• Montana Press

Perma Red: The True Story of Missing Indigenous Women of Montana

"Perma Red,” a novel by Debra Magpie Earling, is more than a book and a future television series. The story addresses the ongoing issue of the disappearance and murder of Indigenous women happening not only in Montana but all over the U.S. and Canada.

Published by BlueHen in 2002, the book was recently voted Montana’s best-loved novel in 2018 in the PBS Great Montana Read project by voters across the state and a panel of 31 literary experts. In the last year, Montana director Maya Dittloff has also been highlighting the narrative of the book in a film series.


Maya Dittloff (far right) and Debra Earling (far left) along with cast members of the new series “Perma Red.” 

A Nation-wide Problem


According to Smithsonian, in 2016, 5,712 American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls were reported missing, which is likely the tip of the iceberg, since only 116 were officially recorded in the U.S. Department of Justice’s missing persons database.


While the problem has no working solution, elected officials are finally making attempts to address the issue and pass legislation to create task forces to investigate both cold cases and ongoing events.

U.S. Senator Jon Tester co-signed on a bill to address the missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic, “Savanna’s Act,” which unanimously passed the Senate in December 2018. Savanna’s Act directs the Attorney General to review, revise, and develop law enforcement and justice protocols appropriate to address missing and murdered American Indians. It awaits presentation and voting in the House of Representatives before moving forward to the President’s desk.


According to the Great Falls Tribune, members of the Indian Caucus had hoped that a bill introduced in the Montana Legislature, “Hanna’s Act,” or U.S. Senate Bill 21, would take the first step toward making sure “missing Native women do not fall through the cracks of our legal system.”


The bill would give permission to the Montana Department of Justice to hire a missing-persons specialist to work with state, local, federal and tribal law enforcement on missing persons cases. The legislation cleared the State House with a unanimous vote and, after overcoming many legislative hurdles, was signed into law on May 3, 2019.


“The epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women has devastated too many families and split apart too many communities,” Rep. Rae Peppers (D) of Lame Deer told the Helena Independent Record. “We cannot continue to put the lives of Native women on the back burner. Montana law enforcement needs better tools to seek justice for Native women and children.”

Numerous marches across the US have been organized to try to bring attention to the disappearance of Indigenous women. Third annual marches took place in Montana in January of this year in Missoula and Kalispell. According to Montana Public Radio, last year’s event drew a crowd of over 500.


The problem of missing Indigenous women will remain an issue in American Indian communities across the country and will continue to be a problem addressed by communities across Montana.


Bringing the Issue to the Screen


Published in 2002, the book “Perma Red” brought awareness about an ongoing problem in Native communities over 15 years ago. Inspired by true events in Montana, author Debra Magpie Earling bases the main character on her aunt, a woman who inspired her community even years after her death.


“Montana is a huge part of the story,” says Earling. “We have a motto here about displacement and approachment. It is a story of the West and the story of my great-grandfather and his beloved homeland placed on a reservation. I hope that I can change the stories of the Indigenous women. I see so much of that in Montana. There is a high suicide rate in the state. Montana has a sweeping vastness, a tendency for loneliness and depression. My goal was to bring the story home and put it to rest.”


The book will now be the basis of upcoming TV series to be released in 2019. The plot of the story is set in Mission Valley in the 1940s, following the life of the strong-minded heroine, Louise White Elk.

Louise is a young Séliš woman who has challenges. She is admired by boys and men who race her. She dives in the dangerous waters of the Flathead River, saves her sisters from Bureau of Indian Affairs officials, and lives as a free spirit in a world that denies freedom to American Indians.


Earling says she is surprised the book has been getting the renewed attention. The author is Bitterroot Salish and a member of the Confederated Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai tribes of the Flathead Reservation. She served as the first tribal court advocate/public defender in the Flathead Nation judicial system.


