When the Minnesota Department of Public Safety asked me to provide research and prepare the Task Force’s final report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), I was honored, and a bit intimidated. I was eager to learn more about the jurisdictional complexities, systemic factors, and root causes that created the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR) injustice and dig into available data.
Unfortunately, a lack of data makes this crisis difficult to pin down. There is no one database where all MMIR-related cases are tracked. Describing the MMIR injustice involves reporting data on murders, missing persons, and other related crimes like domestic violence and trafficking. It also includes data from systems — such as child welfare, law enforcement, corrections, hospitals — that serve American Indian women, girls, and two-spirit people (in this article, I use the technical term American Indian when referring to state data. Otherwise, I use the term Indigenous).
Many of the data systems that track MMIR statistics at the national and state levels do not have mandatory local law enforcement participation, and tribes might not have access to them. Law enforcement, hospitals, and coroners may not identify victims as American Indian, which is another reason for poor quality data. In some cases, cause of death may be attributed to suicide, overdose, or exposure in cases where a person was actually the victim of violence.
For the final report, my colleagues from Wilder Research and I gathered information from various sources, including published literature and articles; interviews with 32 experts, such as sex trafficking advocates, child welfare experts, and direct service providers; state and federal laws; and data from state agencies.
We found that American Indian women and girls in Minnesota are disproportionately the victims of murder. Although they make up less than one percent of the state’s total population, they make up eight percent of known murder victims.
Indigenous people also experience other forms of exploitation at a higher rate. One out of five sex trafficking victims in Minnesota are American Indian.
This is a public health crisis that is not new. Since the first colonizers arrived centuries ago on Turtle Island (a name for North America used by some Indigenous peoples), there has been a pattern of abuse, exploitation, and disregard for Indigenous women and communities. The colonization process caused generational trauma and irreparable damage to Indigenous family systems and parenting practices.
Why are Indigenous women targets? As the task force report identifies, systemic racism and the sexual objectification of Indigenous women directly contribute to the disproportionate violence they experience.
American Indian children also are overrepresented among those placed out-of-home by the child welfare system. The direct link between the child protection system and MMIR injustice is not widely known. During the past five years, the Minnesota Department of Human Services reports that over 600 American Indian children ran away from their out- of-home placement. Many of these children end up being exploited or trafficked. Experts told us that there is not enough support available to help a child who is headed down this path, which can easily lead to incarceration, addiction, and becoming MMIR.
People leaving foster care, hospitals, and jail or prison are especially vulnerable to predators, as are people who are experiencing homelessness or poverty. Traffickers and other predators might offer temporary emotional or material security.
Another pattern we learned of is that people who grow up in violent and dysfunctional homes tend to normalize violence. This is why it is critical to teach children in the public school system about healthy relationships, consent, and what “grooming” for sexual exploitation looks like.
We learned how jurisdictional complexity creates challenges for law enforcement and for courts that are attempting to investigate and prosecute MMIR crimes.
Minnesota is covered by the federal Public Law 280, which gave jurisdiction for some crimes to the state instead of the federal government. (Two of the 11 tribes in Minnesota are exempt from this law.) Other recent federal laws — such as the Tribal Law and Order Act and the Violence Against Women Act — give jurisdictional authority back to some tribes for certain crimes. So, depending on the location, type of crime, and races of the victim and perpetrator, there may be different or overlapping authority between the tribes, state, and federal government to investigate and prosecute MMIR crimes.
As a result of this complexity, sometimes there is confusion, or passing off of critical tasks in the investigation or prosecution processes. Local law enforcement might not investigate all MMIR cases adequately due to lack of resources, skill, or capacity to deal with these types of crimes. Discrimination toward Indigenous women — especially those dealing with addiction, domestic violence, prostitution, or a criminal background — can also lead to lackluster or incomplete investigations.
Many law enforcement investigators and prosecutors say it is difficult to investigate and prosecute trafficking cases due to the frequent lack of cooperation from victims. Victims may be fearful or have strong trauma-induced responses, and may feel mixed emotions about their perpetrators. It does not help when entire communities expect violence and exploitation against Indigenous women to go unpunished, as has historically been the case. Perpetrators know how to find “safe havens” for their crimes, and victims learn to not seek help or report their experiences.
We have to work together to increase awareness about the systemic factors that make Indigenous women and girls more vulnerable to exploitation and violence. We must hold the state and federal government, as well as the systems that are supposed to help and protect people, accountable for addressing and ending the MMIR injustice.
Nicole MartinRogers (she/her), M.P.P., Ph.D. is a senior research manager at Wilder Research, where she leads and collaborates on a range of research and evaluation projects.