Until very recently, the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives (MMIWR) has often been neglected by local police, the Department of Justice, and state institutions with the power to prevent further violence committed against Native and Indigenous women and girls. A new office in Minnesota seeks to address the MMIWR crisis by tackling a number of factors that create conditions of violence and precipitate the lack of institutional alarm, using a $1 million budget to collaborate with the state’s 11 tribes. The state joins New Mexico, Arizona, and Wisconsin where similar efforts are underway.
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In Minnesota, between 27-54 Indigenous women and girls were missing in a given month between 2012 and 2020, according to the task force report that led to the office’s creation. The task force found that Indigenous people comprised 1 percent of the state’s population, but Indigenous women made up 8 percent of all murdered women. Thirty-four percent of Indigenous and Native women experience a sexual assault in their lifetime and nearly double that experience some kind of violent assault, according to the National Congress of American Indians. Research shows that the majority of this violence is committed by white men, yet on reservations — where Native women are ten times more likely to be murdered — tribal governments don’t have the power to investigate most crimes committed by white perpetrators.
The Minnesota task force found the roots of the MMIWR epidemic are racialized and gender-based violence sanctioned by a series of social-legal patterns: forcible removal of Indigenous children and separation of families; creation of a predatory and racist child welfare system; laws that prohibited Indigenous people from engaging with cultural or religious ceremony; retribution for speaking tribal languages; creation of the social-psychological myth that Indigenous women and girls exist to serve white men’s sexual needs; and the use of police and surveillance agencies to criminalize and intimidate Native peoples, among others.
Minnesota’s MMIWR office, the first dedicated and permanent site to address this systemic violence, was proposed by state Senator Mary Kunesh, whose mother was an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The office will collect and track data, review open and cold cases, draft relevant legislation, maintain communications with tribal governments, and coordinate with other state departments, among other mandates. Most importantly, Kunesh says, the office will be “led by Indigenous women and girls, especially those who have lived those experiences with violence and exploitation.” Ultimately, she says, “we really want to find ways for … survivors, our relatives, our communities, and even the perpetrators to heal and to understand what this is all about, and making sure that it’s culturally responsive and definitely a community led effort.”
This is a crisis. But the Minnesota office exists in a place of contradiction: If violence against Indigenous women and relatives is a product of federal and state government operations, then how and why would a government office be able to address it?
The MMIWR office is expected to work with state, local, and tribal police to formalize reporting and investigative operations where processes are currently failing. For instance, the task force’s final report found that in many cases, police failed to follow the state’s Missing Persons Act, which demands that a report be filed promptly when Native women go missing. Often, there’s also a lack of communication between investigative teams and families or even a failure to identify the race or ethnicity of a recovered body. But that’s only when reports are filed.
A broad distrust in law enforcement keeps families from reporting instances of violence or providing details to police that might help locate victims, survivors, and perpetrators more easily. Mox Alvarnaz, a Kanaka Maoli and the outreach coordinator at the research organization Sovereign Bodies Institute explained: “It is important that we’re there in the room … you don’t want people or powerful entities who have in the past made dangerous and violent decisions against your community to be doing that in your name without you there.” Rebuilding trust is a central goal of the office, given that accurate reporting data is what will allow state agencies to develop solutions.
Kunesh acknowledges that the office won’t be able to address all of the underlying conditions of violence. For example, while the task force cited extractive industries and “man camps” — temporary housing sites for pipeline workers — as facilitators of sexual and gendered violence, there’s no clear demand of the newly formed office related to them. However, there is a movement at work to demand legislators recognize climate violence as part of and related to gender-based and sexual violence. “I don’t know that at the state level [the office] has any kind of power to address the extraction industry,” Kunesh said. “We would love to make that the priority, but even if it’s not stated, it is certainly one of the one of the efforts that we will continue to address.”
There’s also a limit on what the state can do by itself. The U.S. government has repeatedly chosen not to intervene and abate easily addressed conditions that trap Native people in violence. Strengthening tribal sovereignty, for instance, can allow tribal governments and police to investigate crimes on reservations and hold non-Native offenders accountable. There’s also growing awareness of the ways Native women are punished by the criminal legal system for surviving violence, as in the case of a 27-year-old Colville woman named Maddesyn George.
“The biggest problem is just that nobody knows this stuff,” Kunesh said of her non-Native colleagues in the legislature who were surprised to learn how high the incidence of violence is for Indigenous women and relatives. “As we’re sort of peeling off the layers, I feel like our agencies, the government, our tribes, are all looking for ways to address these historic inequities and traumas.”