By Shereen Siewert

Wednesday marks a national day of awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and girls, a day set aside as a reminder to help combat abduction, homicide, violence and trafficking.

According to the Department of Justice, 84 percent of Indigenous women experience violence in their lifetime, with homicide representing the third-leading cause of death. Data show that in 88 percent of cases reported, the perpetrators of violence and sexual assault against Indigenous women are non-Native.

Local and state leaders have issued proclamations today calling attention to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Wisconsin.

“Today is a solemn day to remember those whose lives have been lost or who are missing due to abduction, homicide, or trafficking,” said Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul. “But this is also a day when we can resolve to take action to help prevent future cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women.”

Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg, Ashland Mayor Debra Lewis, Superior Mayor Jim Paine, Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich and Appleton Mayor Jake Woodford all issued proclamations marking the day. Several tribal organizations throughout Wisconsin are taking their own actions, ranging from resolutions to community walks.

Tricia Zunker, Associate Justice of the Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court and the former Wausau School Board president, said raising awareness is critical in addressing this epidemic.

“Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls refers to the high number of Indigenous women and girls who turn up murdered or who are never found,” Zunker said. “This issue is something that tribal leaders and communities have been trying to raise awareness for decades, but it is getting more awareness in recent years. However, this is an issue that has existed since the first explorers arrived on the continent and captured Indigenous women for slaves or other human trafficking.”

In July 2020, Attorney General Kaul officially launched the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force, a partnership with Wisconsin Department of Justice and Indigenous communities, to address and prevent future cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Wisconsin. The task force selected its Indigenous co-chairs, Skye Alloway, Forest County Potawatomi, and Justine Rufus, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, at the group’s first meeting in December. Task force meetings occur quarterly, and subcommittee meetings will begin in the near future.

Wisconsin has been dealing with the problem of missing and murdered people on or near native reservations for hundreds of years. Technology and social media has helped spread awareness for the cause; yet, loved ones still go missing.

Zunker said there are many contributing factors complicating the issue including jurisdictional questions that cause confusion and delay, a lack of mental health and community support and investigative failures. Those include failing to classify a death as a homicide or classifying the victim as a runaway, Zunker said.

Survivors often suffer from a range of long-term responses including feelings of guilt, depression, low self-esteem, self-destructive behaviors, anger, PTSD symptoms and many others.

Public educators say addressing the crisis through the school system is crucial to combating violence against Indigenous people, from ensuring Act 31 compliance to eradicating Native American mascots, nicknames and imagery from public schools. The Wausau School Board in April passed a resolution recognizing the Day of Awareness, a measure that passed unanimously.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday issued his own proclamation marking the day.

“On Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day, we remember the Indigenous people who we have lost to murder and those who remain missing and commit to working with Tribal Nations to ensure any instance of a missing or murdered person is met with swift and effective action,” President Biden said. “For too long, there has been too much sorrow and worry. United by our mutual investment in healthy, safe communities, we will work together to achieve lasting progress.”

The National Network to End Domestic Violence is calling for legislative changes to address the issue and is urging support for the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, (VAWA) a bipartisan bill that outlines steps to address such violence by restoring tribal sovereignty over crimes like sexual assault committed against Native American women by non-Native perpetrators. It would also direct the federal government to collect data on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

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