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House OKs bill to address ‘historic epidemic’ of violence against indigenous women

Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein gives the thumbs-up to supporters and advocates in the House Gallery after HF70 is passed on the House Floor May 9. It would establish a Task Force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Photo by Andrew VonBank

On the House floor Thursday, lawmakers heard stories of violence, rape, death, injustice and other trauma affecting Native American women and girls at rates far above other populations.

Murder is the third-leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-old indigenous girls and women, said Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein (DFL-New Brighton).

“This is a real historic epidemic” that can finally be addressed, said Kunesh-Podein, who sponsors HF70. The bill would create a task force to analyze systemic reasons for the high rate of violence against Native American women and girls in the state and track the number of those who have gone missing, most presumably dead or victims of sex trafficking.

Passed 128-0, the bill goes to the Senate where Sen. Patricia Torres Ray (DFL-Mpls) is the sponsor.

The vote came after several representatives, including Kunesh-Podein and Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn (DFL-Roseville), recited names and told the tragic stories of several women that have recently come to light.

Violence against indigenous women bill on House Floor 5/9/19

Both representatives have Native ancestry, and both said it’s important to speak the names of those indigenous women and girls who have been traumatized by violence because mainstream society has kept them in the shadows for far too long.

“We are more than our traumas, we are survivors and we are still here,” said Becker-Finn. “Your stories matter, and I hear you.”

Kunesh-Podein spoke of Mysti Babineau who was watching from the House Gallery. Babineau was one of several indigenous women who recounted their personal stories of surviving traumatic and violent events when testifying before the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division in January.

Babineau said she was raped for the first time when she was just 9 years old. Three years later, she and her grandmother were violently assaulted, resulting in the death of her grandmother and deep knife wounds to Babineau’s hand.

“Today we mourn the women we’ve lost,” said Kunesh-Podein. “But we have renewed hope that no one will have to wonder if their daughters, their sisters, their mothers and loved ones will come home when they walk out the door.”

Members of the task force would include representatives from law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, tribal government officials, nongovernment agencies and an indigenous woman who is a survivor of gender violence. It would be funded with $150,000 in the 2020-21 biennium.

Kunesh-Podein said an unknown number of Native American women and girls disappear each year. On some reservations, she said, women are killed at a rate more than 10 times the national average.  And Department of Justice statistics show one in three Native American women will at some point in their life be raped.

The bill language is also included in SF802, the omnibus public safety finance bill that is currently in conference committee.

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