A University of Montana student is turning her skills at forensic science into a process that could be a tremendous help to tribal families dealing with tragedy and loss.

It may be one of the greatest tools yet developed to deal with the terrible problem of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons, or MMIP in Montana.

While the goal of developing the new DNA database isn't to deal with criminal investigations, it could help families find closure whenever Native American remains are recovered.

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Tribal heritage and knowledge are a powerful combination

Haley Omeassoo is a registered member of the Hopi Nation, and also a Blackfeet decedent who grew up on the reservation on the Rocky Mountain Front. And it was a poster that gave her purpose.

That poster was for the disappearance of her former high school classmate, 20-year-old Ashley Loving HeavyRunner, who is still missing 7-years later.

Ashley Loring Heavyrunner
Federal Bureau of Investigation

Omeasoo decided to use her skills in forensics to help tribal families impacted by MMIP and search for answers to use a DNA database to analyze remains and return them to their families and tribal groups.

Omeasoo, is a Ph.D. student at U.M. studying forensics and molecular anthropology, is working to create the first-ever DNA database for the Blackfeet Tribe. And she hopes that could eventually lead to a lab in Browning. She and her husband have already set up a company, Ohkomi Forensics, based on the Blackfeet word meaning to "use one's voice."

Ryan Brennecke/ University of MT
Ryan Brennecke/ University of MT

A crisis in Montana

The State of Montana has estimated tribal members account for 7% of the state's population, but a quarter of all missing person cases. That's amplified by rural locations, limited law enforcement resources as well as poverty, and domestic and substance abuse.

"As Indigenous people, we are all impacted by this issue in one way or another,” Omeasoo said. “Because this issue doesn’t get as much media attention as it should, and our people do not have the resources and support to combat this issue, it’s time we started to find ways to provide those resources to our home communities.”

READ MORE: U.S. Attorney General Discusses MMIP issue with Crow Tribe

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