HELENA — A new program called The Snowbird Fund is now available to help the families in Native American communities search for their missing loved ones.
Created by Whitney Williams with the Montana Community Foundation (MCF), the fund is designed to quickly provide money to families who have had a loved one recently gone missing.
“There is a really important role that frankly is not being met by government at the moment,” said Williams. “What we find is that Indian girls and women are the ones who are predominantly going missing, are not looked for as quickly as if they were white. What that’s led to is family members saying well, we’re going to go do this ourselves.”
Snowbird Fund grants can be used for a wide variety of needs such as gas money, meals, and hotel stays as they search across the state. Money can also go to cell phone payments, searching tools like metal detectors and drones, conducting a targeted awareness campaign, or hosting a community vigil.
“This fund is designed to be one that families can easily access to use to search for their loved ones,” said MCF President and CEO Mary Rutherford. “Anyone that is missing a loved one can go directly to our website, tell us and we’re going to make it really easy for them to get those funds.”
Williams and MCF recognize these grants won’t come anywhere close to solving the societal and political issues for missing and murdered indigenous people (MMIP), but hope it is a step in the right direction to helping those families.
Native Americans represent around 6.7 percent of the population of Montana but account for 26 percent of missing persons cases. The first 48 hours play a huge role in the odds of successfully finding someone alive once they’re reported missing.
Snowbird Fund grant reviewer and MMIP documentarian Ivan MacDonald says that Indian families are often not taken seriously when they initially report a family member as missing.
“To be honest a lot of the families I’ve worked with have said they were trying to file a missing persons report and [law enforcement] will say ‘oh, well you know she’s probably out partying. Come back in a day or two,’” said MacDonald. “It’s incredibly important and timely in a lot of these missing persons cases where time is of the essence.”
MacDonald knows the struggle of MMIP families all too well. On December 17, 1979, his cousin Monica Still Smoking, who was only eight years old at the time, went missing from Napi Elementary School in Browning. A week later after desperate searching from the family, his uncle Kenny Still Smoking found her body frozen in the snow near Glacier National Park. The family says the FBI only investigated for about three weeks and no one has been charged for her death.
In 2017 another of McDonald’s cousins went missing, Ashley Loring Heavy Runner. According to documents from the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, it would be two months after the family reported her missing before the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) -- who were responsible for investigating crime -- would open a case into her disappearance. The family still doesn’t have answers as to what happened to her.
“From organizations I work with that directly try to address the crisis, there's maybe only one other that tries to do immediate funding… I think that Snowbird is in this kind of incredible space for that immediate funding to families. If they know someone is missing they can reach out,” said MacDonald.
Williams was inspired to create the Snowbird fund while on the campaign trail to try to become the democratic nominee for governor. Although she lost her primary, she realized this was one way should could still help better Montana.
“I spent a lot of time talking with friends and neighbors in Indian Country about some of the needs and some of the opportunities,” said Williams.
While campaigning, Williams was contacted by Grace Bulltail, whose 18-year-old niece Kaysera Stops Pretty Places was found dead in the backyard of a Hardin home in August 2019.
“Grace, as any auntie would do, immediately went to law enforcement, tried to get people to help her. What she realized is that she needed to turn to family and friends to start the search because she wasn’t getting the support she needed from the systems that frankly should have supported her,” said Williams.
Williams said she heard the same story over and over from other families across the state.
“What I discovered is that these family members were going to great personal expense at an incredibly trying and difficult time for them and their family to do these searches,” explained Williams.
While the Snowbird Fund was established thanks to a $50,000 investment from Williams, she hopes it will be recognized as a community need.
“With winter weather you never see one car at the side of the road in Montana, you always see two because a neighbor stops,” Williams said. “You find neighbors helping neighbors in Montana and our hope with this fund is that Montanans will also see this need and chip in.”
More information about the Snowbird fund and how to support their mission of helping MMIP families can be found here.