Minnesota forms nation’s first state office on missing, murdered Indigenous people

Leaders of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Task Force
Leaders of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's Task Force during a community listening session in Feb. 2020. The task force's recommendation to create a state office was included in part of the state of Minnesota's budget. From left: Nicole Matthews, executive director of Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition, Patina Park, president and CEO of the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center and Rep. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton.
Nina Moini | MPR News 2020

Native American women make up less than 1 percent of the state’s population, but homicide rates for Native women were seven times higher than for white women between 1990 and 2016.

The state’s newly-passed public safety budget includes funding to create the first state office in the nation with a focus on missing and murdered Indigenous relatives. Forming the office was a recommendation of a task force focused on the same issues. The bill also funds a new task force on missing and murdered African American women.

“You work so hard on a piece of legislation that really matters, and you just don’t know — is it going to be in that final cut?” So it’s quite a relief,” said Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, helped lead the effort. Kunesh’s mother is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

The statistics in this state are so difficult and concerning, but these aren’t just statistics. Everybody has a story, and it’s not just women. That’s part of the significance of the name of this office, yes?

Sen. Mary Kunesh: Absolutely. We think about our ancestors — there are so many of us. I’m sure every one of us have a family story to tell. My mother’s cousin Elsie — you realize she probably was a trafficked woman that was assumed to be suicidal, but when you look at the facts, that’s not the case. And that’s the story for so many Native folks and their loved ones.

Your task force presented findings in December 2020, and one of the suggestions was to form this office. But the pandemic was taking place through this time. Were you concerned this would no longer be a priority for legislators? Can you talk a little about the cost and why it’s important to form this office?

The cost is relatively modest. It’s a little over a million dollars for two years. It would staff a director and three other people. The dashboard will also allow us to share that information not just with the general public but with other government agencies and across the nation.

Our report is actually probably the most comprehensive one in the nation. And this office is the first one in the nation. Minnesota is guiding this whole process, and so I’m hoping that other states will follow our lead again. I love that our Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is creating a federal level unit. We can also now contribute toward her findings and vice versa. It opens the world of data collection, accountability and the ability to create more legislation as we go into this so that we can address those systemic issues that we know attributed to the vulnerability of our Native women and other groups as well.

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