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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

'Not one more': Minn. leaders launch effort to find, protect Indigenous women

ST. PAUL — Tribal elders spoke aloud the names of loved ones murdered or missing and with tears and smiles, they made a commitment: to end the epidemic of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

The Minnesota Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force on Thursday, Sept. 19, met for the first time, starting a 15-month timeline to write a report guiding law enforcement and the Legislature on the systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

In an emotional ceremony, tribal elders and leaders, lawmakers and state officials acknowledged that the creation of a board to study the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women was a long time coming and the state had work to do in repairing relationships with Indigenous communities.

For years, survivors and advocates have asked the state to investigate the disappearances and murders and for media outlets to take them seriously. Earlier this year lawmakers unanimously approved the proposal, teeing up the task force.

"Today we start with the signing of what should have happened centuries ago," Ojibwe Elder Mary Lyons said. "Today we as Indigenous women rise. We're not being forgotten today. We can call each of our missing and murdered women's name out loud and we can embrace them in prayers. Today we let them know they did not fall to their deaths only to be forgotten."

Minnesota is one of seven states to create a task force to study the prevalence of missing and murdered Indigenous women. And state officials on Thursday vowed to take seriously the panel's recommendations and advance them in the Legislature rather than shelving the group's report.

"We must tell these stories, but we must tell these stories to action," Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, said. "Stories simply for stories sake, putting our trauma on display. If that happens without action, we have failed."

There's little data that tracks the prevalence of the disappearance, abduction or murder of Indigenous women. Breakdowns in communication and overlaps in police jurisdiction have also created problems in data collection about missing and murdered Indigenous women.

But federal reports show 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.

Taskforce members said tackling those discrepancies in data and identifying factors that put Indigenous women and girls at risk of facing trafficking, abduction or murder will be among the topics they research in coming months.

"Data is another area where our people have been erased, where the incidents of many things have been kept out of systems and we're statistically insignificant in so many ways because genocide has been so very effective," Patina Park, president and CEO of the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, said. "We're going to take the time and see how many women are missing, how many women's families are still looking for them, how many women that are being exploited right now."

The task force will continue meeting over the next year as a whole and in smaller subgroups. And it will deliver to the Legislature a report of its findings in December of 2020. More than two dozen tribal leaders, law enforcement officers, lawyers, lawmakers, advocates and others make up the panel.

Law enforcement and legal officials acknowledged that previous generations hadn't done enough to protect Indigenous women and girls and they said they would work with the panel to redeem themselves.

"This is an opportunity, this is a moment in time for Minnesota to say, 'No more. Not one more missing woman. Not one more Native woman trafficked. Not one more woman abused in the state of Minnesota,'" Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said. "This is the start of that movement."

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Forum News Service is launching an investigation into the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. We hope to learn more about what's behind these tragic cases in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and surrounding areas.

We're looking to speak with victims' families, survivors of violence, advocates, activists and those working to solve these cases.

The reporters working on this project are Dana Ferguson in St. Paul, Minn., Sarah Mearhoff in Pierre, S.D., and Natasha Rausch in Fargo, N.D. To share your stories with them, send an email to MMIW@forumcomm.com or call toll-free 1-877-583-1817.