'It never stops:' Federal commission visits Montana to learn about MMIP crisis

The Not Invisible Act Commission met to hear from the public about the MMIP crisis in Montana.
Woman at NIAC
Posted at 10:50 AM, Jul 26, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-26 12:51:54-04

BILLINGS - The Not Invisible Act Commission (NIAC) met in Billings on Tuesday, July 25, 2023, to hear from the public about the crisis of Murdered and Missing Indigenous People (MMIP) in Montana.

The meeting was the last of seven stops around the country for the federal commission and involved a panel and individual testimony for families of victims.

Lucie Washakie was one of the many in attendance for the meeting who planned on giving a testimony.

Washakie lost her sister in the 1980s in Montana and said she feels deeply for any families affected.

"I have compassion for other people and human life," Washakie said during a break on Tuesday. "We all need justice."

Woman reads names

Washakie said change is needed and she hopes that was starting to happen already.

"I really am hopeful that they listen," Washakie said. "There's got to be change."

Another attendee, Brandy Jo Canyon, said she lost her brother in the last decade and while it is hard to overcome the trauma, it helps to have others living the same experience.

"It's sad to say, but someone else understands," Canyon said. "Unfortunately, a lot of these atrocities, you don't know unless you go through it."

Canyon said losing her brother was an extremely hard time for her family and that she believes he was just another example swept under the rug.

"It brings frustration, anger, you know, all those ranges of emotions," Canyon said. "Eventually, it's like acceptance, because it's like, 'Oh, this is how we've been treated for hundreds of years'."

RunsAbove Protest

The problem is continuing in Billings. On Monday, a protest was held for 42-year-old Lester Runs Above of Lame Deer, who died in June under what family members say were suspicious circumstances.

He is just one example of an epidemic happening in Montana and around the country.

At the Tuesday commission meeting, a moment of silence was held for those lost and followed by people standing up and sharing the names of MMIP victims. Names were listed for nearly 10 minutes.

"It never stops," Ada Bends, who lost her nephew, said. "The impacts of it are every day."

While some of the meeting was open to the public, members of the media were barred from hearing individual testimonies in the afternoon to protect the privacy of attendees who did not wish to be identified.

NIAC is hoping to help put an end to the issue.

The commission was founded by U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold that post. By visiting communities around the country, they are hoping public awareness will help stop the crisis.

Sleeper reads names

Bends said having a voice is crucial to fixing the problem.

"We want the voices of those that can't be heard anymore, heard," Bends said.

Still, there is skepticism as to how much progress will actually be made. MMIP advocate Charlene Sleeper said these types of meetings have been held before.

"This is a step in a direction," Sleeper said. "I don't know that it's going to lead to any improvements, but with any government entity, they dehumanize victims by turning them into data."

Sleeper said the turnout from families was great and she believes that is the best way to make a difference.

"By speaking their names and being here, it humanizes us," Sleeper said. "It takes a lot to talk about your trauma. It blows my mind how much strength these people have."

For those that attended the meeting, like Canyon, they are hoping that their story is heard.

"I'm starting to see some changes," Canyon said. "There's already more advocacy and resources for our loved ones. My prayers and hopes are that they begin to listen to this."