The U.S. Attorney’s Office is hosting training sessions in Montana this week for indigenous communities about how to enter missing persons cases into a public database. Some people involved in the MMIP movement say that entries aren’t the problem. The database is.
Editor's note: an earlier version of this report mistated that a missing persons specialist at the Montana Department of Justice enters all NamUs entries older than sixty days into NCIC. It is the reverse. NCIC entries older than sixty days are entered in NamUs.
Workshop attendees on the Rocky Boy’s, Fort Belknap and Fort Peck Reservation learned how to enter cases into the federally-funded database NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
Nine states require law enforcement to use NamUs but that’s not the case in Montana, where law enforcement uses a state version of NCIC, the National Crime Information Center. U.S. Attorney for Montana Kurt Alme says NamUs is a supplemental database to NCIC.
"They’re not connected to one another. The NCIC system is the one that’s used when someone goes missing and for law enforcement to help find them. NamUs is the way for the family to network with a whole lot more individuals who may be able to help locate evidence of their missing family member or friend besides just the law enforcement network," Alme said.
Alme says it’s not always law enforcement that cracks these cases, sometimes it’s hospitals or non-profits. That’s why his office has been holding training sessions in Montana’s seven tribal nations for how to use NamUs, a publically available database that lets anyone make a missing person entry.
Its helped solve 15 missing persons cases in Montana, according to a NamUs spokesperson.
Hollie Mackey is a Northern Cheyenne tribal member and education professor at North Dakota State University. She attended a Thursday training at Fort Belknap but says she has reservations about the database.
"Everybody knows that it’s not the solution, and it’s never going to change anything," Mackey said.
Mackey says the idea of NamUs makes people feel good. That people like the concept of a public and searchable database. Her problem is that law enforcement has to verify public entries anyway, so why not just start there?
A spokesperson from the Montana Department of Justice says that a missing persons specialist enters all NCIC entries older than sixty days into NamUs.
Mackey also says that NamUs doesn’t let users enter identifiers that could be helpful in tracking missing people in Indian Country.
"We need to be able to enter in tribal affiliation, tribal name or other known names, and not as aliases because it’s not an alias. That’s their spiritual name. That’s who they are as a tribal member," Mackey said.
Last year, NamUs added new data fields for missing tribal members. It created places to enter tribal enrollment, affiliation and whether the person was last seen on tribal land. But only law enforcement can enter and access that information. Officers, medical examiners, coroners and others can register as “professional users” to access sensitive information, like cause and manner of death.
"As tribal members, what we want is a system that is only missing indigenous persons and that it can talk across the different tribal jurisdictions," Mackey said.
There are currently 79 people on the publically accessible NamUs database whose last known location was in Montana. For the NCIC database used by law enforcement, that number is 155. Mackey says the latter is much closer to the true number of missing people in Montana.
She knows that because she’s started creating a database of her own. She says she wants to create a system that will better serve Native American communities.
The next training is scheduled for Friday morning on the Fort Peck Reservation.
Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America corps member.