Minnesota MMIW Task Force to hold first meeting

Rather than a sign like most other people who turned out for the event, a woman carries an empty dress during the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's march in Bemidji, Minn.

ST. PAUL — Advocates and survivors for years have pressed lawmakers to dig into why Indigenous women and girls in Minnesota disappear and endure disproportionate rates of violence.

And on Thursday, Sept. 19, they'll sit down with lawmakers, tribal leaders, law enforcement agents and advocates as the Minnesota Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force meets for the first time, charting the path for what it can accomplish over the next two years.

The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women is an epidemic in the U.S. and Canada but there’s little data that tracks the number of victims. Breakdowns in communication and patchy overlaps in police jurisdiction have also created problems in data collection about missing and murdered Indigenous women.

The FBI reports that Native Americans disappear at twice the rate per capita of white Americans, though they make up a much smaller portion of the population. And in some areas, Native women living on tribal lands were murdered at rates 10 times the national average, the Department of Justice found in 2008.

Tribal leaders, law enforcement and legal officials, legislators, survivors of sexual violence and advocates will make up the task force.

Some of what members must complete is set in state law: they must write a report for the Legislature before December of next year that outlines the systemic causes of outsized rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls and act as a liaison between the state and organizations that work with victims and their families.

But some of the panel's architects said it will likely go beyond that, giving Indigenous women a venue that they've sought for years.

“It has been a long time coming," Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said. "The advocates who have been moving this bill for years now have reason to celebrate and it is really exciting just to know all of the hard work and tears, frankly, and sacrifice that went into making this moment happen primarily led by powerful Indigenous women from the community is all coming together tomorrow."

The measure passed the Minnesota Legislature unanimously and while Gov. Tim Walz has already signed it into law, he will hold a ceremonial signing ahead of the first meeting with legislative and tribal leaders, law enforcement officials and advocates.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of tears, I think there’s going to be a lot of pain, there’s going to be a lot of folks that are feeling defensive," the bill's author Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, D-New Brighton, said. "What we really want to do at the end of the day is just say, ‘Look, what has happened in the past has happened. Let’s set up a good system now going forward so that this does not continue.'”

Minnesota is one of seven states that has set up a task force to examine the prevalence of violence against Indigenous women and girls and the loopholes in reporting that can prevent law enforcement officials from solving their cases.

Congress has taken up similar legislation stemming from the murder of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind and the abduction of the baby cut from her womb. Former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., proposed Savanna’s Act in 2017. The measure would aim to address gaps in data collection and law enforcement related to missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW). It passed the Senate unanimously at the end of 2018 but was stopped in the House by former Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, without time to make changes.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has taken up the bill in the new session, with a slate of bipartisan co-sponsors.

Lawmakers in the Dakotas this year approved legislation that requiring law enforcement agencies to collect data on missing people with South Dakota's law focusing on Native American people, and set up processes for investigating cases that involve women and children. And elected officials in Fargo established the Fargo-Moorhead Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Human Trafficking Task Force.

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