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‘We are not heard’: Idaho’s Indigenous women look for answers for high missing persons rate



This story was first published by Idaho Reports on Oct. 30, 2023.

In the state of Idaho, Indigenous people go missing at nearly twice the rate of other people.

That number comes from a 2021 report out of Boise State University that also found that on average in Idaho, officials add 81.6 Indigenous missing persons entries into the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, each year. NCIC is a system used for sharing information about people reported missing.

Idaho’s average rate of missing persons is about 10.59 per 100,000 persons. The average rate for Indigenous people leaps to 18.99 per 100,000 people.

Among the missing: Matthew Broncho, 38, of Fort Hall, last seen March 20, 2019, and Kacy Ross, 36, of Plummer, who was last heard from on March 19, 2020. Her last known location was Spokane, Washington.

Some, like Tina Marie Finley, have been missing for much longer. Finley was last seen in Plummer in March 1988. Investigators believe she may have been the victim of foul play.

The BSU report found that 75% of Idaho’s missing Indigenous people are female, unlike the non-Indigenous missing persons list, which is 28.8% female.

Multiple factors contribute to the high rates, but ultimately, many tribal members say roots of the issue date back to the country’s historically poor treatment of Indigenous people.

Idaho Reports spoke to Nez Perce and Coeur d’Alene tribal members in Lapwai and Plummer this summer about the national epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people. Idaho is home to five federally recognized tribes.

Nez Perce Chief Judge Natasha Anderson sits on the Not Invisible Act Commission, formed after the act passed in 2020 on the federal level. The commission works to make recommendations regarding missing and murdered Indigenous people.

“The main goal of the commission is to elevate the voices of families on the ground that have been crying out for attention to the issue,” Anderson said.

Idaho advocates say changes could be made to address missing Indigenous people

Locally, and statewide, Anderson sees changes that could be made.

“The most pivotal thing that could happen is that Idaho would amend its definition of peace officer to include tribal law enforcement officers,” Anderson said. “Right now, because tribal law enforcement officers aren’t included in that definition, that really restricts a lot of the things that they can do, as well as the ability of local or state law enforcement agencies to collaborate on investigations and things like that.”

In Idaho, to be considered a peace officer you must attend the Peace Officer Standards and Training Academy, or POST. Some tribal police, depending on the reservation, attend the Indian Police Academy, run by the U.S. Bureau of Indian of Affairs. Idaho law currently states a peace officer must be deputized by a sheriff of a county or a chief of police of a city of the state of Idaho.

The Nez Perce Tribe’s Interim Police Chief Leotis McCormack explained that attending POST Academy can be costly, so some tribes, his included, send their officers to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for training. Further, his officers are not “deputized” by a sheriff and chief of police because they’re a sovereign nation.

“The Nez Perce Tribe is a self-certifying agency,” McCormack said. “So we don’t meet that language.”

Tribal officers also have limited arresting abilities. A tribal police officer may arrest a tribal member suspected of a crime on tribal land — but not a non-tribal member. Major crimes, such as a homicide or sexual assault on a reservation, must be investigated by the FBI, which sometimes takes longer than if a local jurisdiction would have responded.

“It slows down reaction time,” McCormack said. “It slows down the ability to get (the victim) the resources they actually need.”

Jurisdiction can be an issue 

Cross-jurisdictional issues and data sharing barriers get complicated for tribal police, too. If a person is located or found dead outside of the reservation, that missing person may be misidentified as white, Hispanic or of unknown race. That can affect tribes’ ability to find their missing members, assuming they can access the information in the first place.

“The data systems that are used nationally and locally, the tribes have had a hard time gaining access with that,” McCormack said.

McCormack believes many police officers do not understand tribal jurisdiction, creating real-life barriers to policing and public safety.

“The state of Idaho is a really difficult place to be a tribal officer,” he said. “… We are all serving human beings and want them all to be safe.”

Indigenous language interpreters unite to fill gaps

While he hopes to build relationships and educate people about tribal police, McCormack knows it won’t happen overnight.

“These are important issues to us, and we fight fervently for us to be protected the way everyone else is protected,” McCormack said.

The state has made some progress in working with the tribes. In 2022, the Idaho Legislature passed Senate Bill 1376, to create the endangered missing person alert system.

Tanea Parmenter, the Idaho State Police missing person clearinghouse manager and the alerts coordinator, said tribal police are allowed to request an endangered person alert, should a tribal member go missing. Idaho State Police then send alerts to the media and the cell phones of people in the area the person went missing from, as well as the area they are believed to be going.

But as of October 2023, the system hadn’t yet been used for a missing Indigenous person. The alert system is meant for all people believed to be in immediate danger, and law enforcement officials haven’t yet asked Idaho State Police to send out an alert, Parmenter said.

Consistent data on missing people also a factor

Bernie LaSarte, who manages the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s STOP Violence Against Women Program,
Bernie LaSarte, who manages the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s STOP Violence Against Women Program, spoke to Idaho Reports about missing and murdered Indigenous women. (Courtesy of Idaho Reports)

Bernie LaSarte, who manages the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s STOP Violence Against Women Program, is co-chair of the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Subcommittee. She pointed to a lack of consistent data as a contributing factor.

The Indigenous Idaho Alliance reports that between 2016 and 2020 the annual number of Indigenous missing persons entries ranged between 72 and 93. Those number comes from the National Crime Information Center’s data, which found that between 2016 and 2020, 72 to 93 police reports were made annually about a missing Indigenous person in the state.

