Minnesota is consistently rated one of the happiest, healthiest, most economically vibrant states in the nation. For many of us, our state is a great place to live and I am proud to represent all of us in the Legislature.

But when it comes to our native communities, we’ve often fallen far short of our commitment to allow all Minnesotans to thrive.

This year, the Legislature took a big step to solve a really big problem.

By their early 30s, Minnesota’s indigenous women should be planning their future, buying a home or building a career; in fact, in many cases, they’ve instead been struggling to stay alive.

Violence against Native women is a serious problem in American Indian communities: More than half of Native women will experience violence in their lifetime, and murder is the third-leading cause of death for Native women from ages 10 to 24.

Consider JoJo Boswell, who called her sister, Dolly, on her way from Owatonna to Minneapolis in 2005. When 19-year-old JoJo didn’t arrive, Dolly called the police. But miscommunication between Owatonna and Minneapolis police departments meant that no one responded. Dolly never heard from JoJo again.

When Mysti Babineau was 9 years old, she was assaulted by her foster mother’s boyfriend. When she was 12, she witnessed her grandmother murdered, and then watched the attacker go after her mother before coming after her. When she was 20, she was taken 60 miles from her home and raped. She still has scars from defending herself.

More recently, Amber Christine Hopkins went missing on Jan. 14. She was 5 months pregnant when her body was found in the backyard of a vacant house, far from where she lived.

JoJo, Mysti and Amber are just three heartbreaking stories that Native communities know well, but that have barely made a ripple in the news because of a jurisdictional maze and a lack of resources that meant their stories were never investigated.

There is no official state or national system in place to collect data on Native women in Minnesota, who face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average. But on Sept. 19, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Task Force began charting a path toward actual data and analysis of the systemic causes of violence against Native women in Minnesota.

Members of the indigenous community, law enforcement, victims, legislators and the public have begun to come together to fight for our stolen sisters. Since I was elected, I made this task force a priority and authored the legislation creating it. Now, finally, we can begin to bring some clarity to families who have lost their loved ones, and bring credible recommendations to end this heartbreaking, historic trauma to our American Indian communities.

We continue to mourn the women we’ve lost, and we put our foot down to declare that Native women are not a disposable community. We have renewed hope that there will come a day when no one will have to wonder if their daughters, their sisters, their mothers and loved ones will come home after they walk out the door.

 

Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, is a member of the Minnesota House and a descendant of the Standing Rock Lakota.