On today’s episode of the 5 Things podcast:
About one million people make up the population of Montana, of that about 6.7% are Indigenous people. But despite the small population, Indigenous people make up about 26% of the missing person cases in the state; the majority of those numbers being overwhelmingly female. And it’s not unique to Montana. Other states with Indigenous populations report high instances as well.
According to a Department of Justice report on missing and murdered Indigenous women in Montana, a 2018 investigation by the Associated Press stated “…nobody knows precisely how cases of missing and murdered Native American women happen nationwide because many cases go unreported, others aren’t well-documented and no government database specifically tracks them.”
Why is this? And why don’t we hear more about these cases? Do these cases get fair treatment by local and federal law enforcement agencies?
The team at 5 Things spoke to Great Falls Tribune reporter Nora Mabie about this crisis. She talks about the dynamics involved in various law enforcement agencies and jurisdiction as well as something called ‘missing white woman syndrome.’
For more on this story, click here.
For more about Cheryl Horn, a USA TODAY woman of the year and what she is doing to help missing and murdered Indigenous women, click here.
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To follow Nora Mabie on Twitter, click here.
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Hit play on the player above to hear the podcast and follow along with the transcript below.This transcript was automatically generated, and then edited for clarity in its current form. There may be some differences between the audio and the text.
James Brown: Hello, and welcome to 5 Things. I’m James Brown. It’s Sunday, May 22nd, 2022. On Sundays, we do things a bit differently, focusing on one topic instead of five. And this week we’re headed to Montana. There are roughly 1 million people in Montana, just under 7% of them are native Americans. They come from many tribes and they’re sprinkled across the state. Many live on reservations.
Despite their small numbers, native Americans make up one out of every four missing people in the state. That’s according to a study from Montana’s Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force. But this problem, it’s not unique to Montana. Similar task forces exist in Wyoming, Alaska, in Washington state. A presidential task force has been active under both the Trump and Biden administrations. But what’s the reality on the ground and how do these tragedies affect families in Montana? Great Falls Tribune reporter, Nora Mabie, has insight. She covers indigenous communities across the state. Nora Mabie, welcome to 5 Things.
Nora Mabie: Thanks. I’m really happy to be here.
James Brown: Most people listening to this may go to Montana once in their life, you live there. What’s it like there?
Nora Mabie: I am in Great Falls, Montana. It is a city in north central Montana. It has population of about 65,000, and it’s a mostly white working class town here.
James Brown: You cover indigenous people. How do you go about doing it? Tell us about your beat.
Nora Mabie: In Montana, there are 12 tribes and seven reservations. So I have worked for almost three years here to build relationships within these communities and really cover them as communities in their fullness. That means covering big stories of injustice, but it also means covering back to school on the reservation or about the tuition cancellations at tribal colleges and other opportunities that exist.
James Brown: As some of our listeners probably know by now, I spent several years reporting. One of the things that I learned is, it’s important to not just focus on the negative. It also shows that you actually care about the things you’re writing about.
Nora Mabie: Yeah. It’s so important not just for reporters, it’s really helped me to build trust by being there for the small things and the happy things and celebrations, but it’s also just really important for readers. This is a time where a lot of the country is trying to learn more about diverse communities. And if all they’re reading is these negative stories about crime, then that’s just really not accurate and it can also be really harmful.
James Brown: You’re covering basically the entire state of Montana. You must put a total mileage on your car.
Nora Mabie: Yes, I do. Yes. Most of the reservations are spread out. I end up going to the Blackfeet reservation a lot, which is about two and a half hours from Great Falls. And then the trip to Lame Deer for the story on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women was about six hours to get there. So it’s definitely a big space to cover.
James Brown: That brings us right to what we’re here to talk about. Tell me how you came to know about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and how big is the problem we’re talking about?
Nora Mabie: When I first started here at the Tribune, I knew I really wanted to do a lot of work on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement. It is such an important crisis and it’s so often ignored or misunderstood or oversimplified. It’s hard to overstate the importance of it. In Montana, native Americans account for about 6.7% of our population of about a million, but on average, they account for 26% of the state’s missing persons population.
James Brown: Any sense of why the disparity is so huge?
Nora Mabie: There are so many factors that go into this crisis. There’s this historic distrust of law enforcement. A lot of native families have felt racism when dealing with law enforcement. The reservations are very big areas generally. Tribal police are under-resourced and understaffed. So on the Crow Reservation, which I think is bigger than the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, they only have five tribal police officers patrolling. So there is just millions of acreage that people are just not able to respond to calls in time. There’s spotty cell service as well.
But a big thing that a lot of advocates and politicians point to when it comes to these cases is there is just this complete patchwork of jurisdiction that really complicates things. So depending on the location of the crime, if someone was murdered or missing, it depends if that happened on or off a reservation, depending on whether the victim or perpetrator was native American or non-native, depending on the severity of the crime, whether it was a major crime like murder or if it was something lesser like theft.
All of those factors decide who has jurisdiction over this case. So it could be federal law enforcement like the FBI, it could be county law enforcement like sheriffs things, or it could be tribal law enforcement as well. And that mess of things just really complicates things. It’s not the only reason why these cases are high but it’s certainly one of them and it’s something that a lot of advocates have been speaking about.
James Brown: You spent a bunch of time on the case of Hannah Harris. Tell me about her and her significance.
Nora Mabie: So Hannah Harris was a 21-year-old woman. She was a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. And in 2013 when she was a new mother, she had just had her son, Jeremiah, he was 10 months old at the time. She went out to the 4th of July fireworks in her community and that was the last time that her mother saw her. Law enforcement found her body and she was killed in 2013. One reason why some people might know of Hannah is because there was legislation passed in her name called Hannah’s Act.
