MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people has gained more attention in recent years, but many who have lost their own say it’s not enough. A new state office that's the first of its kind in the country is working to change that.
Janice Hannigan, Roma L. Jim and Mary Johnson are just a few of the missing Indigenous people in the U.S.
Nicole Matthews, the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition, says most people don't know about the missing Indigenous people.
“Why hasn’t Sheila St. Claire from Duluth, who’s been missing for six years, why isn’t her story isn’t out there? Why don’t we know her name? How come we don’t know about Jojo Boswell, who's been missing for decades, and was 19 when she went missing," Matthews said.
Advocates say a lack of communication, combined with jurisdictional issues between state, local, federal and tribal law enforcement, makes it difficult to start the investigative process.
“Our relationship to the federal government is much different than other racial and ethnic groups. This is our land, everybody that is in this country is standing on Indian land," Matthews said. “So if a non-Native person comes onto our land and rapes a Native woman, our tribes have no recourse. So, if the states or the feds who do have jurisdiction in those cases decline prosecution, that person walks.”
It’s why Matthews was the Vice-Chair of the Missing and Murdered Women’s Task Force in Minnesota and that has led to the country's first State Office for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives.
Sen. Mary Kunesh spearheaded this effort in the Minnesota Senate.
“I’m still floored that we were able to do this good legislative in kind of a short amount of time," Kunesh said. “They were able to use funding’s through the governor’s office to initially create this but it will also be supported through public safety dollars.”
The office now has permanent funding, which means it’s not going anywhere. One of their main efforts is building a data base that will track those names and cases.
“We need to be able to have that liaison there that’s going to be able to go walk between and work between all these different agencies," Kunesh said.
Having no database has made gathering information tough. However, the task force was able to pinpoint some jarring statistics.
“In our task force work, we learned in a ten-year period, in any given month, there were anywhere from 27 to 54 Native women that were missing," Matthews said. “Native women represent about 1% here in Minnesota, but we represent about 8 or 9% of the murdered women in Minnesota. So that is a huge disproportionate impact on our communities.”
Marisa Cummings, the CEO of the Minnesota Women’s Resource Center says there is distrust in government from some tribal members, especially women.
“I’m thinking about the lack of trust our people have with systems in this country. Systems that have been designed to exterminate us," Cummings said.
Now there is an opportunity to create trust through this office and its partnerships.
“I think the office can be a starting point if the office is staffed with native women that the community trusts," Cummings said. “All of these implicit biases, manifest in ways of oppression. So a lot of times our families, when they go to report someone missing, they are not believed, a lot of times a woman reporting a sexual assault, they are not believed, or deaths are considered explosion. She got really drunk and she just died somewhere and not acknowledging the psychical violence she experienced that left her in a field in the freezing cold.”
These women say Gabby Petito's case is not only a reminder of why this office is so crucial in Minnesota, but also how it can be adopted in every other state.
“The response that Gabby Petitio received is the response that all of us deserve," Matthews said.
“But I think we’re entering a time now where we’re demanding that there is some accountability and some equity in the way that these systems work in our country. Systems that we designed to eliminate us as the original people of this land," Cummings said.
“Minnesota has obviously made this a priority and recognizes this is an investment in our communities now but like we say in the Native communities, investment in the next seven generations to come," Kunesh said.