HELENA — May 5 marked National Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day, and across Montana, people gathered to make sure the crisis isn’t forgotten.
In Helena, events started Wednesday morning. A small group of people gathered on the Walking Mall to “Smudge the Streets.”
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Smudging is a traditional ceremony for cleansing and purification. Those taking part walked up Last Chance Gulch, burning bundles of sage and sweetgrass, spreading the smoke and holding prayers.
“Get rid of the negative and fill it with positive energy and positive vibes and positive people, and pray for those that are struggling or missing or murdered and those that are still suffering, that they can be reunited with us,” said Katie Benevides, one of the organizers.
Benevides said Smudge the Streets events were also held in Billings and Great Falls Wednesday, and that they hope to continue them on a regular basis – and possibly expand them to other cities.
Benevides was also on hand for a smudging ceremony at the Montana State Capitol in the afternoon – part of a large Day of Remembrance event, put on by the Montana Native Women’s Coalition.
The speakers at that event included state and tribal leaders and family members of missing and murdered people.
The national day of awareness was established several years ago in a congressional resolution introduced by Sen. Steve Daines and co-sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester. May 5 was chosen because it is the birthday of Hanna Harris, a 21-year-old woman from Lame Deer who was murdered in 2013.
“We, the Harris family, know that nothing will replace the loss of our beloved Hanna,” said Harris’s mother, Malinda, during the event. “But in organizing to create these changes needed, we must work together. We must support May 5 as the national day of awareness for our missing and murdered women and girls. We are all aware of how large this problem is for all native women.”
Speakers said they were grateful for the work that has been done on this issue in recent years, but that there is still much more to do.
“One of the things about MMIP that makes me so mad is that it’s taken so long for the government to recognize a portion of the pain throughout Indian Country – the pain of the victims, the pain of the families, the pain of feeling like nothing’s going to happen, what can I do?” said Gerard Padgett, who is a victim’s advocate in the Blackfeet Tribe’s domestic violence office.
Those taking part in the event said a number of areas still need improvements, particularly how law enforcement trains for missing persons cases and how agencies share information. They also said families of missing and murdered people need to feel that their concerns are being listened to and taken seriously.
Jean Bearcrane, executive director of the Montana Native Women’s Coalition, said the progress that has been made is all thanks to the efforts of family members and other advocates.
“I’m really glad to say that they have heard your voices, and that is why they have really gone to bat for the families,” she said.