The recent discovery of Amber Hopkins’ body in a vacant north Minneapolis lot served as a grim reminder of the desperate lives and early deaths that await far too many American Indian women. Her sad fate should also spur Minnesota lawmakers to redouble their efforts this session to protect others from a similar outcome.
Hopkins, 31, who was pregnant, battled a drug addiction and had lived at the homeless encampment closed by Minneapolis city officials last fall. Friends and family told a Star Tribune reporter they feared she had been in an abusive relationship. She’d been missing since mid-January and was found about a week ago, her boots becoming visible amid debris and disappearing snow. An autopsy is underway and while a cause of death is not yet clear, her family members are struggling wth painful questions. Did she die at the hands of someone she knew? Or did someone fail to get her medical help for an overdose?
Sadly, the loss of this vibrant young woman is a heartbreakingly familiar tragedy in American Indian nations in Minnesota and elsewhere. Poverty and drug use plague these communities. Crime often accompanies this toxic mix, putting all members, but especially women, at risk. Hopkins belonged to South Dakota’s Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate band. “Despite the federal trust obligation to protect Indian communities, violence against Native women in the United States has reached epidemic proportions and greatly exceeds that of any other population of women in the United States,” according to the National Congress of American Indians.
While federal officials such as Minnesota U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald are pushing for improvements, the state has an obligation to act as well. Minnesota is home to 11 Indian nations, and the relatively high number of missing or missing indigenous women here was flagged in a recent report from a Seattle-based health group. Fortunately, there is commendable momentum at the Capitol this session to pass a strong first step to combat this public safety crisis — a task force that would better track this violence and craft strategies to prevent it.
But an earlier version of this bill had broad support last year, too, and never became law because of end-of-the-session manuevering. This initiative is too important to fall victim again to politics. It can and should clear both the Minnesota House and Senate long before the mad dash to adjournment. Leaders in the DFL-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate need to ensure it does.
The bipartisan support for this year’s bill inspires confidence that the task force will become a reality. Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, who championed the measure last year, is leading the charge again and has smartly enlisted influential allies from across the aisle. Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, signed on as a co-author in the House and has spoken eloquently about the need for the task force.
The bill also has a powerful advocate in the Senate — Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who chairs the Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee. During a recent interview with an editorial writer, Limmer said it is a priority to pass the bill this year and called upon his colleagues to support it. The number of missing and murdered indigenous women is a “vitally important” issue that demands bipartisan cooperation, Limmer said. “We cannot turn a blind eye on any pattern of offense that leads to someone’s harm or death.”
If passed, the task force would begin meeting no later than October of this year. Members would include four legislators, representatives from each of the federally recognized tribal governments in Minnesota, as well as representatives from groups such as the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, Indian health organizations or advocacy groups such as Mending the Sacred Hoop. The task force would issue a report to the Legislature by December 2020.
Many advocates believe that official statistics badly undercount the number of American Indian women who fall victim to crime, with a key reason being the jurisdictional questions between federal, state and local agencies about who responds and investigates. The Minnesota task force would be a sensible start to address this knowledge gap. Lawmakers simply cannot allow the legislative process to fail these women again.