Minnesota's Native women legislators are spearheading the creation of a new state office to bring the largely hidden epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to the forefront.

They're behind legislation to establish a Minnesota office of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives, which would pull in data from state and federal sources on missing person cases and unsolved murders of Native American women and men. Unlike other races, Native missing person cases aren't tracked in any comprehensive way.

Thousands of red dresses were displayed across the Minnesota Capitol lawn Wednesday for a national awareness day, representing Native relatives who have been lost.

"It's powerful to look across this lawn and see the visual representation of an issue that, for far too long, has been invisible," said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. "Every Native woman I know is related to at least one person that has been affected by this issue. This violence can no longer be swept under the rug."

The office would also provide assistance to law enforcement during active missing person cases and conduct reviews of cases that have been — in some cases — cold for decades. It would link up with a new federal cold-case unit established by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to lead a U.S. Cabinet agency.

"This is still happening in our communities," said Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, a Standing Rock Lakota descendant who is sponsoring the Senate bill. She pointed to a February sex-trafficking sting in Itasca County that included two workers on the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline project.

"There are direct correlations between sex trafficking and the extracting industries, drugs and alcohol and homelessness. All of those things contribute to the vulnerability to the Native population, especially our women," Kunesh said.

The office was one of 20 recommendations delivered to the Legislature in December from a task force that spent two years digging into why Indigenous women are victimized at such staggering rates.

Native women and girls make up just 1% of the state's population, yet accounted for 8% of all murdered women and girls in Minnesota from 2010 through 2018. The task force report found between 27 and 54 Native women and girls in Minnesota were missing in any given month from 2012 to 2020.

Even those numbers are considered low given how often Native women go missing and are never reported. And murdered Native women have historically had their race misclassified by law enforcement and coroners, said Nicole MartinRogers, a White Earth Ojibwe descendant and senior research manager for Wilder Research.

To get a more comprehensive look, MartinRogers said data need to be pulled into one dashboard from numerous state and federal agencies. Domestic violence and sex-trafficking cases need to be examined, as well as records from the child welfare system.

"One of the most important mandates was to get all these data into one dashboard," said MartinRogers, who pulled the work of the task force together into the final report. "Then we can look at what happens when we push one of these levers. Does that affect it and how does it affect it? Improving the way the data is tracked is really important."

The office could also serve as a bridge for complex jurisdictional issues among the state's 11 tribal nations, cities, counties and the state. Native missing person cases often fall through the cracks because of confusion over who is responsible for investigating the crime.

"If our Indigenous relatives go missing, we don't want to prolong an active search for them based on a search for information and miscommunication," said freshman Rep. Heather Keeler, DFL-Moorhead, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe who is carrying the House bill to create the office.

Keeler never thought about running for office until Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old pregnant Native woman, went missing from her apartment in Fargo in 2017.

LaFontaine-Greywind was found dead in the Red River, murdered by a neighbor who wanted to kidnap her baby. Only then did the story become national news.

"We are designed [by systems] to be disposable, so that's why our data doesn't matter," Keeler said. "In that moment I decided I needed to step up."

But while there was broad bipartisan support to create the task force, the proposal to create the state office has struggled to gain traction in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The legislation was not included in the Senate's public safety and judicial budget bill, although the House public safety proposal included $500,000 for the office each year. The two chambers are trying to negotiate the differences between their proposals before the Legislature is required to adjourn on May 17.

"Without that follow-up it's kind of a slap in the face, really," said Sheila Lamb, an Ojibwe leader and Cloquet city councilor who served on the task force.

"You have to understand the message that you will send to the Indigenous population," said Lamb. "You give the appearance that we were given the task force as a way to placate us or give us lip service without the needed follow-through."

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042

Twitter: @bbierschbach