BIG HORN COUNTY, MONTANA | The vanishing natives.

The killings and disappearances of Indigenous women has reached a boiling point in Big Horn County, a rural stretch of Montana land that boasts a sixty-five percent Native American population, from the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations.

It also has the highest rate of missing and murdered Native Americans in Montana, and is among the highest nationwide. Currently, there are twenty-eight underage girls missing from their tribal lands.

Activists say the crisis had been largely ignored for generations, until a few years ago, when families’ stories of their loved ones being sex trafficked, murdered, or dismissed as chronic runaways garnered attention through grassroots organizations and social media postings. 

Last year, 5,590 Indigenous women were reported missing to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. Activists say the staggeringly high rates of violence suffered by Indigenous people is still not fully reflected in official accounting. Some of the victims are misclassified as Asian or Hispanic, they are overlooked if they live in urban areas instead of on the reservations, or their cases are lost in a jurisdictional labyrinth to decide which state, federal, or tribal law enforcement agency holds the responsibility for investigating.

“Native women have been dehumanized from the very beginning,” Desi Lonebear told Yahoo News. Desi is demographer who grew up in Big Horn County and is on the board of the Sovereign Bodies Institute, which has created its own database of cases. “The law has failed us time and time again. We’re tired of it. We’re tired of our people dying.”

In recent months, a wave of federal and state agencies from across the country have been quick to respond with task forces and law-enforcement resources, including a new Justice Department effort to coordinate federal and local responses to the disappearances and murders of indigenous people.

Families say they have been sounding these alarms for years. They say this crisis stems from generations of discriminatory government policies and racism in reservation border towns, like Hardin, that devalue the Native women’s deaths.

Though tribe members are hopeful that public attention will lead to increased efforts to find their missing loved ones, thus far, not much progress has been made.

You can learn more at Montana’s Missing or Murdered Natives