ST. PAUL — A group of tribal, health, advocacy and law enforcement leaders are set to study why so many indigenous women are murdered or go missing.
An omnibus public safety bill presented to Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday, May 28, would set aside $150,000 over the next two years to create a task force on missing and murdered indigenous women. The task force will study systemic causes behind the disproportionately large amount of violence indigenous women and girls face, appropriate ways to track and collect data about that violence, plus ways to address and reduce it, among other measures.
It’s required to convene no later than Oct. 1 of this year and submit its findings to legislators by Dec. 15, 2020.
Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, pushed for the task force this legislative session and the last. She said she expects that it will discover a lack of consistent data collection, plus distrust within the indigenous women’s community.
“They have reached out for help or reported situations and nobody seems to take them very seriously or in a timely manner,” said Kunesh-Podein, who identifies as American Indian and whose family is from Standing Rock in North Dakota. “It’s a lot of things that the indigenous community already knows, but unfortunately the greater population doesn’t understand this yet.”
Kunesh-Podein said she hopes the task force results in some type of public acknowledgement of the trauma indigenous communities have endured and greater collaboration and cultural sensitivity among law enforcement agencies.
“There needs to be a willingness to really listen to the community when they say there is a problem or an issue,” said Kunesh-Podein.
The Urban Indian Health Institute noted 5,702 cases where an indigenous woman or girl was killed or disappeared in 2016. Minnesota, according to the institute, has the ninth-most missing and murdered indigenous women and girls cases, and that study only looked at larger population centers, such as the Twin Cities and Duluth. One in three American Indian women reports having been sexually assaulted in her lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Demonstrators and activists nationwide regularly highlight that violence: the annual Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Peoples March convened on Valentines Day in a host of North American cities.
The task force and whatever reforms it suggests would only be a first step, according to Mysti Babineau, a Red Lake Nation member who testified in favor of the bill earlier this year. She told lawmakers she was raped for the first time at age 9, watched her grandmother’s murder at 12, and escaped a kidnapping at 20.
“I will be paying attention to what comes out of this task force,” Babineau told the Pioneer. “I will be there to read the report, and I will be holding people accountable.”
Babineau said law enforcement -- which she characterized as either “inept” or “looking the other way” -- and energy companies are among those that should be held accountable. The “man camps” that pop up around energy infrastructure have a reputation for sexual violence, at least in American Indian circles.
“They need to admit that there’s a problem,” Babineau said.
Babineau said she’d like to see training for law enforcement agencies and better protocols for missing persons reports, plus lower prices for victim services, such as therapy or counseling.
She said she’d also like to see media outlets pay as much attention to missing indigenous people as they do for missing white people.
“When there is media saturation, when there are photos of these people everywhere, people recognize them, and they’re more likely to be found,” Babineau said, referring to the kidnapping of Jayme Closs, a white Wisconsin teenager who strangers immediately recognized after she escaped her captor. “And that’s not happening in our communities.”
The deadline for Minnesota’s governor to sign a bill into law is three days after legislators present it to him, which means Walz has until Friday, May 31, to codify the public safety bill.