Hannah’s Act, like some legislation that we see now, tries to help ease this crisis by requiring things of law enforcement agencies. Hannah’s Act allows the Department of Justice to intervene in these cases. But another thing is Hannah was born on May 5th and May 5th has now become a national day of awareness for missing and murdered indigenous people. So many people on that day might honor victims by hearing from family members or doing some sort of walk or march and Hannah’s birthday was the reason that that came about.
James Brown: You spoke with Hannah’s mom. What did you learn from her?
Nora Mabie: Yeah. We were really grateful to have the chance to interview Malinda Harris Limberhand, who’s Hannah’s mother. We met her in Lame Deer, which is where she still lives and where Hannah was killed. The conversation was really heartbreaking. Malinda told us about how worried she was for Hannah. She knew immediately that something was wrong. And this is the case in many of these cases with missing native people. Malinda knew something was wrong because Hannah wasn’t home to breastfeed her baby.
James Brown: We have a bit of your conversation with her.
Malinda Harris …: July 3rd was on a Wednesday. So Thursday was July 4. I went to work that morning at 6:00 and I got off at 2:30 and I came home and I was really tired and I told her, “Can you go across to your uncle’s house and let me get a couple hours of sleep and when I get up, we’ll go to the fireworks?” And she’s like, “All right.” That was the last words I’ve ever said to my daughter.
We all kind of knew that something was wrong when she wouldn’t come home to breastfeed her baby. I just said, “We’re not going to wait for 72 hours. Let’s start looking for her ourselves.” So we took on the role of being the investigator, police officer. When we were doing our own search, we literally lost a lot of evidence because we weren’t professionals. We didn’t know what we were doing. Fingerprints, shoe prints. When they found the shoe, they picked up the shoe, they moved it, stuff like that way.
I just feel like we did the best we could without the help of police officers. I think I got a phone call and somebody was telling me that they found her and I told them, “I’m not going to…” I always remember this. “I’m not going to believe you guys or nobody until the FBI comes and tells me themselves,” because I was still in denial. I never ever did want to think that she was gone.
We got a knock on the door. You can’t just get up and answer the door or anything like that way, but they knock for about 15 minutes and then my uncle finally says, “Go ahead, go answer the door.” And I should have known something then too, but that police officer asked me, “Does Hannah have any tattoos that we can identify her with?” And I told him that she had two stars and the name on her back here in the shoulders.
It was probably about 12:30 and I finally get another knock on my house and it was finally the… I don’t even know. I think it might have been the BIA police officers, I don’t know, that said that they found her deceased. I just shoved in my car and I came over here. I don’t even remember anything after that. So we all made a circle around the hearse and we all prayed for her. Could just smell that decay, and that’s when it hit me my daughter was gone because all that whole time I was in denial. I didn’t want it. I didn’t want that ending. But I finally had my closure then that she was gone.
James Brown: You described a pretty convoluted decision making process when it comes to which law enforcement agencies have jurisdiction over these crimes and over reservations to begin with. Are cases involving murdered and missing indigenous women treated differently?
Nora Mabie: The jurisdiction, just by the law itself, requires that these cases be treated differently. However, there is this term called missing white women syndrome which outlines that people of certain demographics when they go missing are afforded more public outrage than people of other demographics. And so those demographics include being a young white woman, generally being attractive or having certain wealth. Generally, the public seems to care more about those missing people. There’s research into this and it’s generally saying that maybe people seem to identify with one demographic more than others or something, it’s just this unconscious racism.
But then it really has these real consequences because when the public cares more about a certain case, law enforcement feels more pressure. And so then they care more. And then reporters are seeing law enforcement do a ton of press conferences and things, and so there’s more stories. And so it just demands a lot more action. And so this subconscious racism that the country might be employing really does have these real consequences when it comes to public interest. For example, the FBI ends up dealing with a lot of these cases with missing indigenous women because they’re a federal agency. That’s just part of the jurisdiction rules is that a federal agency would help in a major crime on reservations.
And the FBI, oftentimes when a woman is missing, reporters will reach out to the FBI and ask for information just like we would for local law enforcement. Asking about what are you doing? Do you have any press releases? Are you going to have press conference? What are the updates? So local law enforcement will often update us on those type of things. They’ll have press conferences, they’ll be open. The FBI is not. They’ll often say they cannot comment on ongoing investigations.
However, something we all saw as a nation, when Gabby Petito went missing, the FBI had multiple press conferences and things alerting the public. And so when that happened, I reached out to an FBI contact and said, “Why is it that the FBI is able to have these press conferences for her, but not for other women? Why can’t I get other information on these missing indigenous women in their cases?” They pointed me to this policy that says the FBI does not give comment on ongoing investigations, but there are exceptions and one of those exceptions is if it’s of substantial public interest.
So you can really see how when the public cares about something, like Gabby because of certain demographics that she has, it actually affects law enforcement’s response and then it in turn affects how reporters can cover it because if we don’t have a lot of information, it’s really hard to keep stories going and keep the public invested. This isn’t to say that Gabby deserved less. It’s just to say that all these missing indigenous women and other missing people of color deserve more attention and it should be equal.
James Brown: Nora Mabie, thanks for joining me.
Nora Mabie: Yeah. Thank you so much. This was really great.
James Brown: If you like the show, write us a review on Apple Podcast or wherever you’re listening. And do me a favor, share it with a friend. Thanks to Nora Mabie for joining me. What did you think of the show? Let me know at jamesbrowntv on Twitter, or email me at [email protected] Thanks to Hank Far and Alexis Gustin for production assistance. Taylor Wilson will be back tomorrow morning with 5 Things you need to know for Monday. For all of us at USA Today, thanks for listening. I’m James Brown, and as always, be well.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism