What I Learned About Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives

Leya Hale (courtesy photo)

As a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota and Diné Nations, I have long been aware of the stories that are not told about sexual assault and violence against Native women. Attention started to be paid in Canada, and that began trickling into the U.S.

In 2014, there was a first-ever Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR) rally in Minneapolis. “Almanac,” a public affairs show from Twin Cities PBS, asked if I would capture footage and interview people about the event.

I thought it would be a small event, but when I arrived at the American Indian Center in Minneapolis, there were hundreds of people. I felt both overwhelmed and inspired. I had never seen a large group of people come together about this issue. I heard many women talking about the policies they were working to get passed. I heard women talking about the searches they were undertaking and their distrust in law enforcement. I learned about the lack of data that was making it hard to find solutions. I heard stories from the families whose loved ones were missing.

Having grown up in the Los Angeles area, home to the largest off-reservation Native population, the lack of Native representation in Hollywood impacted my self-confidence as a youth. However, my family raised me with a strong sense of cultural identity. Although I was living far from my ancestral homelands in South Dakota, I learned from traditional knowledge, stories, songs, and dances. That is how I discovered my passion for storytelling.

At my first MMIR rally, there were presentations, stories, songs, crying, and uplifting words, ending with a walk around South Minneapolis. This made me feel proud and empowered. I wanted to do something.

My new documentary, “Bring Her Home,” is now available on Twin Cities Public Television (TPT).

Native women make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population yet face murder rates that are more than ten times the national average. As an Indigenous storyteller with access inside PBS, a trusted public media platform, I felt a responsibility to bring more widespread attention to this issue.

Indigenous people continue to suffer from the effects of colonization, systemic oppression, and historical trauma. Many of the issues we face today, such as the MMIR epidemic, are a result of past federal Indian policies.

Statistics indicate that many of the perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women are middle-aged white men from the suburbs.  This is a violation that has been happening since the first European contact. Pocahontas is an example of men coming into communities with the idea that women are objects that are not important and are expendable.

As 2016 data reveals, out of 5,712 missing and murdered Indigenous women counted that year, only 116 were logged into a Department of Justice database as a crime. [Minnesota Women’s Press reported in its MMIR special issue in April 2021 that there were between 27 and 54 actively missing American Indian women and girls in Minnesota in any given month from 2012 to 2020.”

Minnesota’s new MMIR task force successfully led to the development of the country’s first office focused on keeping track of these crimes.

Mysti Babineau (photo by Leya Hale)

My documentary follows the story of three central characters — Angela Two-Stars, Mysti Babineau, and North Dakota Rep. Ruth Buffalo — and reveals how violence against Indigenous women has become normalized. It is rare for local news to share stories about missing Indigenous women. When someone goes missing, most of the support comes from within Indigenous communities, rather than media or law enforcement. Our communities begin the search and take to social media to spread awareness.

Coming together in community to mourn and remember lost loved ones is a big part of the healing process. In my film, we witness how communities release grief, anger, and hopelessness through art, cultural practices, and traditional healing ceremonies.  

Resiliency is a positive step in being able to move forward, open to accept different ways of healing through love, unity, and strengthening cultural identities. This enables us to tap into the power of prayer, medicines, and spirituality to help guide us on healing journeys.

Many prayers and traditional practices went into the making of “Bring Her Home.” I made it a priority to incorporate traditional medicines into the production, to protect the well-being of participants and to encourage the production team to remain committed to telling these stories with compassion and respect.      

For me,making this film reassured me that it is necessary to incorporate cultural knowledge, teachings, and practices when telling stories for and about Indigenous peoples. It is important to portray ourselves overcoming difficult and challenging times by leaning into the tools and resources our ancestors have left for us.      

 “Bring Her Home” is broadcast on Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) November 21, at 9pm, returning to that time slot on November 25 on TPT Life. It is available for free streaming at tpt.org/bring-her-home/ until December 10, 2022.