Red silhouettes lined the snow as a representation of thousands of Indigenous women who were murdered, or are still missing.
Though temperatures fell to negative 15 degrees that evening, the dangerously cold weather did not prevent dozens of people from attending a vigil at Houdini Plaza in Appleton, Wisconsin. The gathering was part of the international movement rallying together to demand justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives.
State leaders and community activists attended to condemn the hold up of the missing and murdered task force bills in the state legislature. Wisconsin State Representative Amanda Stuck attended the sunset vigil on Feb. 14 to address the community.
“People have called, written letters and requested a hearing on the bill,” said Rep. Stuck commenting on the state committee chairs who have so far refused to bring the bill to hearing.
Grassroots efforts brought forth by citizens and social justice activists have pushed the state of Wisconsin legislators to establish a task force to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“If the bill does not go to hearing this week, it will die, and will not be heard again until next year, making the community response crucial,” said Stuck who spoke in front of tribal and non-tribal communities — including members of Esther Fox Valley, Menominee Indian Nation, Oneida Indian Nation — and social justice activists.
“These committees have gone to hearing on several other matters and there has been time and opportunity to hold a hearing, the lack of response is perceived as a lack of value for women’s lives, we need to call our legislatures and demand better,” said Stuck.
Renee Gralewicz, a peacemaker of the Brothertown Indian Nation in Fond du Lac and teacher of anthropology and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin in Fox Valley, and Lisa Hurst, Oneida, an advocate at Reach Counseling Center, worked with Amanda Stuck, the Wisconsin State Representative from Assembly District 57, and Jeff Mursau, the Wisconsin State Senator from Assembly District 36, to create a missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls task force bill.
Representatives Stuck and Mursau proposed assembly bill 548 to the Wisconsin House and Democrat Senator Janet Bewley of District 25 proposed Senate Bill 493 in an effort to identify the problems within the state criminal justice databases related to missing and murdered Indigenous people.
The primary purposes of the bills are to reduce violence against Indigenous women through the creation of state task forces.
These task forces would identify systematic causes and contributing factors of violence and would work to identify the root cause of gender-based violence against Indigenous people. It would also resolve jurisdictional issues to strengthen the reporting protocol on a local, state, and federal level.
The task force would examine appropriate methods for collecting and tracking data and provide a report on steps that should be taken to reduce violence, then begin to shape the implementation of policies and procedures which address violence against tribal women and relatives.
“If first, we don’t understand the scope of the problem, we will not be able to prevent it,” said Gralewicz who also spoke to the community at the vigil. She said the fact that legislators have done nothing is “complete disrespect and the fight is not over.”
Gralewicz recently wrote the Assembly Committee on State Affairs stating she is, “disappointed by the lack of effort to assist Wisconsin tax-paying citizens in their plight to have an accurate database that reflects the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.”
Gralewicz emphasized, “this is a state problem that can only be solved by our state agencies, not the federal government. Your names will be remembered across the state as the elections draw near.”
The bills are currently held up in two committees: the Assembly Committee of State Affairs where Rep. Swearingen is the chairman; and the State Senate Committee on Government Operations, Technology, and Consumer Protection where Sen. Stroebel is also the chairman.
We must prevent violence against Native American women
Kristin Welch, a community organizer of Menikanaehkem and the keynote speaker at the vigil in Appleton, told attendees, “We must prevent violence against Native American women.”
Welch, Menominee, explained that violence against Indigenous women has been a crisis since colonization.
“Native American women as targeted victims of sexual violence is a fact that still is present today,” Welch said. “If we are going to stop violence against Indigenous women, we must hold perpetrators accountable.”
She reminded the Wisconsin citizens that they voted their policymakers into their seats and, “If legislators do not respond, it will be the voters that take them out of those seats.”
“We must rise, move into action, and demand justice as protectors of life, and together our voices will speak for those victims whose voices have been silenced,” Welch said. “We must ensure that our missing and murdered women and relatives have a voice and receive justice.”
“Historically, our Indigenous women have been silenced and oppressed, in our society today we must and we will change that,” Welch said.
Lee Corn, who was from Keshena, Wisconsin, attended the vigil in remembrance of relative Rae Elaine Tourtillott. Tourtillott was last seen on October 15, 1986, at a birthday party. Her body was recovered six months later by the Menominee Tribal Police and the FBI. The two agencies announced last year they are offering rewards for anyone who knows the person or persons responsible for her death. Investigators are treating her case as a murder case.
“I wanted to attend the vigil to stand in solidarity and remember my niece's mother who is still waiting for justice, Rea will always be loved and remembered,” Corn said.
Urban Indian Health Institute data reinforces the need for MMIW task force
There were 5,712 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls reported and only 116 of them were logged into the Department of Justice database, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute. The Centers for Disease Control and Preventions reports that murder is the third-leading cause of death among Native American women. Though more than 71 percent of Native American women live in urban areas, there has been no research done on the rate of off-reservation violence.
Urban Indian Health Institute conducted a study examining the numbers and dynamics of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The goal of this study was to provide comprehensive data to illustrate the crisis in Native American and Alaska Native communities.The study aimed to assess the difficulty of collecting data surrounding the violence, and how law enforcement agencies are tracking and responding to the cases, as well as how the media is reporting them.
According to Urban Indian Health Institute, more than 95 percent of cases in the study were not reported by the media, further explaining institutional practices allow victims to disappear three times – in life, in the media, and in data. Urban Indian Institute made repeated requests for files of missing and murdered Indigenous women however, received a limited response or no response at all.
The Urban Indian Institute reports it is imperative that more studies are done to provide in-depth research on this crisis and to understand how and why Native American and Alaska Native women and girls continue to go missing. This report explains there must be a method to adequately and accurately track data to form an understanding of the problem. If there is no data to measure the crisis, there will be a limited understanding of the problem.
Residents plan to stride forward expecting progress with perseverance
The Wisconsin State Assembly concluded and will not hold another hearing. The last session for Senate is expected to be around March 26th however, it is unlikely they will hold a hearing for any bills outside of the scope of what has already been passed by the Assembly.
“Neither committee seems willing to respond to the community outcry asking for a hearing this session,” Gralewicz said. “Human trafficking is a conversation that must stay in dialogue, rather than be absent from the conversation, this bill is important to Wisconsin because we must take measures which acknowledge the alarming untold numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women in our state.”
The number of co-sponsors within both the assembly and state senate is increasing to support the legislation. Dave Hansen Wisconsin State Senator from Assembly District 30 has recently signed on.
Representative Mursau, co-author of the bill is also the chair of the special committee on state-tribal relations. The committee is composed of people from the tribes or intertribal council, and legislatures from both parties, and both houses. The committee is created every two years on even-numbered years and is expected to meet again this summer.
“Since the bill may not receive a hearing this session it will be at the forefront of priority to work with both tribal legislation and the special committee on state-tribal relations to propose the legislation again next session having confidence there is support from state representatives and the community,” Welch said.
Wisconsin is the 15th most populous state with regard to the Indigenous population, according to the 2010 Census. President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order to investigate this matter at the federal level and the Department of Justice is expected to invest $1.5 million dollars to hire 11 coordinators in 11 states. If Wisconsin is not included in the order, the state will wait on federal investigations.
Gralewicz said: “Wisconsin must be responsible for investigating its own problem now, instead of waiting.”