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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Native American justice project launched in Ely

Awareness ... then change

Keith Vandervort
Posted 10/13/21

ELY – “Although American Indian women and girls make up just one percent of the state’s population, from 2010 through 2018, eight percent of all murdered women and girls in …

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Native American justice project launched in Ely

Awareness ... then change


ELY – “Although American Indian women and girls make up just one percent of the state’s population, from 2010 through 2018, eight percent of all murdered women and girls in Minnesota were American Indian. From 27 to 54 American Indian women and girls in Minnesota were missing in any given month from 2012 to 2020.”
Those statistics drew gasps of disbelief and hushed murmurs from an overflow crowd at the Grand Ely Lodge here this week as State Sen. Mary Kunesh cited findings from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Task Force in Minnesota report she helped develop recently.
A Native American justice project, “Awareness…Then Change” launched this week in Ely. Kunesh, co-chair of the task force, was here to support the local effort.
Kunesh, the daughter and granddaughter of members of the Standing Rock Lakota Sioux Tribe, is the first Native American woman elected to the Minnesota Senate. Her presentation at Tuesday Group, “Building Awareness for Historical Change: The MMIW Movement in Minnesota,” focused on issues identified by the task force and plans for action to address the disproportionate incidence of violence against Native Americans.
Kunesh also presented the information to students at Vermilion Community College. Her presentation was prefaced with an honor song and dance by members of the Bois Forte Band. A display of red dresses (see sidebar), in memory of missing Indigenous women was also featured in the lobby near the VCC Fine Arts Theater.
The local justice project is sponsored by the Ely branch of the American Association of University Women in collaboration with the Ely EMPOWER organization. The goals of the justice project are to increase understanding, honor the heritage of the area, and to set the stage for supporting policy and social action to reduce the risks for and support the resilience of Native American women and children.
“As a committee, we realized that we have issues of inequity in our own Northeastern Minnesota region,” said local AAUW public policy committee member Linda Sutton. “Our intent is to bring awareness into our Ely community so that we can be better allies to our Native American neighbors.”
Kunesh highlighted several portions of her Minnesota Legislative Human Trafficking Task Force Report released earlier this year.
“Duluth was a huge hub for many years in the trafficking of Native girls,” she said. “It was easy to seduce them with money and goods and promises of a good life, and to get them on a ship. The ship leaves and the girls were never seen again. It was a direct pipeline into the world-wide sex trafficking network.”
Kunesh admitted that one of the biggest roadblocks for the task force was collecting data. “What has happened over the years is that either there hasn’t been any record or information kept on missing or murdered Indigenous people, or it has been haphazard,” she said. “No body collected the same information in the same way and documented it in the same manner and that made it very difficult.” She noted the problem exists across the nation.
With 100-percent buy-in for the effort on both sides of the political aisle, the task force was able to begin collecting data.
“We found out that in 2017, law enforcement agencies across the state recorded 173 sex trafficking incidents. Twenty percent of those victims were Native American,” she said. “That was an unfortunate confirmation. I would have loved it if we started looking at the data and found out that wasn’t the case. But we knew anecdotally from the Native community that this was happening.”
Kunesh summarized some of the key findings in the report.
“When an Indigenous woman or girl goes missing or dies under suspicious circumstances, the investigation, prosecution, and sentencing processes that are supposed to serve justice often fail to provide equal and fair treatment for these Indigenous victims,” she said. “The system does not have adequate culturally responsive healing resources for Indigenous victims/survivors, families, and communities.”
She implored the audience to get involved. “What can you do?” she asked. “Learn about what sex trafficking looks like. Be aware of your surroundings, and offer help if someone might need it. Keep track of AMBER Alerts and learn about the missing Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people in your community. Advocate locally to ensure your county sheriff and municipal law enforcement, school district and local hospitals, etc., are aware of the MMIW injustice and the role of systems in preventing it.”
Kunesh continued, “Contact your representatives about relevant legislation including VAWA (federal), Safe Harbor (state), ICWA (federal and state), etc. Help an individual or family that is involved in or trying to escape trafficking or domestic violence (donate to a shelter, be a foster care provider, etc.).
More Ely events
An Ely community reading event of the book, “In the Night of Memory,” by Linda LeGarde Grover, also began this week. Area residents are encouraged to read the book, then participate in one or more of the scheduled discussion events related to the book.
“In the Night of Memory” is a moving story of loss and recovery in Native American communities.
A reading and book signing is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 21, from 1-3 p.m. at Piragis Northwoods Co. The author will also introduce her new book of essays titled “Gichmigami Hearts” in which she interweaves family and Ojibwe history with stories from Misaabekong (the place of the giants) on Lake Superior. Copies of the book are available at Piragis Northwoods Co. and the Ely Public Library.
A community writing workshop with Grover will be held on Monday, Nov.22, at the Ely Folk School. The workshop runs from 5:30 to 8 p.m. and will include a light meal. Registration for the event is through the Ely Folk School website.
Grover will also provide workshops sponsored by Story Portage Foundation in several area schools.
The Community Read will wrap up with a reading and presentation at Tuesday Group on Nov. 23. Additional local activities related to the justice project will be scheduled in 2022.
The Ely justice project features an illustration, “Survivor II” by Shaun Chosa, a local Native American artist. “Survivor II” illustrates the impact of generations of historical trauma on Native American friends and neighbors.
Story Portage and The Brunfelt-Sainio Fund provided partial funding of the first two months of activities.
For more information on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Task Force in Minnesota, contact Sen.Kunesh at

Red Dress public art campaign
ELY – Red dresses were displayed outside the Vermilion Community College Fine Arts Theater here on Tuesday during a launch event for the Native American justice project, “Awareness…Then Change”
The display is meant to bring public awareness to missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people.
With red dress public art displays, advocates aims to educate about statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice. Some of the glaring and most current reports indicate that Native women face murder rates in some counties, including tribal lands, ten times the national average.
Alongside the red dress campaign, a “Say Her Name” billboard campaign was launched across Minnesota and Wisconsin last month to bring more attention to the missing people cases within the Indigenous communities in the region.
Supporting groups include the Native Justice Coalition, the American Indian Community Housing Organization, and the Global Indigenous Council. 


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