GREAT FALLS — In Glacier County, the families of the missing and murdered are banding together for answers after the disappearance of two more people in recent weeks on the Blackfeet Reservation: 3-year-old Arden Pepion and 26-year-old Leo Wagner.
Community members and relatives of victims want to change a heartbreaking pattern they say has plagued the reservation for decades. Collectively, the crisis is referred to as Missing & Murdered Indigenous Persons.
Rhonda Grant-Connelly, the aunt of Matthew Grant, says a rise in substance abuse, police brutality, and crime added to the problem throughout the years: “A lot of families are affected by this. We have so many grandparents raising grandkids, children living in centers for years because they have no one stable enough to provide for them,” she said.
Connelly and others including Native fashion designer Belinda Bullshoe are calling on Blackfeet Tribal Council Leaders to step up and stop a problem that’s devastated Tribal communities around the state, the nation, and abroad.
“Drug dealers are not being arrested- we all know who they are and where they live- but why isn’t anything done?” she said. “This needs to change.”
She grieves for the lives taken too soon from families and tribes, including Grant's; Connelly says his case remains open through the FBI and unsolved to this day, though a newly-assigned agent is following up on several leads.
Grant, who was 21 years old, had just moved to Montana from Canada in 2016; he was found murdered on New Years' Eve, weeks after his disappearance. Before the devastating discovery, Connelly said initial hesitation and judgment came from the public when the family needed searchers; it took around a week for an official investigation into his whereabouts to begin.
“We couldn't get anybody. No one would get involved,” she said. “We couldn't even have the Sheriff's department come in; they said they had no jurisdiction.”
While the majority of the missing and murdered are female, she feels it's important for people to realize the MMIP crisis includes boys and men, like Matthew Grant and Leo Wagner. “They don't take it seriously when one of our men is missing. When poor baby Arden went missing, the next day they had several people combing the area, then several more communities joined in the search looking for her less than a week after that,” she said. “When Leo went missing, I witnessed his sister begging for someone, it took 4-5 days before anybody would come in and help her.”
But Connelly is grateful agencies are finally working together on these cases. "It seems Matthew (Grant) and Ashley (Loring Heavyrunner) did make a big difference because things changed since then,” she said. “We noticed all the people that were involved from all these communities (in recent searches) so it's sad and it's heartbreaking. I wish we could have seen that when our Matthew was missing."
Connelly, Bullshoe, and several others will be putting pictures of other missing and murdered residents on display before Friday’s community vigil for 3-year-old Arden Pepion. The portraits are meant to keep the memories of victims and the need for justice alive.
Monana governor Greg Gianforte, during a bill-signing event last month, highlighted several facts about the MMIP epidemic. In Montana, Native Americans make up about 7 percent of the population, but they account for about 26 percent of missing persons. Between 2017 and 2019, nearly 80 percent of those reported missing were teenagers younger than 18 years of age. Native American women face a murder rate 10 times higher than the national average, and 84 percent experience some form of violence in their lifetime.