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Montana Lawmakers Consider MMIP Bills

Democratic Rep. Sharon Stuart Peregoy introduces House Bill 35 to the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 21, 2021.
Montana Public Affairs Network
Democratic Rep. Sharon Stuart Peregoy introduces House Bill 35 to the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 21, 2021.

Montana lawmakers on Thursday considered a suite of bills intended to address the missing and murdered Indigenous person crisis.

Democratic Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy of Crow Agency told the House Judiciary Committee that lawmakers must build upon legislation passed in 2019 in response to the disproportionate number of Indigenous people who go missing in Montana.

“We’ll get our foot in the door, but we need to get into the room. And when we get into the room there’s still a whole lot of things that have to be done," she said.

Despite making up roughly 7 percent of Montana’s population, Native people account for about 26 percent of the state’s missing person cases, according to a Montana Department of Justice report.

In 2019, the Legislature approved the Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force for two years to address law enforcement jurisdictional issues, improve communication between agencies and bolster investigative efforts. Stewart Peregoy, a member of the Crow Nation, introduced House Bill 98 Thursday to extend the task force and reauthorize a grant used to maintain a missing persons database.

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council Member Ellie Bundy, who serves on the task force, was among House Bill 98’s many public proponents. She urged committee members to consider the families of missing Indigenous people.

“This task force reminds them we care. That we’re still seeking answers and working toward solutions," she said.

A task force recommendation led to Stewart Peregoy’s House Bill 35, which would create a commission to review missing Indigenous person cold cases and analyze potential areas of law enforcement improvement. House Bill 36, also sponsored by Stewart Peregoy, would fund a grant program for law enforcement agencies to receive missing persons training.

Republican Sen. Jason Small of Busby, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member, said the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs doesn’t adequately police reservations, which limits what the state can do to address missing and murdered Indigenous person cases.

“We are creating a brace or patch system," he said.

Small is sponsoring Senate Bill 4, which the Senate passed by a 41 to 9 margin Thursday. It would also reauthorize the Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force, but not the database. Small said in an interview that he introduced the bill to make sure something gets over the finish line in case lawmakers find Stewart Peregoy’s bill too expensive.

Stewart Peregoy’s three bills would cost less than $150,000 over the next two years.

Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report For America statehouse reporter.