The National Crime Information Center data is not public-facing and only law enforcement has access, but the federal government reports the numbers.

Not all of those people are still actively missing. Law enforcement removes people from its National Crime Information Center system if they are later located, whether dead or alive. As of Oct. 27, Idaho has only three active missing Indigenous person cases in the National Crime Information Center. All of those are cases that are more than a year old, and none are determined to have threat of imminent harm or death, so the endangered persons alert system wasn’t used, according to Parmenter.

Nationally, the Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates there are at least 4,200 missing and murdered Indigenous people cases that have gone unsolved. On its website, the bureau says it believes that number is low due the lack of available data.

McCormack didn’t have a specific number for open cases regarding missing people from his reservation that met the definition of a missing person case. But he said there have been “a lot of inquiries” about missing people who would be considered a high-risk missing adult.

“As far as data goes, there’s no central data collecting being done,” LaSarte said. “And so that’s part of the problem, because every agency uses their own data and … the right hand doesn’t talk to the left hand. Nobody talks to each other.”

Anderson points to past examples of states ignoring provisions in the Indian Child Welfare Act when Indigenous children go missing in state foster care systems. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 7-2 to leave major provisions of the act in place, marking a win for tribes nationwide.

LaSarte said tribal sovereignty can pose a barrier to data sharing, but she believes that’s going to change.

“Tribes all over the U.S. are taking notice and understanding that some of the challenges are within our own tribes,” she said. “We need the assistance of others because not all of our people are missing on our own reservations. They’re missing all over.”

Indigenous people grieve generational traumas

Though recent activism has brought attention to the high rates of missing Indigenous people, LaSarte says this has long been a problem.

She knows families who still grieve for people who went missing decades ago, pointing to the case of Tina Marie Finley.

“We know she’s buried out there someplace, and there’s a lot of thoughts and ideas in the community on who did this,” LaSarte said. “But regardless … this is in 1987, and she’s still gone. She hasn’t been returned to her family. She hasn’t been properly buried. But there’s many more like that, statewide and nationwide.”

LaSarte said no one has an accurate answer for why the rate of violence is so high against Indigenous women.

“Being an Indigenous woman, you know, we’re beaten three-and-a-half times more than any other race. Here in the state of Idaho, our Indigenous women are twice as likely to go missing than our non-native counterparts,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of variables in that and a lot of reasons. I don’t think it’s any one thing.”

She said intergenerational trauma and colonization plays a role.

Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee Vice Chairman Mary Jane Miles
Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee Vice Chairman Mary Jane Miles spoke to Idaho Reports about missing and murdered Indigenous people this summer. (Courtesy of Idaho Reports)

Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee Vice Chairman Mary Jane Miles points to history and the treatment of Native American women, citing an Amnesty International USA attorney Rachel Ward’s statement on missing and murdered Indigenous people.

“She surmises Indian women, they’re subjected to a version of justice that is completely different from everybody else,” Miles said. “Many of the cases fall through the cracks. Everybody spends hours arguing over who has the responsibility to do the primary investigations, and meanwhile, days, weeks, and months go by without someone conducting an investigation on the matter. I liked that, and I felt that that happens, and we don’t know why because nobody is (held) responsible.”

tai simpson, executive director of the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, also sits on the MMIP Subcommittee and is a member of the Nimiipuu Tribe. simpson, who does not capitalize her name, also looks to history and colonization’s impact on Indigenous tribes.

“Because in the beginning, it was OK for Indigenous women to be violated, for us to be stolen, for us to be raped, for us to be killed indiscriminately, that became normalized over the course of time and it has not been undone,” she said. “So we’re seen as outside the protections of the American legal system because of that. We are not seen, period. We are not heard, period. Because we’ve been dehumanized and relegated to mascots, to Halloween costumes, to TV shows like Yellowstone and Wind River.”

simpson believes that institutional, state-sanctioned violence throughout history contributes to the problem.

“This is not a Native American issue. This is not just an Indigenous issue. This is a community safety issue for everybody,” she said. “And that’s community work that needs to be Indigenous led. … There’s opportunities for unpacking and addressing the racism and oppression that also interweave into this issue. And we can only get there together.”

Addressing the problem through collaboration, training

LaSarte has goals for the MMIP committee to start addressing the problem.

“We need to promote collaboration across jurisdictions. That’s one of the biggest issues,” LaSarte said. “We need to work together with the county, with the state, with other tribes, with our federal partners in collecting the data so we know how many are actually missing. We need the help with investigations because tribes are pretty compact, and they have no jurisdiction even across the county line. So we need that extra support.”

Parmenter also co-chairs the MMIP subcommittee.

“This year, our area of focus is training, especially training for law enforcement and for community members,” Parmenter said. “And so we want to make sure our law enforcement understand how to handle a missing person case, especially when it comes to a missing Indigenous person. And also, what can the community do when we do have a person who is missing and is Indigenous and how they can help and assist with that case.”

Anderson said it’s important to lift Indigenous voices.

“What people need to know about tribal nations is that we have the know-how and skills on how to do it ourselves,” Anderson said. “Sometimes we don’t have adequate resources. I believe also that outside jurisdictions need to respect the sovereignty of Indian tribes, to reach out to tribal governments.”

“It’s not so much that Indian people don’t need a white savior,” Anderson said. “We need people to take our sovereignty seriously. We need people to take our Indigenous women seriously when they’re speaking.”


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