One of the latest top 10 lists Minnesota made didn’t garner adequate headlines. That’s a shame, because the ranking highlighted a grim public safety reality that all too often falls through the cracks of law enforcement and media coverage — the number of missing and murdered American Indian women.
Minnesota is home to seven Anishinaabe reservations and four Dakota tribal communities. And while there are other states with far larger indigenous populations, Minnesota came in ninth in a recent innovative analysis listing the states with the highest number of missing and murdered indigenous women, with the list relying mainly on data from 2010 to 2018. New Mexico had the ignominious achievement of being No. 1, with 78 cases, with Washington close behind at 71 and Arizona with 54. Minnesota ranked ninth with 20 cases, just ahead of Oklahoma, with 18.
Thankfully, conscientious and compassionate Minnesota legislative leaders are already aware of this shameful ranking and are working to protect Indian women and punish those who hurt them. Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, stands out in particular for her hard work last session and again this year to pass a bill, HF 111, to create a “state task force on missing and murdered indigenous women.” One of its chief aims: better tracking these crimes in Minnesota, compiling the statistics to reliably indicate the scope of the violence and convening experts here to tailor strategies to reduce this violence.
There is growing bipartisan support for this bill, several Republicans having signed on as co-authors and influential Republican leaders such as Rep. Nick Zerwas of Elk River speaking out forcefully about the task force’s importance in a recent interview with an editorial writer. The Minnesota County Attorneys Association also is backing the bill, and understandably so. Many of these women live in poor or remote communities, but the crimes against them must not be overlooked or go unpunished.
The report listing the state rankings, available at tinyurl.com/y7c5hpxv, is from the respected Urban Indian Health Institute, a division of the Seattle Indian Health Board. It wields data — collected largely by its own researchers — that illuminates the public safety crisis highlighted in a 2017 movie, “Wind River.” The movie, which centers on the discovery of a frozen young Indian woman’s body on a Western reservation, heartbreakingly details the jurisdictional divisions between law enforcement agencies that can undermine investigations into deaths like this, especially on Native lands. The movie also drives home at its end a heartbreaking point, that missing and murdered Indian women are often underreported.
The Urban Indian Health Institute report puts some shocking numbers on what that underreporting means. It states that in 2016, there were “5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls” in one national crime database. But another database, run by the U.S. Department of Justice, had logged only 116 cases, raising troubling questions about whether this vital agency fully understands the scope of the violence.
The report also concluded through its own research that poor data collection by law enforcement in numerous cities is likely resulting in an undercount of missing and murdered Indian women and girls in urban areas. Minneapolis and St. Paul were two of the cities included in the research. The analysis turned up 506 “unique” cases of missing or murdered Indian women and girls that may have been misclassified, potentially resulting in authorities’ underestimating the scope of the violence and the need for solutions. These urban cases identified by the institute’s research are the basis for the top 10 ranking in which Minnesota came in ninth.
Rep. Kunesh-Podein valiantly rounded up bipartisan support for her task force last session, but in the end-of-the-session scrambling, the bill didn’t get passed. She merits praise for quickly introducing it again. A change this year includes adding legislators of both parties to the task force. Representatives would also be drawn from law enforcement officials, tribal governments, Indian health organizations or groups such as Mending the Sacred Hoop, which advocates for domestic violence victims.
Lawmakers in other states have recognized the value of Kunesh-Podein’s bill and have sought guidance on introducing their own. Minnesota legislators ought to laud Kunesh-Podein’s vision and lend their support swiftly to make Minnesota a compassionate, data-driven leader to protect these vulnerable women and bring the perpetrators of violence against them to justice.