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Lawmakers, advocates push for permanent office to investigate missing, murdered Indigenous women cases in Minnesota

A state report released this year confirmed that nationwide trends of disproportionate rates of violence against Native people are consistent in Minnesota. While Native women and girls comprise roughly 1% of Minnesota's population, 8% of murdered women and girls in Minnesota between 2010 and 2018 were Native American.

Missing women and girls file photo Sarah Mearhoff
Hundreds of demonstrators wearing red took to the streets of Minneapolis on Feb. 14, 2020, to raise awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women. (Forum News Service file photo)
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ST. PAUL -- Minnesota’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW)’s task force is holding its final official meeting Monday, June 28, but members say the state’s work is far from over to address disproportionate rates of violence committed against Native people.

At a Friday, June 25, news conference, lawmakers and advocates pleaded with top legislative negotiators in St. Paul to fund a permanent MMIW investigatory office through the state’s Department of Public Safety. With $500,000, members of the task force say the office could continue investigating cold cases, collecting data and working to prevent future violence.

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, D-Roseville, who chairs the House’s Judiciary Committee and is a descendant of Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, said at Friday’s news conference that she is “very hopeful” that the office will be part of a final DPS budget.

“We have an opportunity this year to continue this work forward,” she said. “It would really be untenable to have gotten this far and then not take that next step.”

The MMIW task force was established by the Minnesota Legislature in 2019, and has for over a year collected data and stories from across the state to study the impact of violence against Indigenous people. The task force’s work culminated in a report released early this year , which confirmed that national trends of violence against Indigenous people plague Minnesota, as well, for both Native people living on Minnesota’s 11 tribal reservations and in urban areas.

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Per the report, Indigenous women and girls comprise roughly 1% of Minnesota's population, but 8% of murdered women and girls in Minnesota between 2010 and 2018 were Native American. The task force also reported that during any given month between 2012 and 2020, 27 to 54 Indigenous women and girls were missing in Minnesota.

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, said at Friday’s news conference that the report “confirmed what many of us already knew and what many of us in the community have lived.” Now with the data uncovered, she said it’s time to invest in solving the issue.

“Every Native woman I know has experienced violence,” she said Friday. “Every single one.”

Sen. Mary Kunesh, D-New Brighton, who has Lakota heritage, championed the 2019 bill to establish the task force (as a state representative at the time). Both the Democratic-controlled House and Gov. Tim Walz's office in their proposed budgets included funding for the MMIW office, but she said they need “buy-in” from the Republican-controlled Senate.

Though she can’t speak for her Republican colleagues, Kunesh said she expects the office has become a bargaining chip in budget negotiations between Republican and Democratic leaders.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who chairs the Senate’s Public Safety Committee, through a spokesperson declined to comment on the state of the MMIW office in budget negotiations. But a spokesperson for the Senate GOP said Friday that the office is “still in play,” and that “kind of everything is a bargaining chip at this point” as the deadline to pass state budgets quickly approaches.

Asked about the message it sends for the MMIW office to be used as a negotiating piece for lawmakers, Kunesh said Friday that that’s “really an emotional question, because that’s the way it’s been all along historically.”

“The government will give and take and they'll use that carrot in front of the tribes in order to manipulate their land ownership or water rights or tribal agreements that they never intend to keep,” she said.

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“It’s not only hurtful, but it’s also disrespectful to the communities,” she said. “But that’s politics.”

Mearhoff is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. You can reach her at smearhoff@forumcomm.com or 651-290-0707.
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