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3-year-old Indigenous girl still missing 4 months later as community continues search

The 3-year-old's family and community are still looking for answers and justice after she went missing on April 22.
/ Source: TODAY

A 3-year-old girl's unsolved disappearance is highlighting the lack of resources available to Indigenous communities, where women and girls often go missing or are killed and never get any justice.

Arden Pepion went missing from a remote area on Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana in late April and still hasn't been found. The man babysitting Arden at the time claimed she disappeared while he was practicing shooting his gun near a river. He has been charged with negligent endangerment and child neglect. He has pleaded not guilty and is out on bond.

Police believe the little girl went into the water, Arden's father, Aaron Pepion told NBC News' Morgan Radford. Since the disappearance, only her coat and boot have surfaced, he said. After a formal search lasting 10 days finished without finding Arden, the community took matters into its own hands and formed its own search party, still ongoing.

“We’re all parents so Arden is like our little girl,” one of the search volunteers told Radford. “As a community, we all come together.”

Aaron Pepion is hoping that one way or another, his daughter turns up and they are able to find her.

Tawna Bradford, another search volunteer, added: “We have no other resources. We have no other help. Just each other. And that's what we use.”

The searchers told Radford that it is “very common” to know someone personally who's gone missing.

“As Native Americans, we're forgotten,” Bradford said. “They don't follow up with our issues. They don't follow up with our missing. If you're murdered here, missing, they do their search of whatever they need to do, and that's it. That's the end of it.”

Blackfeet tribal law enforcement and tribal council have not responded to TODAY's repeated requests for comment.

In 2020, Native Americans made up 10% of active missing cases, though they only make up 1.3% of the population, NBC News reported. On some reservations across the United States, Native American women are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average, according to the United States Department of Justice.

The federal government has recently taken steps to streamline searches for missing Indigenous women and girls through the first Missing and Murdered Unit (MMU) within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services. It was launched by Deb Haaland, the country’s first Native American secretary of the interior.

“Imagine if you lived in a small community, and 23 women turned up missing and nobody knew where they were,” Haaland said. “That would be devastating. I mean, even in a large city like Washington, D.C., if that happened, everybody would be beside themselves. And this has been happening in Indian country for centuries, and it's never gotten the attention, the funding, the care that it’s needed.”

Pepion said he believes his daughter’s disappearance would have received more support from authorities had she not been Native American.

“It seems like they're just like, ‘Oh, just another native death,’” he told Radford. “It's another somebody missing or another, ‘Oh, well, they'll show up sometime. They just ran away.’ Since we're native, it's just like we're not here most of the time.”

Still, Pepion is hoping for justice and to be reunited with his daughter again.