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Reward fund launched to help solve Indigenous missing person cases in Twin Ports

A lingering unsolved disappearance from Duluth underscores the issue of disproportionate incidents of violence against Indigenous women.

Rene Ann Goodrich, of the Native Lives Matter Coalition, speaks at a press conference at Duluth City Hall
Rene Ann Goodrich, of the Native Lives Matter Coalition, speaks at the podium during a news conference at the Duluth City Hall rotunda Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. The city of Duluth, the Native Lives Matter Coalition and Mending the Sacred Hoop have joined forces to create a reward fund to help solve cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people in the Twin Ports.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — The search for Sheila St. Clair, an Indigenous resident who went missing more than six years ago at age 48, continues as the case has inspired the creation of the Gaagige-Mikwendaagoziwag — “They Are Remembered Forever” — Fund to provide reward incentives.

“I haven’t given up,” said Stephanie St. Clair, of Bemidji, explaining that she remains “really hopeful” there will still be a break that leads to the discovery of where her mother went.

Describing that sense of hope, she said: “It’s been up and down a lot, but it’s still there.”

The last known sighting of Sheila St. Clair was reported Aug. 20, 2015, at the Cascade Apartments in the 100 block of West Third Street. She was 48 at the time, weighed about 115 pounds and stood about 5 feet, 4 inches tall. St. Clair, who did not have a vehicle, was believed to have been headed to the White Earth Reservation but was not heard from again.

Gaagige-Mikwendaagoziwag Fund organizers hope financial incentives offered through the fund will yield clues as to what happened to St. Clair and other missing Indigenous women and girls as well as two-spirit individuals with nonconforming gender identities.

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Organizers hope to call attention to the epidemic of missing and murdered women and girls in Indigenous communities.

Tuesday marked the official launch of the fund, which has already garnered $3,500 in private donations, plus an additional $2,500 from the city, for a total of $6,000 in seed money.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said the reward fund is the first of its kind in Minnesota.

She described the fund as a potentially valuable tool.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson holds beadwork given to her by the family of Sheila St. Clair
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson holds beadwork given to her by the family of Sheila St. Clair during a news conference at the Duluth City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. The city, the Native Lives Matter Coalition and Mending the Sacred Hoop have joined forces to create a reward fund to help solve cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people in the Twin Ports. St. Clair has been missing since August 2015.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“Remember, sometimes people who have information are terrified or they’re kids," she said. "And it takes time for them to realize what’s happened, to sort through the information and to find the courage or the hope or the resilience they need. This money doesn’t bring someone back. But it lets people know that there’s value in them opening up and sharing what they know with us.”

Renee Ann Goodrich, founder of the Twin Ports Native Lives Matter Coalition, said: “It’s powerful, and it’s just the beginning.”

“We know that somebody out there knows where Sheila’s at,” said Alicia Kozlowski, a community relations officer for the city who also is of Indigenous descent. “We know somebody knows what happened to her. And we want to bring Sheila home.”

“We want to increase awareness of what’s going on in the world, actually," Stephanie St. Clair said. "Because it’s not only my mom. There are a lot more missing women, children and men, you know.”

Goodrich agreed Sheila St. Clair’s case is far too familiar.

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Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken holds a photograph of Sheila St. Clair
Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken holds a photograph of Sheila St. Clair, who has been missing since August 2015.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“It is still an invisible epidemic,” she said, referring to the ongoing cycle of violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people.

Although Indigenous females make up only 1% of Minnesota’s population, they accounted for 8% of all the state’s murdered women and girls documented between 2010 and 2018, according to a task force report.

Statistics also show that between 2012 and 2020, the number of Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit individuals reported to be missing ranged between 27 and 54 in any given month.

Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken praised Indigenous-led efforts by Mending the Sacred Hoop the Native Lives Matter Coalition to establish the fund and threw his own support behind it.

“We feel that having a reward to bring Sheila back home is critically important. But it also certainly could be used if there are future cases where we need to motivate or encourage people to come forward that may not feel comfortable,” he said.

Katy Eagle, executive director of Mending the Sacred Hoop, speaks during a press conference
Katy Eagle, executive director of Mending the Sacred Hoop, speaks during a news conference at Duluth City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Tusken said local investigators have never given up on the Sheila St. Clair case despite the passage of time.

“It has never really left us,” he said. “We really believe that if we continue to put in the work that we’re going to get the break we need to solve this case.”

Kozlowski said she believes local investigators’ relentless ongoing investigation of St. Clair's disappearance has shown many of the city’s Indigenous residents that they are not forgotten.

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“We know that invisibility and erasure are such a big part of how we, as Indigenous people, are dehumanized. And this isn’t just an Indigenous issue, you know. Any time one of us is dehumanized, we’re all dehumanized,” she said.

Tusken said he hopes the launch of the fund will raise not only reward money, but public awareness.

“The disproportional victimization of our Indigenous women and girls is startling. It is staggering. And bringing attention to it will absolutely help. We want our community to see it. We want our legislators to see it. So, everyone understands this is an issue that’s a significant challenge, and it’s heartbreaking to see,” he said.

Kozlowski voiced hope the fund will lead to more cross-cultural collaboration and understanding.

“We need each other, and it takes each of us,” she said.

How to help

Anyone with information regarding Sheila St. Clair or her whereabouts is encouraged to call the Duluth Police Department’s violent crime unit at 218-730-5050.

Anyone who wants to contribute to the reward fund established to help St. Clair and other missing Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people may learn more at facebook.com/mikwendaagozi . The fund has a PayPal account at paypal.com/paypalme/mmip2sfund .

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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