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Slow rollout of MMIP commission unacceptable

by Daily Inter Lake
| May 8, 2022 12:00 AM

Members of a long-awaited federal commission tasked with addressing the crisis of missing and murdered Native Americans was finally announced Thursday by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

Creation of the commission was required by the bipartisan Not Invisible Act, signed into law in October 2020 during the Trump administration and co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines.

The commission members appointed last week reflect a cross section of stakeholders, from law enforcement, judicial officials, health-care workers and tribal leaders, to survivors or family members of a missing or murdered person. Among those appointed is Daniel Yonkin, a detective with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. Lake County manages law enforcement on the Flathead Reservation as a part of Public Law 280.

This diverse panel of voices will be key to achieving the commission’s goal of improving intergovernmental coordination and bolstering resources, and we’re certainly pleased to see Northwest Montana with a seat at the table.

But what took so long?

Federal agencies missed deadline after deadline in getting this vital commission up and running, along with similar work required under Sen. Tester’s Savanna’s Act.

For example, the Not Invisible Act required that the commission be named by February 2021, and that findings be made public last month.

Tester and fellow U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Catherine Cortez Masto blasted the embarrassingly late rollouts in a May 2 letter that preempted the commission announcement.

“Both of these laws outlined specific timeframes and deadlines for implementation; however, it is unclear which provisions have been undertaken and it appears that almost every deadline has been missed,” the senators wrote. “The Not Invisible commission, for example, should have begun its work more than a year ago, yet its members have not even been named. Similarly, under Savanna’s Act, the creation of regionally appropriate response guidelines to cases of missing or murdered Native people should have already be implemented by U.S. attorneys, yet tribes on the ground have not received progress updates with any concrete information.”

While the slow churn of government is often expected and reluctantly tolerated, this pace is wholly unacceptable when it comes to the urgency surrounding the epidemic of missing and murdered Native women and girls across the U.S.

The Montana stats are startling, where Native women and girls face murder rates that are 10 times higher than the national average, and where more than 80% of Native American women have experienced physical violence.

According to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Office, between 2017 and 2019, over a quarter of Montana’s missing persons were Indigenous despite accounting for about 7% of Montana’s population. Most of those reported missing were children.

Thankfully, Montana has made some headway with its own efforts.

The Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force created in 2019 continues to meet regularly under the direction of the Montana Department of Justice with the goal of better connecting local, state, tribal and federal entities. The Legislature reauthorized the group’s $10,000 in funding during the last session.

Meanwhile, in October the state launched a missing person database to provide law enforcement and the public easier access to the latest information.

Gianforte continues to spotlight the crisis, and last week he established May 5 as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day in Montana. In his proclamation he states that “Montana must bring all resources to bear” to end the epidemic.

We urge Gianforte and state legislators to follow through on that promise. Adequate funding and support will be key to keeping these important programs going and growing.

And our senators must continue to hold the Biden administration’s feet to the fire to get the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act in motion.

To learn more about the crisis, visit the Montana Missing Indigenous Persons reporting portal at www.mmipmt.com. Montana’s missing persons database is at https://dojmt.gov/missing-persons/