On April 1, newly appointed U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native person to lead the Department of the Interior, announced the formation of a new Missing and Murdered Unit (MMU) within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide leadership for interagency work involving missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Through the MMU, the full weight of the federal government will be focused on investigating these cases and marshaling law enforcement resources across federal agencies and throughout Indian Country.
This federal resource could not come soon enough. Homicide continues to be the third-leading cause of death among Native American women. They are murdered at an astonishing rate of 10 times the national average.
As for missing persons, the National Crime Information Center reports that 1,500 American Indian and Alaska Native people are considered officially missing. However, the Urban Indian Health Institute believes this number is woefully low as most cases go unreported.
Data is an important weapon to combat violence against Native women. It reveals both tragically real experiences and exposes brittle vulnerabilities in their everyday lives. A few years ago, data warriors such as Annita Lucchesi (Cheyenne) and Abigail Echo-Hawk (Pawnee) began the daunting task of gathering and documenting these incidents. Since then, the data set has increased exponentially in both official reports and through personal testimonies concerning missing family members and unsolved murders.
Secretary Haaland's announcement was heralded in Native communities across the country. Making this a national priority directly complements the important work currently being done in Minnesota.
As a freshman legislator, I authored the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) Task Force legislation and won bipartisan support for the first of its kind investigation into crime data. I then co-chaired the work of the task force, which delved deeply into the heart of the community. Our recently completed investigation, detailed and analyzed in the "Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's Taskforce Report: A Report to the Minnesota Legislature" (Wilder Foundation), confirmed our dreadful suspicions: Indigenous women and girls in Minnesota are far more likely to experience violence, to be murdered, or to go missing compared to other population groups. They make up less than 1% of the state's population, yet they accounted for 8% of all women and girls slain in Minnesota from 2010 through 2018.
Just in time to enhance Secretary Haaland's MMU, Minnesota's MMIW report delivers 20 recommendations to address pervasive systems failures and ensure the safety of Native women and girls across the state. Some will require action by the Minnesota Legislature; others may require changes in policies or practices at state or local agencies. For example, the MMIW report calls for the reauthorization of the federal Violence Against Women Act, the creation of a permanent Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relative (MMIR) office, and the expansion of Minnesota's Safe Harbor Law to include all trafficking victims, not just those who are 24 and younger.
At the start of this year's legislative session, I offered SF 1989, a bill that would create the office and platform to end this unacceptable level of violence. Unfortunately, Minnesota's Republican-controlled Senate did not include the measure in the Public Safety Omnibus bill; nor did they deem it worthy of a hearing in the Senate Public Safety and Jurisdiction Committee.
Despite the inaction, I am hopeful that through the conference committee process, our Legislature will renew our commitment to assisting Native communities across Minnesota, urban and rural, with these issues, and to supporting the national MMU's work to be a force-multiplier in preventing these cases from arising in the first place. I remain hopeful that the day will come that we will prioritize the safety and well-being of Native people everywhere.
Mary K. Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, is a member of the Minnesota Senate.