Violence against Native American women is drawing the attention of Minnesota lawmakers, with a proposal to study its prevalence and recommend ways to reduce it.
Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, a Democrat from New Brighton, said her bill aims to shed light on the issue — and also be "the beginning of some healing." Native American groups have sometimes complained that disappearances of Native American women are an overlooked problem.
"What it'll do is acknowledge their pain and presence in this day and age and the historical pain that communities have had to deal with," Kunesh-Podein said.
Her bill is moving through committees in the House and being considered for possible inclusion in a broader public safety proposal this year.
Putting numbers to the problem is difficult. In Canada, a 2014 study by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found nearly 1,200 aboriginal women were killed or disappeared between 1980 and 2012, with some officials saying they thought the actual number was higher and more study called for. In Washington state, lawmakers recently directed state police to increase resources for reporting and identifying missing Native American women.
A complex web of federal, state and tribal law enforcement jurisdictions doesn't always provide accurate or complete racial and ethnic data, said Liz Richards, the director of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.
Tribal prosecutors are limited in their ability to charge suspects when they leave, and the FBI handles felony-level offenses. Local police outside of reservations and tribal areas aren't able to investigate crimes committed on reservations. And sometimes violent crime simply goes unreported.
Yet the numbers that are available paint a bleak picture. Homicide rates for Native American women in Minnesota was seven times that of white women between 1990 and 2016, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
"Clearly there's a disproportionate number of native American women killed," Richards said.
Kunesh-Podein says her proposal would suggest ways law enforcement can better track violence against indigenous people.
Mysti Babineau, a member of the Red Lake Nation, testified for Kunesh-Podein's bill last week before the House Public Safety Committee. Babineau, 32, fought through tears as she described her mother's disappearance when she was just 2; being sexually assaulted herself twice; and her grandmother's fatal stabbing.
Her experience isn't unique, Babineau testified.
"Many of my sisters, many of my relations go through this," she told lawmakers. "This problem needs to be addressed. Often when we do speak up and we do speak out, we are not heard."