ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) -- The Minnesota Legislature this year approved a new state office dedicating time and resources to missing and murdered Indigenous people, the first of its kind in the country that advocates hope will be replicated nationwide.
The Office of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives stemmed from a state task force dedicated to the issue, which recommended the formation of the office in its 2020 report to state lawmakers. It is dedicated to preventing the targeting of Indigenous women, children and two-spirited people.
Data compiled by the panel found while Native Americans make up just 1% of Minnesota's population, they accounted for 8% to 9% of all murdered girls and women in the state in the most of the last decade. Estimates show 27 to 54 Indigenous women and girls were missing in Minnesota in any given month from 2012 to 2020, according to the report.
Advocates hope the office shines a light on the crisis largely unknown to the broader public.
"When we go missing, we go missing twice," said Nicole Matthews, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition and vice chair of the task force. "We go missing once when the person is physically missing and the second time we go missing is in the media and whose faces we hear about and whose stories we hear about."
"This isn't just numbers," she said. "These are our sisters, these are our relatives."
Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, said the office will serve as a clearinghouse for state agencies, tribal governments and members of the community. It's tasked with collecting better data, assisting local and tribal law enforcement with open cases and reviewing cold cases.
Lawmakers allocated $1 million this biennium.
Kunesh said conformity across state government will make a "big difference" in addressing the problem and will better coordinate with national efforts, too. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced a new Missing and Murdered Unit with her department to put the full weight of the federal government into investigating cases in Indian country.
"The creation of this office is definitely a values statement," Kunesh said. "That's the state Legislature and the state resources saying, 'we recognize that there's a problem.' But we're also going to put our boots on the ground to make sure that there is finally the day where we won't have these women and girls and two spirit members going missing or murdered at such high levels."
Kunesh and Matthews both hope other states will follow Minnesota's lead.
In Wisconsin, the Department of Justice launched a similar task force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women last year. The Minnesota Legislature this year also voted to create a task force on Missing and Murdered African American women.
"When we create models and responses that work well for the indigenous people of a community, of a state, then we have models and systems and responses that work well for all people in that community or in that state," Matthews said.
The Department of Public Safety, under which the new office falls, said that it's still working to hire a new director for it. State law says that person has to be someone "closely connected to a tribe or Indigenous community and who is highly knowledgeable about criminal investigations."
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