“When I look back, it looks like a bigger story than what I could have imagined,” she explains. “The story is about Louise’s rebellion in a different time. She didn’t have much of a choice, I don’t feel. There is a lot of brutality in the reservation. It is not just in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s; even now women are gone missing and murdered on reservations. If we are to be honest and find the root causes, there is sex trafficking, grief and violence within the community. There needs to be better training for tribal police officers and non-tribal police officers.”

Earling says she experienced abuse, death and violence herself.


“I am too familiar with the violence in the community,” she says. “I was married to a man who was an alcoholic and who took his own life when he was 26 years old. He was abusive and had a lot of problems. In my own family, my great-grandmother and my aunt were murdered. My aunt was murdered by her husband when she was 19. My own brother was also murdered.”


Earling explains that her aunt Louise’s memory was pervasive in the community. When she was writing about Louise, many people, both men and women, had memories of her twenty to thirty years after she was gone.


“The memories were astonishing,” Earling states. “From the color of her hair to the sunlight on her skin. She had a lot of lovers and people who were attracted to her. She would walk into a room and she had that something, her personality was shining. That’s why they chased her, the men were jealous of her and let her die.”


Addressing Injustice


“There is so much injustice in her life,” says Earling of her heroine. “The title of the book not only represents Louise’s bright red hair but the color of blood and her birthplace, Perma.”


Maya Dittloff is the director of the film series based on the book. She is also a Native American woman, an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota and a Blackfeet and Chippewa descendent. This will be her directorial debut.

Dittloff says she wants this to be her first film because it showcases an issue she holds dear to her heart as an Indigenous woman growing up in Montana.


“I am trying to build support for the people of color in Montana and lift the community that is Native American,” she says. “I think the characters and the vision is what will shine in the story.”


Dittloff has been involved with the “Perma Red” series project for nearly a year.


“I wanted to focus on the strength of the Native women,” she stresses. “There is so much denied... and poverty, alcohol and abuse. I wanted to make the film a warm celebration of Native women despite these circumstances.”

Director Maya Dittloff

Dittloff was born in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana. Despite the hardships she says she faced in her upbringing, she says always knew what she wanted to do: be part of the film industry.


“I had my sister, my books and my small TV as we drove from place to place. Between television, movies and books I developed an obsession with story and narrative,” she explains. “Movies became this very sacred place for me to explore the hardships that represented my life. I was young when my aunt was murdered in Montana. That tragedy is stuck in my life and the story became a refuge.”  


Dittloff is also one of the main writers on the series. She is working closely with Earling who is an advisor on the series. Author Earling says she is not only excited “to let the book go” and grow in its own film series but also to have Dittloff be such an important part of it.


“She had that certain something,” Earling says. “What we love is her desire to serve other people and to work with the crew and be part of something bigger than herself. We selected some young people from my tribe who will play the major roles. It seems like the book is picking up voices of women who suffered for so long. Now, we need to change that. We don’t need abuse, violence and murder anymore.”


The film will follow the story line of the book but it will expand to its own project and something much bigger, says Ditloff.


The cast and crew of the “Perma Red” project continues to seek funding to produce the series and Dittloff says they are all beyond grateful for the support they have gotten so far.

“It is of incredible importance that we stay true to the race of each person in the book,” Dittloff explains. “We are still in the process of casting as we are still waiting on the green light from investors. We have been mapping out Season One and the pilot. We are a talented group of Montana filmmakers. We want this story to speak on a wider scale. Back in September, we launched a very successful crowd campaign and it keeps us in the road to development. It is collaborative effort and a community.”


Cast members of the "Perma Red" film series appear in period costume.

The “Perma Red” project signifies the beginning of an open and honest dialogue related to the disappearance and injustice of the Indigenous women in the US and Canada. It is one of the first steps towards finding possible solutions for domestic violence, abuse, murder, kidnapping and human trafficking.


As Indigenous woman, Erling and Dittloff continue to bring attention to fellow Indigenous women who have long suffered injustices.


The TV series is to be shot and released in 2019. For more information on the “Perma Red” Series, visit: www.permaredfilm.com.

—Nikoleta Morales

Credit for photography: Perma Red LLC