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Guest column: Snowbird Fund off to a great start

by Ivan MacDonald, Anna Whiting Sorrell, Marilyn Zimmerman and Whitney Williams
| March 20, 2022 8:00 AM

A year ago we launched the Snowbird Fund to help families and friends of missing and murdered indigenous persons by offering immediate cash assistance (no questions asked) to search for their loved ones.

Since then the fund has not only survived but it has doubled its cash amount and increased its funding capacity — all during a pandemic and tough economic times.

Meanwhile, through the tenacious efforts of native communities and families around the state and country, the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons has gained more attention from tribal, local, state and federal officials, including U.S. Interior Secretary Deborah Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary.

But this cancer continues to spread, and routinely we learn about another missing indigenous person whose loved ones are bereft and left to search for them and find answers to their disappearance.

Montana’s Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force, the statewide collaborative network that includes participation from each of the state’s eight federally recognized tribes, state and federal agencies, and law enforcement, notes that Native Americans are four times more likely to go missing than non-native residents.

Teaming up with the Montana Community Foundation, we launched the Snowbird Fund in February 2021 to directly support Native families by providing immediate financial assistance — a tool that previously was not available to families — to search for their missing loved ones in urban and reservation areas. The fund was the first of its kind in the country.

Direct payments of up to $1,000 are made to individuals to offset the considerable expenses families and friends incur while searching for their loved one. Assistance can cover anything from gas money, meals, hotel stays, cellphone payments, tools like metal detectors and drones, hosting a community vigil and conducting a targeted awareness campaign.

In its first year, the Snowbird Fund gave 11 cash awards for family support during searches, family unification, travel and lodging, and search and rescue efforts.

We provided financial assistance in Polson (1), Browning (5), Dutton (1), Box Elder (1), Hardin (1) and Lame Deer (2).

We’re encouraged that others are engaging on this issue. Tribal, Blackfeet Community College and state officials have launched an online portal to report and track MMIP data and provide useful resources.

While tribal, state, and federal officials work together through the MMIP Task Force to overcome reporting and communication shortcomings and increase law enforcement response to this issue, we'll do our part to help families in their most fraught time by providing immediate cash assistance for their search efforts.

We recognize the need for increased community outreach about the fund, especially in tribal communities. So we’re identifying more ways to connect with individuals, agencies, and organizations working directly with those who are conducting searches so we can better provide this resource to those who need it, when they need it.

It’s the least we can do — and the most that we can hope for is that our assistance helps give a little bit of support and a lot of hope.

We hope you’ll join us and spread the word so that together we can put an end to a crisis that has gone unrecognized for too long.

To apply, visit mtcf.org/grants/apply-for-a-grant/snowbird-fund. Requests for assistance are reviewed by an entirely Native grants committee. Requests for more than $1,000 are accepted and approved on a case-by-case basis. A decision is made by the fund committee and payment for approved requests is made within two weeks.

Ivan MacDonald is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe, filmmaker and criminal justice reform advocate. Anna Whiting Sorrell is an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Marilyn Zimmerman, Ph.D., (Nakota, Dakota, Ojibway, Newe) is senior director of Policy and Programs at the National Native Children’s Trauma Center at the University of Montana. All three sit on the Snowbird Fund review board. Whitney Williams is a Montana businesswoman who helped to create the fund.

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