Minnesota task force looks to stories, data to get 'broad picture' on MMIW crisis

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019, ceremonially signed a copy of a bill establishing a task force to study the prevalence of violence against Indigenous women and girls. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
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HINCKLEY, Minn. — Kelly Fairbanks doesn't believe the police when they say her little sister Shawnna killed herself last summer.

Fairbanks drove through bitter cold and blowing snow from Red Lake to Hinckley to testify before the Minnesota Task Force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women , which held its second meeting on Thursday, Dec. 12 . She said she wanted to testify in order to honor Shawnna and other Native victims of violence.

Kelly described Shawnna as "bubbly." In her obituary , Shawnna is described as having an "infectious laugh and friendly manner," and a love of the outdoors.

"I know that she didn't want to go," Fairbanks said Thursday. "She was too happy, too healthy. She loved her children too much."

That's why she doubts police, who she said concluded that Shawnna died by suicide in July 2018. The Red Lake Nation Police Department did not immediately respond to request for comment on Thursday.


"I feel like in order for us to heal... I would like to find out what happened. I would like them to open up the case again," Fairbanks said. "I know the truth is a hard thing to accept but I won't accept suicide because I know she did not take her own life."

Minnesota state Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, D-New Brighton, who chairs the task force, said stories like Fairbanks' provide the state "a broader picture, a personal picture, a very micro picture of what our Native women, and by extension our Native communities, have been experiencing for generations and generations."

According to the National Congress of American Indians , Native American women experience violence at rates higher than any other race. Over 80% of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than half have survived sexual violence, reports the Indian Law Resource Center .

The 11-person task force is comprised of three subcommittees, each tackling the issue from a different angle: systems, data and community impact.

Chairwoman Nicole Anderson said the Systems Subcommittee has identified numerous institutions that could better prevent and respond to the crisis: the tribes, law enforcement, health care, criminal justice, education — the list goes on. Chairwoman Sheila Lamb said the Data Subcommittee is examining what data currently exists on MMIW, where the gaps in data collection are, and whether the data is being shared. Chairwoman Denise Prescott said the Community Impact Subcommittee is looking at how the crisis impacts communities, how resources like spiritual programming or community liaisons could help communities heal, and potential legislative solutions.

The task force's next meeting is scheduled for March 5 in Bemidji.

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