My name is Peggy Flanagan and I’m the 50th Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota. I’m also an enrolled member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and the highest-ranking Native woman elected to executive office in the United States.
Wherever I go, in any role, I am a Native woman. It’s the lens through which I see the world, do my work, and speak my truth.
Far too often, Native people are erased. We are frequently misidentified as white, as I was during a national cable news broadcast last month. That mistake changed the meaning of the lived experiences behind my words. But the issue of Native erasure is larger than me or one mistake.
Too many history books say this land was “discovered,” and recently former senator Rick Santorum said, “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here.” These narratives demonstrate a harmful rhetoric disregarding the first people of this land.
Then, on National Awareness Day of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women last month, an Instagram glitch erased all “Story” posts tagged with the “MMIW” hashtag, silencing thousands of people sharing their stories. And just this past week, we learned of the remains of 215 Native children found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada. The discovery is shocking, and I’m mourning the loss of these children whose identities and lives were erased.
On their own, each of these instances of erasure hurt. Together, they illuminate a dangerous pattern that has real consequences for our people and communities.
The historic and continued erasure of Native people only serves to intensify the issue of our missing and murdered relatives and the lack of effective responses and prevention to this crisis.
In my home state, 8 percent of all women and girls murdered in Minnesota from 2010 through 2018 were Native, despite representing only 1 percent of the population. Between 2012 and 2020, anywhere from 27 to 54 Native women and girls were missing every single month.
Every Native woman I know has experienced violence. Every single one.
Last month, on National Awareness Day of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Relatives, I gathered at the Minnesota State Capitol with Native legislators, advocates, and allies looking out over 3,000 cardboard cutouts of red dresses sprawled across the lawn. Each dress represented the countless Native women, girls, and two-spirit relatives who have gone missing, been murdered, or experienced violence, and their families who grieve their loss. I can never forget looking out at the sea of red, knowing that each dress represents a wound that had not healed – a wound that for too long had not been fully seen.
In Minnesota, we have taken important, overdue steps to address this crisis. We passed legislation in 2019 to create Minnesota’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Task Force. The bipartisan bill resulted from decades of advocacy and would not have happened without the bravery of Native women sharing their painful stories. Centering the expertise of advocates and people with lived experience, the Task Force convened for 20 months to examine systemic causes, methods for tracking data, and measures to address and prevent violence.
Now, we are working to create a permanent Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Office. The office is critical to our state’s implementation of solutions recommended by the powerful work of the Task Force. Even while championed by advocates, experts, and the Minnesota State Legislature’s Native Caucus, Senator Mary Kunesh and Representatives Jamie Becker-Finn and Heather Keeler, the proposal to create this office has not yet been passed by the GOP-led state Senate.
As angry as I felt when the National MMIW Awareness Day images disappeared from Instagram, it quickly changed to hope because, within hours of the glitch, every Native woman I knew was reposting their pictures, adding calls to action, and making it impossible to not see us.
We know the way forward to address the problem of violence requires visibility of the issue. But in IllumiNative’s 2018 Reclaiming Native Truth study, 78 percent of Americans surveyed reported knowing little to nothing about Native Americans. If we are not seen, how can people take action to understand us, and ultimately protect us from violence?
If interviewed in IllumiNative’s survey, would you report knowing about Native Americans past and present? Can you learn more about us today? When you finish reading, search “MMIW crisis”, “American Indian history”, and “American Indian boarding schools”.
Because with visibility and understanding, action is possible.
Since his comments, CNN terminated the contract of Mr. Santorum after he refused to apologize. I have received an apology from the individual and the network who misidentified me, and we are now building a relationship. Instagram apologized for the glitch that caused the missing posts. These actions matter.
In Minnesota, action is ready for us, too. We’re asking GOP state lawmakers to see us, value us, and invest in our safety by passing the bill to create the Office of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
As I write in my kitchen, “Rutherford Falls” is streaming in the background, and my 8-year-old daughter is laughing along with Jana Schmieding, a Lakota actress and writer, who stars as a Native woman juggling her career, her role as a tribal member, and the ups and downs of her love life. This show—this visibility—matters. Women being able to share their stories on social media matters. Understanding and speaking the truth about the history of this country matters.
My daughter and every Native girl deserve to grow up feeling seen, heard, valued, and safe as their full Indigenous selves. We are worth protecting.
Native women have always been here, are still here, and will continue to be here. It is time to see us. It is time to act.