Lawmakers to discuss creating Task Force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

January 28, 2019 12:00 AM

Tuesday is a big day for Native Americans in Minnesota. The House of Representatives Public Safety Committee will hold the first hearing to consider legislation to create a Task Force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

In 2017 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS reported on JoJo Boswell, a 19-year old Native American woman from Minneapolis vanished in 2005.

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"I just miss being able to give her a hug and give her a kiss," Boswell's mother, Geraldine Jackson, said. "She was only 19. She would just be beginning her life. She was just beginning. She was just starting out. She was just a child. She needs to come back so she can live and grow and be with us."

Family feels race is factor in lack of coverage about missing Minneapolis woman

"JoJo's story is really the typical story of missing and murdered indigenous women across the nation," said Minnesota State Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, a descendant of the Standing Rock Lakota Tribe.

Experts on the issue said it is difficult to know just how many Native American women are missing. 

"I don't think we know, I certainly don't know" said Nicole Matthews, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition. 

Missing Minnesotans 

"Often times our stories aren't out there simply because we're native women. As we see with many communities of color, when black and brown women go missing, there are a million and one reasons that the community blames them for why they're gone," Matthews said. "Or people simply don't care." 

The Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition published research called "Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota." 

"We interviewed 105 native women here in Minnesota and their experiences being used in prostitution and trafficking," Matthews said. "Nearly all of the women talked about other native women that had been used in trafficking, that had simply gone missing and no one had seen or heard from them again."

A study from the Urban Indian Health Institute called "Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls" highlights the problem nationally.  It includes numbers from the National Crime Information Center, which show that in 2016 there were 5,712 reports of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.  Yet only 116 were logged in the Department of Justice NamUs Missing Persons Database. The Urban Indian Health Institute is researching why there is a disparity.

"It's all so complicated," said Kunesh-Podein."And it's not just one thing or one agency or one program that isn't working. It's all of it.  For all of this time there hasn't been an accurate count of where and who and why women go missing."

Kunesh-Podein is proposing legislation to create a Task Force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. 

Kunesh-Podein hopes the task force will get state, federal and tribal agencies on the same page to remove barriers and help them communicate with each other and create a database to track missing and murdered indigenous women. 

"We should care about what happens to anybody," said Kunesh-Podein. "Whether they're indigenous, whether it's my neighbor, whether it's an immigrant. It really is a moral responsibility to look out for each other."

Matthews believes Minnesota has been a leader in responding to and addressing violence against women.

"I think we can continue to be a leader by pushing this legislation," she said. "To simply ignore that they're missing, to simply ignore this issue and brush it away is wrong. It's morally wrong. And I think it's time. It's certainly time for Minnesota to step up and do something about it."

"It will be the story of JoJo," said Kunesh-Podein when referring to the legislation. "Perhaps her spirit and her soul has come back and she's working miracles behind the scenes. Hopefully, it will acknowledge her life and recognize that she was a valued person and she was loved. And we need to make sure that everybody remembers that."

Nearly two years after 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS' original report, there is still no sign of Boswell.

Boswell and other missing women will be remembered at the annual "Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women's Memorial March" organized by the Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition.

The march will take place on Feb. 14 at the Minneapolis American Indian Center. 

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