DULUTH -- Minnesota ranks No. 9 in the top 10 states with the highest cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, and that number’s growing, said Rene Ann Goodrich of Duluth.
She’s the founder of the Native Lives Matter Coalition, the organization behind Friday’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Memorial March.
The fifth-annual event honors families affected by and victims lost to the epidemic of violence against women. Simultaneous events took place in the Twin Cities, Bemidji and Fargo, North Dakota.
There’s a nationwide data crisis regarding murdered and missing indigenous women, girls and two-spirited relatives, according to Goodrich and the Urban and Indian Health Institute.
So far, data shows four out of five indigenous women are affected by violence today. There were 5,712 cases of missing or murdered indigenous women and girls reported in 2016.
Minnesota has 20 cases; a figure ahead of 18 in Oklahoma and below 78 in New Mexico. But we know the numbers are a lot higher because we work directly with families, Goodrich said. There are 11 Minnesota tribes contributing to the baseline figure, and she anticipates a more accurate total next year, adding: “Our missing and murdered indigenous women are more than a number.”
The MMIW march is inspired by Canada’s Women's Memorial March, held annually on Valentine’s Day. Goodrich founded Native Lives Coalition with the Black Lives Matter movement in the Twin Cities in 2014. Their work focuses on awareness, education, advocacy and support for families.
People across the nation have been out on the streets for decades doing this work, but they’re getting national attention.
The recent executive order for a national task force to address the MMIW epidemic demonstrates that policymakers are “hearing the cry," which Goodrich also attributes to the wave of indigenous women elected to office, like Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota Peggy Flanagan, and Congresswomen Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas.
This is a positive step that includes tribal involvement, she said, noting the presence of Fond du Lac Band councilmember Roger Smith, Fond du Lac Band chairman Kevin DuPuis and Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin during the signing of the executive order in November in Washington.
“It’s appropriate for tribal leaders to be sitting at that table,” Goodrich said.
Goodrich is a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault. She lost a daughter three years ago to violence. Families are on the front line of this epidemic, and the longer-term goal is to support them and help heal the trauma, she said.
At the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center, Gwiiwizens, or Ricky DeFoe, smudged staffs held by those who would lead the march. Among them was Shawn Carr, who talked of Sheila St. Clair, who went missing a mile from where he stood.
“Her family would like her back,” Carr said.
DeFoe took to the stage to give the invocation in Ojibwe. Afterward, DeFoe said: “The condition of women in a nation suggests the fate of the nation. Women are the nucleus of the family and we have an armed misogynist society.”
A theme of the event was society. Building relationships will help reduce those who are lost or abused. DeFoe took to a ceremonial pipe, blowing smoke in the four directions, then above, then below.
“Men, we’ve got to ask ourselves ‘What do we do?’ ... We don’t know what to say or what to do, but we know we have to be here,” he said.
"This has everything to do with men and changing our view," said Carl Crawford, Human Rights Officer for the City of Duluth.
A young girl handed out red ribbons, which people tied around their arms.
Korii Northrup of Cloquet performed a spoken-word poem entitled, “Painful Truth.”
“We’re still having a hard time trying to get through this,” said Lauren Matrious.
She spoke of her daughter, Pennie Robertson, who was found dead in May on the Fond du Lac reservation. “She left behind five babies,” said Matrious. To that, one of her grandsons started sobbing, and Goodrich and others surrounded him with care.
“We believe she was murdered,” said Summer Robertson afterward. “My oldest brother was the first that found her. Then, me.” Robertson said she hopes there can be more done within the first 24 hours a woman goes missing.
The programming ended with a large dancing circle, women wearing red shawls leading the way. Goodrich interrupted: “Everybody should be dancing. This is community, this is why you came out.” Soon, everyone but a couple were on their feet.
Some women started laughing, people chatted. Through a red-painted handprint on a woman’s face emerged a smile. “This is warming us up for the march,” Goodrich said.
Women, men and children marched through downtown Duluth, passersby stood, a car honked, some took video on their phones, as the group cloaked mostly in red made its way from the American Indian Community Housing Organization to the Building for Women.
In past years, the march led to the harbor, where people would place tobacco.
“We’re leaving an offering for our people who are lost, making sure we remember them, keeping them close to our heart,” said Northrup.
Among support for families, Northrup said solutions are advocacy and education for the community about warning signs, healthy relationships and conflict resolution.
Predators aren’t going to stop. “Having a strong community built on believing survivors, that’s the only way we’re going to change this.”
As a survivor herself, Northrup said working with MMIW efforts have helped in her reclamation of self and identity. “Accepting that this is a problem and an epidemic is the first step in order to change.”
More information, more support
- Natives Lives Matter Coalition: facebook.com/NativeLivesMatterNLMC/
- Mending the Sacred Hoop: https://mshoop.org
- Missing and Murdered Indigenous Task Force: dps.mn.gov/divisions/ojp/Pages/missing-and-murdered-indigenous-women-task-force.aspx
- Minnesota Indian Woman's Sexual Assault Coalition: niwrc.org/content/minnesota-indian-womens-sexual-assault-coalition
- PAVSA: pavsa.org
- Men as Peacemakers: menaspeacemakers.org
- American Indian Community Housing Organization: https://www.aicho.org/#/
By the numbers
Here’s a breakdown of the highest cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
New Mexico: 78
Seattle, Washington: 45
Albuquerque, New Mexico: 37
Anchorage, Alaska: 31
Tucson, Arizona: 31
Billings, Montana: 29
Gallup, New Mexico: 25
Tacoma, Washington: 25
Omaha, Nebraska: 24
Salt Lake City, Utah: 24
San Francisco, California: 17