DULUTH – As the snow fell, a half-dozen people gathered at a downtown plaza here Sunday in fluorescent vests, armed with fliers of American Indians who had gone missing.
A memorial march for those lost was scheduled in four days, but Taysha Martineau felt called to do more.
“I no longer want to sit there and talk about [the problem] … I don’t want to go to these marches anymore if I’m not out there, boots on the ground, doing something about it,” said Martineau, a resident of the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation.
The Legislature is considering a task force to address the epidemic of missing and killed indigenous women months after the Urban Indian Health Institute ranked Minnesota ninth in the nation for such cases. The finding was part of a study that highlighted the poor data collection by government agencies on the issue. As lawmakers examine how to better track the problem, Martineau and several dozen private citizens in the Duluth area started the Gitchigumi Scouts last month to try to find missing people and keep their cases in the public eye.
They gather every Sunday to walk the Twin Ports, hand out fliers and question people at bus stops, bars and hubs for the homeless. Named after the Ojibwe word for Lake Superior, the group wants to establish a presence in the community and send a signal that people with information about some of the missing can confide in them, even if they don’t feel comfortable speaking with the police.
The institute’s report noted that the 506 cases identified nationally in the report are likely an undercount due to inadequate data kept by cities. The problem drew national attention in 2017 after the murder of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who was eight months pregnant when she was killed by a neighbor in Fargo who took her baby. Former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, introduced Savanna’s Act to improve data on missing and murdered indigenous people.
“Why isn’t Minnesota doing this?” Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, D-New Brighton, recalled thinking at the time. “And I reminded myself that I was a state legislator and I could do this.”
Murder is the third leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaskan Native women. Last year Kunesh-Podein introduced legislation to start a task force on missing and murdered Indian women, noting that there was no state or national system to track the data, but the measure didn’t pass.
After the hearing last year, “the Republicans as well as the Democrats were horrified,” said Kunesh-Podein, daughter of a Standing Rock Sioux tribal member. “People said, ‘How is this happening? Why is this happening? How many is this happening to?’ ”
Last month, the Legislature held a hearing on the issue after she again introduced a bill, and Kunesh-Podein is optimistic about its chances. Several advocates testified in a packed hearing room at the Capitol, including Red Lake Nation member Mysti Babineau, who spoke about being raped and kidnapped.
In the meantime, the Gitchigumi Scouts believe there’s a place for private citizens to take up the issue. They’re receiving guidance from the Sahnish Scouts of North Dakota, a Fargo-based citizen group that has been active in searching for missing and murdered people across the Great Plains. Founder Lissa Yellowbird-Chase visited Duluth this week to offer training.
“You’ve got to get out and start beating the pavement yourself — nobody else is going to do this for you,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s law enforcement’s full responsibility; it’s a community issue.”
At a talking circle on addiction in the Fond du Lac tribal building Sunday afternoon, John Diver acknowledged that people with substance abuse problems are more likely to fall victim to predators. One of the women gathered had an addicted cousin go missing; another woman started to talk about how she’d almost gone missing — she had met a guy — but was reluctant to say more.
“It all starts with targeting the addicted ones, the homeless ones, the easy prey,” said Diver, who sometimes joins the scouts on their missions and leads the gathering where people eat Indian tacos and pass around sage.
Recently, the Gitchigumi Scouts have been trying to drum up leads on the case of Sheila St. Clair, a 48-year-old Duluth resident who was last seen in the city in 2015 and never followed up on her stated plans to visit the White Earth Indian Reservation.
A spokesperson for the Duluth Police Department said that officers follow up on every lead that comes in, but “as more time goes on those leads get fewer and far between.” The department said that St. Clair is the only missing indigenous women who is unaccounted for in its database.
Advocates also acknowledge the importance of looking for missing men, and the scouts hand out fliers with not just St. Clair’s photo but also that of Michial David Annamitta Jr., who went missing in 2013.
Those outside the Indian community have taken an interest in the cause, including Carol Thicke, who said, “You can’t just be of settler descent and not care about this.”
With participation dwindling in Sunday’s frigid weather, one volunteer followed several scout members in her warm car, ready with a respite from the elements. Reservation residents Toni Branley and Jason Goward walked to a transit station, handing out fliers and asking questions. A woman at a downtown transit station, Christine Ross, said she knew St. Clair socially and had seen her with a boyfriend at the casino shortly before she went missing.
“I think it’s a very good thing,” said Ross of the scouts’ efforts, “because a lot of people forget things sometimes.”
Another regular stop for the scouts was the Union Gospel Mission, which serves meals to the needy; St. Clair used to come here.
“It’s a serious problem,” said the mission’s executive director Susan Jordahl-Bubacz. “It is a very horrendous thing that is happening.”
Martineau thinks it’s important to keep asking, keep showing up. Bad people don’t take time off, she noted, and neither should she.
“I have three daughters … I wake up every day and I ask myself which one?” she said. “Which one is going to be assaulted? Which one could possibly go missing?”