Native and Indigenous women who for years have advocated for those who have vanished or been murdered are feeling fresh hope as the state is taking its first formal steps to combat the epidemic.
"It's a scary time to be an Indigenous woman," said Taysha Martineau, an Indigenous activist living on the Fond du Lac Reservation. "But with all of us working hard together, we've never been safer."
Minnesota's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force released its report this week after 18 months of research and meetings with survivors, advocates, public health experts and tribal leaders.
The 164-page report on the disproportionate rates of violence that Indigenous women and girls face offers a local snapshot of an international, generations-old crisis that state Sen. Mary Kunesh said lays the groundwork for systemic change.
"We were able to pick it up and literally run with it," she said from her new office after winning her bid for Senate District 41 in November. "This is a miracle report and I'm so proud of it."
Kunesh has been aware of the epidemic of violence against Native American women her entire life. But it wasn't until 2017, after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind was murdered by her neighbor in Fargo and Canada rolled out findings from a four-year study on violence against Indigenous women and girls, that she took political action.
"It had a very strong impact on me," said Kunesh, a DFLer and lead advocate for the creation of the task force.
But while the report makes clear the violence Indigenous women and girls face and presents steps to address it, the epidemic rages on.
The report found Native American women and girls, while making up less than 1% of the state's population, account for 15% of missing persons cases and 9% of those murdered from 2010 to 2019.
To begin addressing the problem, the report makes recommendations such as creating a state office for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, expanding Minnesota's Safe Harbor Law and passing the 2020 Violence Against Women Act — a law that has been reauthorized regularly since then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden introduced it in 1993, but recently stalled.
The issue stretches across partisan lines.
In July, President Donald Trump's daughter, Ivanka, visited Minnesota for the opening of a Bloomington office dedicated to investigating cases of missing and murdered Native Americans.
The new office is one of seven open across the country as part of a White House task force created in 2019 aimed at ending the epidemic of violence against Native people. At the time of the visit, officials cited 136 unsolved cases of missing or slain Indigenous men and women in Minnesota, some dating back decades.
Kunesh said she hopes to start the next legislative session implementing recommendations from the report, untangling jurisdictional issues between state and tribal law enforcement and mandating anti-sex trafficking education in school.
A descendant of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Kunesh said she grew up hearing the story of how her mother's cousin, Elsie Kelly, was murdered in 1960.
She said she had an epiphany after LaFontaine-Greywind, a pregnant 22-year-old Indigenous woman, was murdered in August 2017. The horrific crime came as Canada was releasing preliminary findings from a national inquiry on missing and murdered Native women and girls. Meanwhile, former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp was creating national legislation in LaFontaine-Greywind's honor.
"If Canada is doing this, why isn't the U.S.? If North Dakota is doing this, why isn't Minnesota?" Kunesh recalled thinking.
Kunesh introduced the bill to create the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force in 2018 and it passed with unanimous bipartisan support in 2019, setting in motion a deep dive into generations of trauma.
Martineau, 28, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said she gets at least two phone calls a day about a missing person. She is co-founder of Gitchigumi Scouts, a grassroots search and patrol for missing Indigenous women, girls and relatives.
"I'm willing to kick down doors to retrieve missing relatives and make sure that they make it home," she said.
The harsh reality is that sometimes they don't. Martineau's community recently lost Jackie DeFoe, 27, who was 13 weeks pregnant when her boyfriend killed her and their toddler son.
Still, Martineau said the work of the task force gives her hope. What also uplifts her spirit is seeing strong, Indigenous women in positions of power "where their voices can be heard, where they will echo the cries of our missing sisters."
Martineau's phone will still ring tomorrow, and the next day. And she will continue answering the call to search and raise awareness. She carries pictures of the missing everywhere she goes and shares daily updates on ongoing searches.
A statistic drilled into her as a young girl — 1 in 3 Native women will be raped in their lifetime, more than twice the national average — was the impetus of her activism. She has a son and three daughters.
"I had to make a choice: Do I allow myself to live with the statistic? Or am I going to put myself on the front lines to try and change that?"
Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751