Sen. Mary Kunesh: A Central Issue

Trigger warning – This story contains graphic depictions of violence.

Sen. Mary Kunesh. Photo by Sarah Whiting

Growing up in a tightly knit family of 13 children, we did not have a lot, but we had each other. We also had parents who placed a priority on knowledge, education, and empathy. Hard work and collaboration are nothing new to me — from an early age I learned these values, including consensus building. As a middle daughter, I learned that when everyone works together and does their part with a good heart, the work gets done more quickly and efficiently.

My Uŋ ́kaŋ — my mother’s father — relocated from the Standing Rock Reservation to Saint Paul in his early teens with his mother and some siblings. Growing up, my Uŋ ́kaŋ instilled in us pride and awe for our Lakota heritage through his stories of growing up on the prairie. I remember him talking about my great aunt, Josephine Gates Kelly, the first female Tribal Chair of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and speaking with sadness when my mom’s cousin Elsie went missing.

I always knew that I wanted to make a difference in my community as my Aunt Josephine did for her reservation. So, I began volunteering on political campaigns, learning the process, the people, and the rigor required to run for public office. The more I learned about our local, state, tribal, and federal governmental structures — and how connected they are to the issues that challenge our families, our schools and communities, and our environment — the more I felt motivated to be an advocate.

That is what I did as the chief author of legislation that created the task force to study the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) in Minnesota. I was inspired after learning about a preliminary Canadian report in 2017. That same summer, Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, of the Spirit Lake tribe, had her unborn child cut from her womb and her still-alive body thrown into the Red River in North Dakota. I felt I had no choice but to address the violence that has for too long destroyed so many families in Minnesota and across Turtle Island (a name for North America used by some Indigenous peoples).

In the U.S., Indigenous women are more than twice as likely to experience violence compared to any other demographic. One in three Indigenous women is sexually assaulted during her life, and 67 percent of these assaults are perpetrated by non-Natives.

Listening to our Indigenous community, it became apparent that my mother’s cousin, Elsie Kelly, was one of those statistics a generation ago.

The Indigenous community came together when I asked for permission to tell their stories and work toward solutions. We collaborated to craft legislation proposing the Task Force. We heard heart-wrenching stories — sometimes very graphic, and always with tears and anguish — that unanimously convinced legislators that it was time to address this crisis. With a small appropriation from the legislature and a short 18-month time frame, made even shorter due to COVID-19, we completed the report in December 2020 and shared it with the legislature in February 2021.

The report confirms that MMIW injustices are rooted in colonization and historical trauma, racism, sexism, and sexual objectification of Indigenous women and girls. Generational trauma contributes to poverty, lack of housing, involvement in the child welfare and criminal justice systems, domestic violence, and sex trafficking. Traffickers prey on vulnerable women and girls, which must be addressed in part through education about healthy relationships and consent.

The report offered 20 mandates and recommendations, the most important among them being the creation of an MMIW office to provide ongoing leadership. Governor Walz has proposed $1 million in his budget over the next two years to develop this office, produce an annual MMIW research report, and create a dashboard that will track, collect, and disseminate data over time so we can better understand the depth of the crisis.

Sen. Mary Kunesh asks that readers:

• Learn what sex trafficking looks like and offer help if someone might need it,

• Keep track of AMBER Alerts and learn about missing Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit people in your community.

• Advocate locally to learn what your county sheriff and local law enforcement, school district, and hospitals, do about the MMIR crisis and ask how they work to prevent it.

• Contact your representatives about supporting legislation such as the Violence Against Women Act (federal), Safe Harbor Act (state), and Indian Child Welfare Act (federal and state)

Mary Kunesh (she/her) represents District 41, including parts of Ramsey, Hennepin, and Anoka counties, in the Minnesota Senate.