“We are not Divided by the Border—We are United in Our Grief”

Senator Elizabeth Warren, 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate and a strong supporter of MMIW legislation and the billboard campaign.

Published July 20, 2019

Blackfeet Nation to Host First Murdered & Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) Tribunal in the U.S.

BROWNING, Mont. — The Blackfeet Nation will host the first Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) tribunal in the US over the weekend of September 6 and 7 at the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (www.mmiwtribunal.com). The two-day Blackfeet MMIW Tribunal will record public testimony from MMIW survivors and victims’ families, as well as providing private sessions for witnesses who may be hesitant to share their accounts in a public forum. “We welcome witnesses from the Four Directions to attend and share their experiences. This is not just a Blackfeet or Montana tribes’ tragedy, it is an Indian Country tragedy, and a national and international disgrace. This is a multi-generational epidemic the federal government has done nothing to address – even less than the Canadian government – which was found to be complicit in ‘deliberate race, identity and gender-based genocide’ by its own National Inquiry into MMIW,” said Chairman Tim Davis of the Blackfeet Nation.

The Blackfeet Nation is uniquely positioned to host this first of its kind MMIW tribunal in the lower-48. A member of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Blackfeet’s three sister tribes, the Piikani, Blood and Siksika, are located in Alberta, Canada. “The truth is that we live in a country whose laws and institutions perpetuate violations of basic human and Indigenous rights. These violations amount to nothing less than the deliberate, often covert campaign of genocide against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people,” wrote Chief Commissioner Marion Buller in Reclaiming Power and Place, the final report of Canada’s National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls published on June 3. “We are not divided by the border we are united in our grief. Many women and children stolen from our communities are trafficked back and forth between the US and Canada,” explained Chairman Davis.

Tribal members constitute 7 percent of Montana’s population, but the state identifies some 26% of missing persons as Native American. Available evidence suggests that may be a low estimate. Last year’s Urban Indian Health Institute Report identified Montana as the state with the fifth highest incidence of MMIW cases. Billings, which had the same disturbing ranking among cities, is a known-hub at the west end of the I-90 corridor through Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Lakota country to Minnesota, along which indigenous women and children are trafficked into sex slavery. As of spring 2019, Montana had not submitted any MMIW data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “For those abducted into sex-slavery, the I-90 corridor is a ‘Highway of Tears,’” said Chairman Davis, drawing a comparison to the infamous highway in British Columbia cited in Reclaiming Power and Place.

The Blackfeet MMIW Tribunal is being held in conjunction with the Global Indigenous Council (GIC) and is endorsed by the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council (RMTLC). The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council credits the work of both organizations in partnership with the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association (GPTCA) in raising the profile of the MMIW tragedy and the GIC-RMTLC-GPTCA alliance’s relentless efforts to secure meaningful MMIW legislation on Capitol Hill (www.mmiw-gic.com). Many of the recommendations petitioned for by the alliance are reflected in MMIW bills introduced in the 116th Congress, including the BADGES Act, the Not Invisible Act, Native Youth and Tribal Officer Protection Act, and the 2019 Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization. The alliance submitted amendments to Savanna’s Act that were supported by the bill’s original sponsor, Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), and garnered bipartisan backing in the House and Senate.

The GIC-RMTLC-GPTCA alliance worked closely with Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) on the Studying the Missing and Murdered Indian Crisis Act which directed the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a full review of how federal agencies respond to reports of missing and murdered Native Americans and to recommend solutions based on their findings. Since passage in the House, the GAO has committed to undertake the review without further legislative action. Senator Tester expressed his dismay at federal law enforcement’s failures to adequately respond to the MMIW epidemic during last December’s Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing into the crisis.

Among the witnesses was Kimberly Loring Heavy Runner. Kimberly’s sister, Ashely, went missing June 12, 2017, on the Blackfeet Nation. “Unfortunately, Ashley’s story is not unique, but the same as many other MMIW. Ashley had dreams and she had goals; being a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman was not one of them. Don’t forget Ashley, remember her name. Ashley Loring Heavy Runner is important. Our people are important,” Kimberly testified.

Billboard with MMIW victim Ashley Loring Heavy Runner is up on the Blackfeet Nation.

“We were grateful that Kimberly had the opportunity to offer an overview of Ashley’s case and the family’s ordeal. It was powerful testimony that resonated. We were also grateful that Congressman Ruben Gallego, Chairman of the HNRC Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the US held the first-ever MMIW hearing in Congress this year. But we are still waiting for federal MMIW legislation. Savanna’s Act should have been on the president’s desk last December. Now Congress is heading into its summer recess and it will return into a full-blown election cycle. We cannot allow the MMIW legislation that is pending to be lost in the hubbub – and this tribunal will help to ensure that it isn’t,” insisted Chairman Davis. Despite passage in the Senate, Savanna’s Act was blocked in the House Judiciary Committee by its now retired Chairman, Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA).

The Blackfeet Nation will extend invitations to Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, including 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates, and members of the Trump Administration. The invitations and responses will be posted on the tribunal website for full transparency. Among the 2020 Democratic Presidential field, so far Senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris have all supported the GIC-RMTLC-GPTCA alliance’s drive for MMIW legislation. By contrast, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand declined to meet, referring to her “full schedule at this time.” Minnesota senator, Amy Klobuchar, failed to respond. In Minneapolis and Duluth, Minnesota has two cities notorious for MMIW cases.

“Montana’s Senator Tester and Senator Daines have been steadfast in supporting our combined efforts on MMIW. Senator Kamala Harris’s office relayed that the senator considers MMIW to be ‘a human rights issue.’ That’s exactly what it is. This is not a right or left issue. This is a life or death issue. No witness can express their experiences in five minutes in a Congressional hearing. We invite the lawmakers to share their words with our people, but more importantly, to come and listen to the witnesses. That is the least the victims and their families deserve,” concluded Chairman Davis.

Attorney General William Barr, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman, John Hoeven (R-ND), are among the Republican luminaries on the invitee list. “Senator McConnell has reveled in his self-given moniker, the Grim Reaper. All MMIW legislation goes through him. If he won’t bring the bills to the floor the death rate among the most vulnerable in our communities, our women and children, will continue to rise. At that point, he might not be so proud of his nickname,” said Tom Rodgers, a Blackfeet tribal member and President (Acting) of the GIC. The tribunal panelists will be announced August 1.

Tribunal updates can be found at www.mmiwtribunal.com and Facebook.com/MMIWtribunal

Images courtesy of Alter-Native Media.

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