BROWNING — Just over a year ago, then three-year-old Arden Pepion disappeared while under the care of her uncle near Joe Show East Road off of US Highway 89.
Last April, Arden was reported missing after spending time with her uncle, HaHaax Vielle, near the Two Medicine area. Arden’s uncle and his girlfriend were reportedly practicing shooting when they noticed Arden was nowhere to be found and discovered footprints that led to the river.
“She loved the music. She loved doing TikTok videos with her sisters. She was just a very, very outgoing girl. For a three-year-old, she was very smart,” said Arbana Pepion, Arden’s mother.
The Blackfeet Tribal Prosecutor’s Office noted that Arden was not reported missing until five hours after her disappearance.
On Facebook Live, Officer Frank Goings said BLES determined the circumstances did not meet the criteria for an AMBER alert. He also noted that the Montana Department of Justice issued a Missing and Endangered Person Advisory (MEPA).
The formal search for Arden Pepion lasted ten days, finding only footprints leading to the river and a boot believed to be hers. The search has since been scaled back, but people continue to volunteer to search for Arden as the family is left without answers over a year later.
Dianna Burd, a family friend, stated, “We actually had to seek out help from somebody else. We actually had to hire an investigator out of California. He’s been up here a couple times already, just to find something.”
Both Arden’s uncle and his girlfriend were charged in connection with her disappearance in June 2021. Vielle was charged with negligent endangerment and child endangerment while Kimberly Higgins, Vielle’s girlfriend, was charged with accountability for failing to notify within a reasonable timeframe.
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In October 2021, Vielle pleaded guilty to the negligent endangerment charge. He was sentenced to 9 months of house arrest and fined $500. A plea agreement was reach and Vielle was sentenced to 9 months of house arrest and fined $500. The charge against Higgins was dropped.
As the one-year mark for Arden’s disappearance came and went, her family members and the rest of the community are still on the lookout as they try to bring peace to a horrific situation.
Numerous volunteer organizations and agencies have helped this year in the search for Arden and continue to ask people to help.
The Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) crisis is one that has troubled reservations all over the country for decades. Awareness for MMIP has increased over the last few years, but cases still go unreported or are misclassified due to lack of information or late reporting.
That’s where the BIA comes in. The Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services investigates missing and murdered cases in search of justice for those affected by violence.
As indigenous communities continue to struggle with high rates of assault, abduction, and murder, with Native Americans being four times as likely to go missing in the state of Montana, the need for investigative resources is as important as ever.
Statistics show that around 4,200 missing and murdered cases have gone unsolved nationwide, with over half of those being cases of Murder and Nonnegligent Homicide Offenses.
These cases often remain unsolved due to a lack of investigative resources available, making it difficult to confirm new information from witnesses, re-examine new or retained evidence, or review fresh activities of suspects.
The Not Invisible Act of 2020 was created to address this crisis. The Act brings together law enforcement, tribal authorities, and federal partners to study previous and current cases and consider solutions to the MMIP crisis.
Specifically, the Act appoints the BIA to coordinate prevention efforts and programs related to missing and murdered Native Americans. It also creates a new position within the Department of Interior dealing specifically with murder, trafficking, and missing Native Americans. In May 2021, the MMIP website was expanded to include Montana in hopes that crimes would be reported in a timely manner and the information added to the database would help create a solution to the MMIP crisis nationwide. Governor Greg Gianforte also recently established May 5 as MMIP Awareness Day in Montana to encourage collective action to end the MMIP crisis.