Bill would create group to track violence against Native American women

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No matter what was going on with her life, Dolly Boswell’s sister JoJo always called.

In July of 2005, JoJo was arrested and booked in the Steele County Jail in Owatonna. She was released on July 11, but she never arrived at home. Dolly tried to report her missing, but she was told by law enforcement that she had to wait at least 48 hours.

After that time period passed, her sister still hadn’t called or turned up, so Boswell tried to report her missing again. There was a dispute about which law enforcement agency had jurisdiction over the case, and Boswell felt her concerns weren’t taken seriously because her sister was an adult and had criminal charges on her record.

“They basically told me: ‘I have more important things to do, I have children to find, call me when she returns home.’ My sister, regardless of what state she was in mentally or where she’s at, she would call me every day and check in every day,” she said. “She never made it home.”

Boswell and her sister are Native American -- and their story is common in tribal communities across Minnesota and the nation, where women and girls go missing or are murdered at staggering rates. Despite making up less than 1 percent of the Minnesota population, homicide rates for Native American women in Minnesota were seven times higher than for white women between 1990 and 2016, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Boswell was in St. Paul on Tuesday to tell her story to members of the House public safety committee considering a proposal to create a task force on missing and murdered indigenous women. Under bills in both the House and Senate, the statewide task force would dig into the underlying factors and systemic causes that explain why higher levels of violence occur against Native American women.

Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, first brought the idea before lawmakers last session, but it was ultimately vetoed in a larger budget bill over other political disputes. This year, she wants her proposal to pass a soon as possible. 

“These are human beings. These are women. These are life bearers. These are our ancestors,” Kunesh-Podein, a member of the Standing Rock Lakota tribe, said.  “We don't want to forget them. We want to give them an opportunity to be heard and ask for recognition and ask for help in finding ways to end this whole tragic situation."

A big part of the problem is lack of data. Law enforcement agencies don’t track the number of missing Native American women in a comprehensive way.

According to the National Crime Information Center, there were 5,712 cases of missing Native American women in the United States in 2016. But only 116 of those cases were logged with the U.S. Department of Justice’s federal missing person database, NamUs.

Minneapolis has the 9th highest number of missing Native American women -- 20 total -- out of 71 urban cities examined in a recent report from the Urban Indian Health Institute. The total number of missing women is likely much higher, the report notes.

"Misclassification” of missing or murdered indigenous women is also a problem, according to the report. For example, the 1960s, 70s and 80s in Seattle, law enforcement used the letter “N” to denote race involving both black and Native American individuals.

States like Washington have adopted proposals that direct the state patrol to increase reporting and investigation of cases of missing Native American women. DFL Gov. Tim Walz supports the task force and has said he will sign the bill.

Misty Babineau told committee members that she was first raped when she was 9 years old by the boyfriend of her foster mother. When she was 12, she saw her grandmother murdered, and the person who murdered her grandmother also tried to kill Babineau and her mother.

When she was 20, Babineau was kidnapped and taken 60 miles from her home. She could have stayed missing, but she escaped. 

“I was held, I was raped, I got away though,” she said. “My story is not rare, four out of three of my sisters have something similar to this. This is not something new, this is not just something brought in by the pipelines. Five-hundred years we’ve waited for this.”