Snowbird Fund Marks First Anniversary by Doubling Grants for Searches for Missing Indigenous People in Montana

February 11, 2022

Snowbird Fund Marks First Anniversary by Doubling Grants for Searches for Missing Indigenous People in Montana

Marking its one-year anniversary, the Snowbird Fund announced that it’s doubling the amount available per grant to help families and friends searching for missing Indigenous people in Montana.

Just a year ago in February, the Snowbird Fund was created at the Montana Community Foundation, Inc. (MCF) to support community searches for missing Indigenous persons.

The Snowbird Fund directly supports Native families in Montana by providing immediate financial assistance to families or individuals leading the search for their missing loved ones in urban and reservation areas.

Direct payments of up to $1,000 (previously capped at $500) are made to individuals to offset the considerable expenses families and friends incur while searching, at their own expense, for their loved one. Assistance may be used to cover expenses such as:

  • Gas money, meals, and hotel stays as they search across the state
  • Cell phone payments
  • Tools like metal detectors and drones
  • Conducting a targeted awareness campaign
  • Hosting a community vigil

Individuals actively leading a community search for a missing loved one are eligible to apply online here.

Requests for assistance are reviewed by a Native-led grants committee. Requests for more than $1,000 are accepted and approved on a case-by-case basis. A decision is made by the fund committee and payment for approved requests is made within two weeks.

“The Snowbird Fund opened a year ago as a resource for families during a very desperate time,” says Mary Rutherford, MCF president and chief executive officer. “A year later, that is still the intent of the fund. We want it to serve as a valuable resource for families and relieve some of the financial burden that comes from conducting these searches.”

Besides doubling its grant amount, the Snowbird Fund is identifying ways it can increase the impact of the fund and awareness of search grants, especially as costs for food, lodging, and gas increase.

“There’s a need for more community outreach about the fund, especially in tribal communities,” said Snowbird Fund Member Ivan MacDonald of the Blackfeet Tribe. “We’re identifying more ways to connect with individuals, agencies, and organizations working directly with those who are conducting these searches so we can better provide this resource to those who need it.”

In its first year, The Snowbird Fund disbursed 11 grants totaling $6,000 with:

  • 12.5 percent for family support during searches
  • 12.5 percent for memorial services
  • 12.5 percent for family unification
  • 25 percent for travel and lodging
  • 37.5 percent for search and rescue efforts

The grants were awarded in these geographic areas:

  • Polson 1
  • Browning 5
  • Dutton 1
  • Box Elder 1
  • Hardin 1
  • Lame Deer 2

The Snowbird Fund is a response to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) epidemic, which has been a problem for decades and continues to spread across Native communities, including those in Montana.

Each year, Indigenous women and girls go missing in Montana, often never to be found. Native Americans constitute about 6.5 percent of the state population but account for 27 percent of Montana’s missing persons cases.

One of the most tangible and effective ways to support Native communities in Montana and families searching for their missing loved ones is by providing direct support of the community searches they themselves are conducting.

Requests for assistance from the fund are reviewed by the Snowbird Fund committee, consisting of Anna Whiting-Sorrell and Marilyn Zimmerman, in addition to MacDonald.

The Snowbird Fund was established at the Montana Community Foundation by Montana businesswoman Whitney Williams. Williams opened the fund, the first of its kind, after hearing from, among others, a Crow tribal member, Grace Bulltail, whose 18-year-old niece was found murdered in Big Horn County in August 2019.

Kaysera Stops Pretty Places was reported missing on August 27, 2019. Her body was found two days later by a passerby in the backyard of a Hardin, Montana home. Bulltail and family members felt law enforcement wasn’t doing enough to investigate the case, which was deemed “suspicious” by authorities. Stops Pretty Places’ family’s advocacy helped to ultimately build support for a march for missing persons and a local task force to investigate such cases.

“I would like to speak to Whitney about her plans for addressing the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women in Montana,” Bulltail, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, wrote to Williams when she was running for Montana governor in 2020. “My niece Kaysera Stops Pretty Places just turned 18 and was about to start her senior year of high school when she was murdered in Big Horn County in August. Every level of the justice system in Montana has been dismissive of my family in our attempts to seek justice for Kaysera. Whitney, if you want my family's vote as well as other MMIW families in Montana, we need you to have serious plans that will dedicate resources to helping our families.”

Whitney spoke to Grace and others who had lost family members in an effort to better understand the priorities and needs of these families and hear from those organizing grassroots efforts to search for their loved ones. Though Whitney did not win the primary race for Governor, she remained committed to helping as a private citizen. She reached out to the Montana Community Foundation for help in launching the fund to directly give resources to families.

“There are so many families still searching for answers, and, unfortunately, many families who will face this difficult situation this year,” says Williams. “The Snowbird Fund remains committed to providing support to these families as they search for their missing loved ones.

“Looking forward,” continues Williams, “We also remain focused on ensuring that families know about this available funding and can access help when they need it.”

Williams has long been involved in Indian Country. She helped to establish the first Native language program at the University of Montana, where she received a minor in Native American Studies. Marvin Weatherwax Sr. of Browning, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, was an instructor at the University of Montana and said he gave Williams the name Snowbird “Issstotsistakii” (the name of the fund) because snowbirds (Juncos) are resilient and smart birds that don’t leave Montana in the winter.

The Montana Community Foundation is a statewide community foundation dedicated to cultivating a culture of giving so Montana communities can flourish.

For questions about the fund, please contact MCF Grantmaking Officer, Elisa Fiaschetti, at (406) 443-8313 or