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Silenced, slain or disappeared: Indigenous women are focus of new task force

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Jo-Anne Stately of the White Earth Nation listens to speakers.
Jo-Anne Stately of the White Earth Nation, center, listens to speakers on May 11, 2019, before walking in the Indigenous Women's March in Minneapolis. Indigenous women who have been killed or gone missing will be the subject of a new state inquiry.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

Mysti Babineau said she was 20 and living in Isanti, Minn., when she was kidnapped and taken more than 50 miles to St. Paul. 

"They held me at gunpoint. They told me they would kill me if I tried to escape, and they raped and they beat me, and they turned their back on me for like two minutes and I got away," Babineau said. "I don't know what would have happened to me had I not gotten away."

Babineau, a citizen of Red Lake Nation, knows she could have been yet another statistic. Indigenous women are the victims of violence, homicide and sexual assault at much higher rates than other groups. The National Crime Information Center reported more than 5,700 missing or murdered American Indian or Alaskan Native women in 2016. 

Advocates at the state Legislature pushed for Minnesota to take action. The Legislature approved a new task force to look into the issue of what leads to such high levels of missing and murdered indigenous women and what can be done.  

The people Babineau grew up with have been targets of violence for as long as she can remember. She herself has been abused, attacked and assaulted, including in the foster care system. When she was 9, she recalls, her adopted mother took her to Cass Lake, Minn., where she saw her grandmother stabbed to death in front of her. 

"The killer went after my mother and then she came after me," Babineau said. "I was able to fight her off and barricade myself in a bathroom until police arrived on the scene." 

Babineau says this sort of violence has been happening to indigenous people since Christopher Columbus. They've always wondered why no one in the broader public seemed to be able to see it, she said.

"In this society that we live in, Native women are sexualized and Natives as a population are dehumanized. So, oftentimes when we share these stories of pain, I don't think it resonates with the general public," Babineau said. "I think for the most part the general public doesn't even know we're still here."

Babineau is one of the women who told stories of violence they've experienced to the state Legislature this year. 

"I'm privileged enough to use my pain hopefully to help others," she said. "I could be there that day. That was important to me that somebody was." 

Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, sponsored legislation in the House to create the task force on missing and murdered indigenous women. Kunesh-Podein, who is of Standing Rock Lakota descent, was surprised that the proposal, which costs $150,000 over two years, attracted so much bipartisan support. 

"The very first time we had a hearing in the House, there was hardly a dry eye in the hearing room," Kunesh-Podein said. "There were people in the audience that came to me weeks later and were like, 'Wow, I am still processing what I just heard. We had no idea.' They immediately pledged to do whatever they could to ensure that this actually happened."

There could be as many as 27 members on the task force, Kunesh-Podein said. That's partly because it includes everyone from policymakers to law enforcement to the tribes themselves. All are participating voluntarily. 

"We're here for you now and we're going to do what we can to make this better so that nobody else has a mother, an aunt, or a grandma, daughter or sister walk out the door and never know if they are going to see them again," Kunesh-Podein said. 

Kunesh-Podein said she hopes the task force will finally bring attention to this underserved community. 

"If it was a white woman, if it was another group of people, then, yes, it would definitely have been focused on long ago and measures put in place," Kunesh-Podein said. "But they've just kind of been the silent, invisible population in our state, and we just have to build that strong awareness and understanding."

Patina Park, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center in Minneapolis, said the issue of murdered or missing indigenous women can't be addressed without looking at the economic and housing struggles they face.

"When you layer that on top of kind of the historic trauma that the community has been experiencing for multiple generations — from removals to boarding schools to just outright violence — there's a heightened vulnerability within the population anyway that is certainly exploited by those who would take advantage of it," Park said. 

Families whose loved one goes missing have complained that law enforcement didn't look for them or made excuses. 

"Oftentimes, no one goes searching for them even when they're reported missing because it's 'oh well, you know she often disappears, she'll come back.' Or 'Was she drunk?'" Park said. "This kind of belittling of the individual's humanity in order to justify not responding to their absence or even their murder." 

The violence also affects men, boys and transgender indigenous people, known as two-spirits, Park said. People can sometimes focus too narrowly on just women who are murdered, and forget about those still living amongst us. 

"Individuals who are being exploited along Lake Street or Bloomington [Avenue], many of them, their families are missing them, they don't know where they are," Park said. "The phenomena of missing indigenous people is going on every day here in Minneapolis proper and across the state." 

Babineau said the task force is just a first step in addressing violence against indigenous women. She said people who were drawn to the movement and slogans need to stay engaged on the issue. 

"I really ask that people who marched with us or called their representatives to really pay attention to this and read that report and show up when it's presented to the Legislature," Babineau said. "There is an opportunity here for accountability, for healing and justice." 

The task force is scheduled to release a report to the state Legislature in December 2020.