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Guest column: A helping hand in the search for the missing

by By Whitney Williams and Anna Whiting-Sorrell
| February 25, 2021 10:35 PM

Selena Not Afraid. Ashley Heavyrunner Loring. Kaysera Stops Pretty Places.

For decades in Montana, Indigenous people — mostly women, like these three — have gone missing, many times murdered and leaving behind families to search desperately for their loved ones.

And many times, these families of Native people have had to go it alone, to search for their missing loved ones without the aid of authorities and with limited resources.

We’re keenly aware that some of our neighbors are treated differently, invisible and left behind altogether. We believe that this big, beautiful state can — and should — do better.

Today, thanks to Native families, Indian lawmakers and the Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force, we’re seeing this once hidden and sad story of society turning a blind eye to an epidemic in Indian Country being brought to light and the public’s attention.

That’s why we — a descendant of Butte Irish and an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes — have teamed up to create the Snowbird Fund, which we launched with the help of the Montana Community Foundation to provide direct payments (no strings attached) to families of missing Indigenous people so they can immediately start a search before trails go cold.

While policymakers focus on getting this systemic problem under control by creating a database of the missing, coordinating confusing law enforcement jurisdictional issues, improving response times, and ending historic apathy, we at the Snowbird Fund are focused on quickly providing money to families so they can get basic essentials to conduct community searches.

It’s simple — we want to fill a gap that exists today.

Money dispensed to families and friends of the missing can be used for such needs as:

  • Gas, meals, and hotel stays.
  • Cellphone payments.
  • Tools like metal detectors and drones.
  • Conducting a targeted awareness campaign.

To our knowledge, nothing like the Snowbird Fund exists in the state or country.

Why this fund, and why now?

The problem spans the nation, but is particularly acute in Montana:

  • One report ranked Montana fifth in states that have the most Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) cases.
  • Each year, 20 Indigenous women and girls go missing in Montana, often never to be found.
  • Native Americans constitute 6.5 percent of Montana’s population, but account for a quarter (26 percent) of the state’s missing persons cases.
  • The MMIW crisis has taken the lives of 200 women in Montana since 2000.

To combat this epidemic, we must work collaboratively — from families, tribal communities, law enforcement and federal, state, local and tribal governments. We also must do so with respect and emphasis on tribal sovereignty.

At the Snowbird Fund, we’re doing our part by providing a little bit of money and hope.

Today, Montana’s under a lot of ice and snow. When you drive down the road and see that car in a ditch, you never see just one; you always see two, because someone stopped — they pulled over — to help that neighbor. That’s who we are as Montanans — we help each other.

And we’d love your help.

To be involved, go to mtcf.org/giving/our-funds/snowbird-fund.

Whitney Williams is a Montana businesswoman and Anna Whiting-Sorrell is the former director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, former director of the Billings Area Indian Health Service and enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation.