughout the 10 state, county and local law enforcement agencies within the Flathead Indian Reservation.

The plan identifies four areas of response: law enforcement, victim services, community outreach and media and public communications, tailored to local situations, customs and resources available.

“The tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous people is a harsh reality that native people face today,” Fyant said. “Unfortunately, no tribal nation has gone untouched by this crisis.”

Fyant acknowledged Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force member and CSKT Tribal Councilwoman Ellie Bundy, presiding officer of the Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force; Ernie Weyand, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Person coordinator for the U.S. Justice Department in Montana; and previous U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme, who “started this process with CSKT.”

“We were provided a guide through Operation Lady Justice Initiative, and are proud to be the first tribe to complete the plan, based on the resources and cultural protocols of our nation.”

Regional and national law enforcement representatives noted the plan’s national significance as well as its local implications for improved response coordination to missing person reports.

“This is an important day for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Person (MMIP) response in Montana and around the nation,” Acting U.S. Attorney for Montana Leif Johnson said. “The public outcry over this issue eventually generated enough attention in the highest levels of government to direct U.S. attorneys offices to consult with tribes and to develop culturally appropriate guidelines for responding to missing and murdered Indigenous person cases.”

“[MMIP] cases can run from the routine to very complex in a hurry,” Johnson said. “We see these guidelines as a way of helping officers and officials to respond at a moment’s notice when the call first comes in … so that we can get to the bottom of the problem as quickly as possible. It will help make our response more effective, and inform our consultations with other tribes.”

Terry Wade, executive assistant director of the Criminal, Cyber, Response Services Branch at the FBI said: “We can’t overstate the importance of the leadership we’ve had from CSKT.

“The FBI is a key component in trying to make sure that we’re making the Native communities safe across the country. We have technical assets, expertise, personnel, but a lot of things we can’t bring or replicate without a coordinated effort are the things that the tribal departments and local departments have. That’s the relationships with community, knowledge of the community, and the knowledge of the terrain.”

Wade said the FBI typically works in metropolitan areas that are very different from some of the very large tribal communities, especially in the western U.S. He acknowledged instances where a lack of communication across agencies has “hampered cases.” The coordination of four counties and 10 law enforcement jurisdictions addressed in the plan, he said, was a key to improving the response to these cases.

“We’ll learn as we go along, and will continue to improve.”

“[This work is] for those who are missing, those who have been murdered, their families who will forever hurt,” Bundy said. “This topic, as you can imagine, is heavy, dark and difficult. Today we celebrate success and offer hope. This is a silver lining that helps us keep pushing forward.” She challenged law enforcement agencies to “realize how critical you are to these efforts.”

Bundy acknowledged CSKT TCRP team members, including Fyant; Communications Director Rob McDonald; Tribal Police Chief Craig Couture, Capt. Louis Fiddler and investigators Will Mesteth and Vernon Fisher; and CSKT MMIP work group coordinator and policy analyst Jami Pluff.

“We felt like we had a head start when we began this work,” Bunday said. “We had strong community relationships with a lot of the organizations who we can reach out to to assist.”

Some successes in the plan include developing a shared file system and creating a missing person liaison position between families dealing with missing loved ones and law enforcement.

“This position is extremely important for keeping that family in the loop.”

She said due to the sensitive nature of some of the law enforcement aspects, specific details of the plan will not be shared with the public, but they will offer input to other tribes regarding its template.

Couture said the response protocols developed will apply to all missing person reports, whether tribal or not. The response collaboration will apply on and off tribal land, and reach even beyond the state of Montana.

“We have a collaborative effort between our jurisdiction and all the counties, cities and Highway Patrol,” he said. “We’re going to work together as a team. As it moves forward, you’ll see it branch out through Indian Country and throughout Montana and other states as well.”

Currently, the Montana Missing Person Clearinghouse lists 166 active missing person cases, with 48 of those identified as Indigenous. This is almost 29 percent, though Indigenous people make up only 6 percent of the Montana population. Twenty-two of the Indigenous missing cases involve people under the age of 21.