Billings Gazette: Daines: Police must improve response to missing, murdered Native women

LAME DEER — Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., called Friday on law enforcement to better respond to cases involving murdered and missing Native American women.

As part of an awareness march in Lame Deer Friday, Daines walked alongside Melinda Harris, mother of Billings West High School graduate Hanna Harris, who was killed in 2013 age 21. Melinda Harris reported her daughter missing when she didn’t come home after celebrating on July 4, 2013.

Bureau of Indian Affairs investigators notified the FBI about the case four days later, and Harris’ body was found the next day. Her body was too decomposed for a cause of death to be determined, according to court records. The people involved in her death were arrested nearly a year later, in March 2014. At the time Hanna Harris disappeared, she had a 10-month old son who was still nursing. 

“She was a very responsible mom, and suddenly she’s not home,” Daines said. “So Mama knew something was wrong, and unfortunately the system was very slow in responding and following up and pursuing this case.”

The march was organized in part to mark a U.S. Senate resolution to honor Hanna Harris and commemorate the lives of all missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls. The resolution became law May 3, and Daines brought copies of the resolution for the Harris family and the Northern Cheyenne tribe. 

Hanna Harris wasn’t the first member of Melinda Harris’ family to be killed. Melinda Harris’ aunt, 32-year-old Rosella Wooden Thigh, was killed on May 5, 2008.

Some of the signs hoisted during the march called for people to remember Wooden Thigh.

Wooden Thigh’s death was recorded in the Montana Domestic Fatality Review Board’s 2009 report. The report also included a recommendation for tribal governments to regularly report federal crimes, particularly violent crimes, to the Montana U.S. Attorney’s Office for follow-up and tracking with the appropriate investigative agencies.

Tribal members and tribal government officials “perceived inattention” when it came to the investigation and prosecution of crimes in Indian Country, the report said.

Pauline High Wolf said she still does not see law enforcement trying hard enough to solve cases involving the deaths of Native women. High Wolf’s daughter, 26-year-old Allison High Wolf, died in February 2015. Her remains were found after a fire in her room at the Rodeway Inn in Hardin.

Allison High Wolf had four daughters, the youngest of whom, 5-year-old Aiyana High Wolf, walked with Pauline High Wolf in the march. Pauline High Wolf believes the circumstances of her daughter’s death are suspicious and that the Big Horn County Sheriff’s office has not done enough to investigate the case. 

The distrust over whether there are proper investigations by federal agencies into violent felony crime came to a head after the death of Roylynn Rides Horse, 28, who was beaten, set on fire and left in a field on the Crow Reservation on April 17, 2016.

At the time, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., contacted the Department of the Interior over the perceived lack of response to inquires about public safety threats on Montana’s Indian reservations. Interior Department rules governing the BIA prohibit that agency’s law enforcement from releasing information. 

Daines is working on getting a new Montana U.S. Attorney, and said he plans to work with that person, along with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, on this topic. There is something fundamentally wrong when officials can’t immediately engage the public and bring awareness after someone is murdered or goes missing, Daines said.

The tribes need more law enforcement and better information sharing, he said.

Northern Cheyenne Tribal Chairman L. Jace Killsback called on Zinke to help the tribe build its own law enforcement agency. The tribal council voted unanimously this week to fire the Northern Cheyenne BIA chief of police. Killsback wants members of the tribe policing the reservation.