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After years of being ignored, renewed hope for Minnesota's missing and murdered indigenous women

Far right: Mysti Babineau knows what she's gone through may be horrific, but not at all uncommon for indigenous women.

Far right: Mysti Babineau knows what she's gone through may be horrific, but not at all uncommon for indigenous women. Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune

Mysti Babineau says she’s what people call a “half-breed.” She was born to a German mother and a Red Lake Ojibwe father. When she was just 2 years old, her mother went missing, and she ended up in the foster care system.

At the age of 9, she was raped for the first time. She told her teachers. She told social workers. She told her foster mother. All said she was making things up.

At the age of 12, she was adopted. One day, something snapped inside one of her cousins – Babineau still isn’t sure what, but says she was “sick, mentally.” Her cousin picked up a steak knife and stabbed her grandmother in the neck. Police said grandma was dead before she hit the floor.

The cousin then raised the knife and tried to put it through Babineau's neck. Babineau caught the blade in her hand – a move that both saved her life and required 15 stitches. Her cousin put down the knife and walked out of the room, as if whatever had been driving her to kill had suddenly died.

At the age of 20, Babineau stopped to help some men whose car had broken down. In return, they kidnapped her, took her 60 miles from her home, beat and raped her. As soon as they left her alone, she ran away.

“I can’t imagine how traumatic or hurtful this may sound to someone who has never been in this situation,” she says. Even now, her voice catches. But this is not uncommon. A majority of indigenous women and girls have faced violence sometime in their lives. Each year, a growing number are killed or never seen again.

Babineau has been telling this story for a while, testifying for a new task force dedicated to missing and murdered indigenous women. Its goal would be to study the main causes of disappearing indigenous women and collect solid data that could be used to prevent future incidents. It failed to make it through the Minnesota Legislature last year. Last week, a new version by Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein (D-New Brighton) passed the House with a unanimous vote. Its future is in the hands of the Senate.

Babineau is cautiously hopeful. It feels great, she says, to finally be heard. The history of missing and murdered Native women is centuries old.

“That vulnerability is essentially 500 years in the making,” Patina Park says. She’s the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. After European colonizers arrived in North America, Native people were subjected to years of genocide, relocation, poverty, and instability – all of which, she says, have a generational effect today.

“Heightened levels of violence, homelessness, housing instability, poverty – these all leave people vulnerable to being trafficked,” she says.

And that vulnerability is a nationwide epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, murder is the third-leading cause of death in American Indian and Alaskan Native women. In 2016, the Urban Indian Health Institute recorded a staggering 5,700 cases of missing or murdered women and girls.

At the same time, only 116 of those cases were logged in a Department of Justice Database. Park says there’s a huge disconnect between the droves of women indigenous communities know are gone and the amount of police help and media attention they receive -- despite the fact that this issue has been on the radar for years.

When Jayme Closs, a teen from Wisconsin, vanished after her parents were killed in their Barron home last year, her face was everywhere. She stayed in the headlines for weeks and weeks until, joyously, she was found.

Then there were women like Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old mother-to-be who was last seen in her family’s Fargo apartment in August 2017. She was found by kayakers eight days later – dead, wrapped in plastic, with her baby gruesomely cut out of her. Fargo police waited four days after she disappeared before getting a warrant to search her neighbor's apartment. Her neighbor later admitted to luring her upstairs, knocking her out, and using a knife to perform a crude C-section.

Then there are women like Sheila St. Clair, 48. In 2015, she announced plans to travel to the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota. She never arrived. That was the last her friends and family ever heard from her. She is still considered a missing person, and her family holds vigils every year to keep her memory alive.

“In a given community, I have to count on two hands the number of people whose family members have been missing or murdered,” Park says. “I don’t know anyone personally who hasn’t experienced violence against themselves or a family member.”

The future of the task force is in the hands of the Minnesota Senate. Babineau had hoped it would get a clean bill of its own. But once again, it has been lumped into a gigantic omnibus bill – its success tied to a huge hodgepodge of unrelated legislation.

And frankly, she’s angry. “That felt like a punch to the throat,” she says.

But she continues to speak out, and elsewhere, friends and allies take matters into their own hands. Taysha Martineau, a friend of Babineau’s and a member of the Fond du Lac tribe, recently started a group of private citizens dedicated to finding missing people. Every week, they walk the Twin Ports, hand out fliers, and question people at bus stops and bars.

It’s people like Martineau, she says, who give her the strength to keep trying.

“I will never quit fighting for those future generations,” she says. “My people and my community deserve healing. They deserve justice.”