November is National Native American Heritage Month. While we are proud to celebrate our heritage and culture, we believe it's important to acknowledge and demand action to address the impacts of historical trauma and colonization on American Indian people in Minnesota, including the violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and girls.
Nearly a year ago, Minnesota's Task Force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW Task Force) submitted its final report to the Minnesota Legislature and Gov. Tim Walz with mandates to address and end the violence experienced by Minnesota's Indigenous women and girls. We've made important progress since then, but the work has only just begun.
Examining root causes, systemic problems and potential solutions to violence against Indigenous women and girls in Minnesota
In any given month, 50 or more American Indian women and girls are missing in Minnesota. Although we comprise less than 1% of the state's population, we account for 8% of all murder victims. Indigenous women and girls disproportionately experience violence and exploitation, as well as incarceration, homelessness, child protection system involvement, and addiction. Systemic factors — racism, sexual objectification of Indigenous women, and historic trauma Indigenous peoples experienced due to colonization — contribute to our increased risk of experiencing violence.
The MMIW Task Force report and presentations have helped raise awareness about the MMIW injustice and have led to critical first steps toward addressing it.
Putting data into action: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives Office
Following the first recommended action from the task force, one of this article's co-authors, state Sen. Mary Kunesh — with state Rep. Heather Keeler, Yankton Sioux — authored legislation, passed during the 2021 session, to create the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR) Office in Minnesota, which is the first of its kind across the 50 states. That office will collaborate with Minnesota state agencies to build accountability in collecting data related to the MMIW injustice, enhancing intergovernmental communication and collaboration, and facilitating resources and services to reduce and prevent violence in Indigenous communities. The MMIR Office will also continue to raise awareness about and address the systemic causes of the MMIW injustice.
The MMIR Office will work in partnership with Operation Lady Justice at the federal level, as well as with neighboring states to share information and strengthen data sharing capabilities nationally.
There are many Indigenous relatives who are still missing or whose murderers have not been brought to justice. The MMIR Office will address these "cold cases," in part by creating rewards as incentives for information sharing that will lead to justice. The office will work with investigators and prosecutors to bring closure for family members. The office hopes to support experts to conduct "forensic autopsies" where the investigation reconstructs the story of a person's life prior to experiencing a violent crime/murder. This process uncovers factors that led up to someone becoming a crime victim and helps to identify missed opportunities for prevention. Forensic autopsies can improve investigative systems and prevent trauma before it's too late for victims, families and communities.
Call to action: More work to be done
Despite the satisfying accomplishment of the first recommendation from the MMIW Task Force, a lot of work remains. Indigenous people, such as Jeremy Jourdain (Cass Lake teen) and Sheila St. Clair (Duluth woman), remain missing after five-plus years. Their families still desperately look for them, seeking answers and justice. Social media posts frequently, and local news outlets occasionally, describe such missing Indigenous people.
Extractive projects throughout the U.S. have proven to increase sex trafficking and exploitation of women, usually targeting the most vulnerable. Earlier this summer, two sex trafficking stings in Beltrami County resulted in the arrest of several employees of Enbridge, out-of-staters in Minnesota specifically to work on Line 3. We must ensure that all local and multinational corporations who have direct impact in Indian Country in Minnesota are holding workers on these extractive projects accountable and cause no harm to women and children from our communities.
American Indian people comprise 1% of Minnesota's population, but make up 10% of its prison population. Having a history of incarceration increases vulnerability to predators after women rejoin their communities. We hope that through the collaboration of the MMIR Office and currently disconnected systems, Minnesota will find alternatives to incarceration for women who are more victims of a traumatic life than they are criminals (even if they have been convicted of a crime). Illinois sets an example we could follow.
Finally, homelessness (with a rate 12 times higher for Indigenous people than for white people in Minnesota) constitutes a major barrier to a safe, stable life for American Indians in Minnesota. Women who testified for the task force as well as women in previous research have told us that being without a safe, stable place to sleep at night puts them in desperate and risky situations. It is imperative that the state and tribes collaborate on effective, long-term solutions for people who are experiencing homelessness and all of the risk factors that go along with being homeless. We suggest intensive, culturally specific, trauma-informed healing programs that use a housing-first approach.
Minnesota leads the nation in our dedication to Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and girls. The work to end the MMIW injustice continues. We have been fortunate to be present and active in this time and space and to work with incredible community members, hear the stories from those most affected by the generational violence and sorrow, and make positive changes for all Minnesotans. We look forward to sharing another year of successes as we build a state where no one suffers as our Indigenous people have for too long.
To learn more about this important work, go to tinyurl.com/ommir.
Nicole MartinRogers is a descendant of White Earth Nation and a senior research manager for Wilder Research; she is the lead author on the MMIW Task Force report. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, is a descendant of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the assistant minority leader of the Minnesota Senate; she was the chair of the MMIW Task Force. Nicole Matthews is a descendant of White Earth Nation and the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition; she was the co-chair of the MMIW Task Force.