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‘Invisible’ American Indian women say they need help to stop sexual violence

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, left, and U.S. Sen. Tina Smith talk during a state Capitol meeting about missing and murdered American Indians. Behind them is a painting banned from the governor's office because it is considered offensive to Indians. Don Davis / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — “We are statistically insignificant.”

That is why little attention is paid to what many describe as an epidemic of murdered and missing American Indian women.

“Native women are invisible at best and disposable at worst,” said Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of northwestern Minnesota’s White Earth Nation.

American Indians are a small percentage of the overall population, she said, making it easy for some people to ignore the issue.

Sarah Curtiss of Duluth told Flanagan and U.S. Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota on Tuesday, April 23, that while Native American women like her may be “statistically insignificant,” not a month goes by without a woman close to her being killed or going missing. “These are guys I have hugged or I have hugged their mothers.”

Experts on the missing and murdered issue, sitting in front of a massive painting that Native Americans found so offensive that then-Gov. Mark Dayton removed it from his office, provided Smith background on the issue as she prepares renewed legislation designed to protect women.

She said that 56 percent of American Indian women are sexual violence victims during their lives, as well as one in five men. However, she and Flanagan said, they do not have specific figures for how the situation affects Minnesotans.

“Everyone’s life in some way is touched by this issue, but we don’t measure it yet,” Flanagan said.

Nationally, Smith said that it is estimated there are 6,000 cases of missing and murdered native women, but the federal Justice Department only has logged 118 of them into a database.

One expert on the subject, Lori Jump of the StrongHearts Native Helpline, said her organization moved its headquarters to Minnesota, which has worked on the situation longer than other states.

Women sitting around the state Capitol table said that federal officials have ordered tribes to deal with the violence, but Washington did not send money needed for law enforcement, treatment and other programs.

Many complained that “the jurisdictional issues are profound,” as one said.

Roberta Strong told of her daughter, who died in another state.

“I still don’t have my daughter’s body,” the emotional Strong said. “They still haven’t given me permission to go and get it.”

Beth O’Keefe said the Strong family needs to “move on from our grieving process,” but that cannot happen until the body is released.

“This has been going on since the 15th century, when Father Hennepin came here,” O’Keefe said, referring to the main character in the painting hanging over the meeting.

Flanagan and Smith said they had not heard about Strong’s issue, and both pledged to look into it.

O’Keefe said that governments “need to hold violence offenders accountable,” which many around the table said does not happen.

Red Lake Reservation’s Cheri Goodwin said one problem is when its members return home from prison, the tribe cannot afford programs to help integrate them back into the community. “How do we help them?”

Nicole Mathews of the Minnesota Indians’ Women Sexual Assault Coalition said each tribe needs to work on its own strategy to help its members because of differences among them.

Smith said the problem affects all American Indian women. “Native women are invisible when it comes to crimes of sexual violence whether they live in urban communities or rural communities.”