Social Issues

Minneapolis, Bemidji rallies advocate for missing, murdered Indigenous people

A person in red paints someones hand red for a march
Dani Blue, of Red Lake Nation, holds up her hand as it is painted red before a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives March in South Minneapolis on Tuesday. Marking one’s face and mouth with red handprint symbolizes the MMIW movement and the countless women who have been silenced by violence.
Tim Evans for MPR News

In the back of her mind, Sadie Allen always has a fear that she will go missing. 

“It’s really scary, and something I always have to be aware of,” she said. “To be Native means so many things. But unfortunately, this is a big issue we have to deal with.”

Allen was just one of many hundreds at the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives rally and march on Tuesday in the East Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. 

A person turns to the left and shows their earrings that reads land back
Sadie Allen displays an earring reading “Land Back” at the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives March in South Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Tim Evans for MPR News

The movement in the U.S. and Canada around Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives, sometimes referred to as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement, exists to spread awareness about how Indigenous people are more likely to be victims of violence than people of other races.

Many activists in the movement paint red hands over their mouths as a symbol of the missing people whose voices are not heard. 

It was the first time the annual rally, which in the past has drawn thousands of people, has returned in person since being disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. A range of people from politicians to activists spoke, including Sen. Mary Kunesh, the first Indigenous woman to serve in the Minnesota Senate. 

Kunesh introduced the Missing and Murdered Women’s Task Force in Minnesota years ago, and in 2019 the Legislature agreed to establish it. In December 2020, the task force called on Gov. Tim Walz to create an office to handle the issue at the state level.

The director was named one year ago Tuesday. Minnesota was the first state in the U.S. to have a state office dedicated solely to missing and murdered Indigenous people. 

“The work is never going to be done,” Kunesh said. “I just want to let you all know … we will continue working at the legislature because yes, representation matters.” 

The back of a womans jean jacket with red pieces of fabric
Carla Thompson Kurtz poses for a portrait at the East Phillips Community Center on Tuesday. Thompson Kurtz’s jacket bears the names and tribes of various Indigenous women who were murdered or disappeared in recent years.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Carla Thompson Kurtz has been an activist for 35 years and said she has spent most of her life advocating for missing and murdered Indigenous people, especially women. She wore a jacket to the rally with red ribbons on the back, each ribbon bearing the name and tribal affiliation of someone who is missing or has been murdered. 

While she was speaking with MPR News, someone came up to her and said, “You have my friend's name on your back.”

Thompson Kurtz says she felt chills — they were talking about Ivy Archambault, who went missing on Oct. 4, 2001. Archambault's body was found in a pasture near Newell a week later. She was a social worker at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to The Argus Leader.

Thompson Kurtz also wears Rhoda Stately’s name, including several other people. Stately was murdered by her husband in 2002. She was stabbed to death in front of her three children, according to the Native American Press.

Thompson Kurtz did not know Stately, but in Northfield, she felt her spirit.

“She came to me, she asked me to be her voice. That’s why I wear her name … their spirits are still alive, and they will never, ever be forgotten.”

According to a task force report from December 2020, 27 to 54 Indigenous women were missing in Minnesota in any given month from 2011 to 2020. Indigenous women and girls are 1 percent of the overall Minnesota population, but 15 percent of the female missing persons cases, according to the report. 

Beth O’Keefe, member and advocate of the Lower Sioux Indian community and the director of the Minnesota Indigenous Women’s Society, was live on the air with MPR News host Cathy Wurzer from the march. She highlighted how violence against Indigenous people is part of a larger issue such as housing, and will require holistic solutions. She is hopeful the task force will make a difference.

“Poverty can also be violence, and we are asking for dignity. Right now in the state there is a surplus — Minnesota can afford this. They can afford to have safe communities.”

“No more missing sisters,” “We will be heard” and “You are not forgotten” were just some of the signs in the crowd that took to the streets in the rain. Many marchers held large photographs of their own family members and friends that are currently missing, created by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center.

The rally was hosted by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition (MIWSAC), in partnership with the Minneapolis American Indian Center, Indian Health Board of Minneapolis, Native American Community Development Institute & Make Voting A Tradition, Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, East Phillips Improvement Coalition and Little Earth Residents Association. 

A person holds a sign with red handprints
Bella Stensurd, 14, at the rally for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Sam Stroozas | MPR News

Bella Stensurd, who is 14, came to the rally and march with the Native American Student Association from her school, Hinckley-Finlayson High. She says she is often afraid, wants to be able to walk on her own without needing protection, and had a dream the night before the march about going missing. 

“They need to stop taking our women so we can all be safe as a community. So we can keep our families and not have to go to more funerals,” Stensurd said.

In Bemidji, a similar event took place Tuesday. Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women 218 organized a walk to honor and remember their relatives there.

People sit and bang drums in the rain
Elders and other women lead a chant during a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives March in South Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Tim Evans for MPR News

LaKaylee Kingbird's sister, Nevaeh Kingbird, has been missing for a year and four months.

“It's taken a huge toll on my family in our community. And it's been really hard for us to find answers to find her because law enforcement hasn't really put effort into her case as much as we want them to,” she said. “So we just want to do as much as we can on our own or even anybody else that can help us find her to bring her home safe or even just home,” Kingbird said.

Earlier this month the U.S. Attorney's Office announced it is partnering with the Red Lake Nation to prosecute crimes committed on the reservation by non-members — including those against Indigenous women.