Delaney fitzpatrick/lakeland times
Renne Gralewicz offers red tobacco ties, or prayer ties, to the audience. The color red has come to symbolize the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement.
Delaney fitzpatrick/lakeland times
State Senator Janet Bewley discusses her support for the Missing and Murdered Tribal Women and Girls bill during an event in Lac du Flambeau Wednesday, Sept. 18.
9/24/2019 7:30:00 AM State legislators introduce Missing and Murdered Tribal Women and Girls bill
Delaney Fitzpatrick Of the Lakeland Times
State legislators, allies, and community members gathered in Lac du Flambeau Wednesday morning to introduce a bill regarding missing and murdered tribal women and girls.
If passed, the bill would establish a task force responsible for investigating Wisconsin's missing and murdered tribal women and girls crisis.
American Indian and Alaska Native women are three times as likely to die of homicide than non-hispanic white women, according to the Center for Disease Control.
A recent study by the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) found that there were 5,712 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls cases in 2016. Out of these cases, only 116 were logged by the Department of Justice's federal missing persons database.
These types of statistics make spreading awareness about the issue paramount. The issue is not only about the rate at which Indigenous women experience violence, but also the total lack of initiative currently taken by law enforcement to investigate and track these types of crimes.
Over the last 12 months, the issue has emerged as a growing topic of discussion at both the state and national levels. Similar bills have already passed in states including Arizona, Washington, and Minnesota, the latter of which supplied the basic structure for the Wisconsin bill.
The idea for Wisconsin's bill was brought to state legislators by Lisa Hurst and Renee Gralewicz, who each spoke at the press conference. Hurst is a Native People Outreach Advocate for Reach Counseling, while Gralewicz is an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley. Gralewicz and Hurst had begun digging into the data in February, noticing the crisis was especially severe in the Fox Valley region. They brought the statistics to the attention of State Representative Amanda Stuck (D-Appleton) in March.
With Stuck's help, the bill got off the ground quickly. "It's been a whirlwind for us," said Gralewicz.
During the conference, Stuck spoke about why she felt compelled to get involved. She recalled, "When Lisa and Renee showed me the numbers, I was just absolutely astounded that this is happening and we're not giving it the attention it deserves - that these women are being ignored, their stories are not being investigated. I felt it was crucial that we do something."
She acknowledged the failure of lawmakers to identify the issue and the need for activists like Hurst and Gralewicz to ensure it is no longer ignored: "As legislators, we are just the ones who can bring this forward, but it's really women like Lisa and Renee who are doing the work to bring this to the attention of legislators to keep these women's stories in front of us so that we don't forget about them."
State Senator Janet Bewley (D-Ashland) also spoke about the importance of the bill's proposed task force.
"There is no way to grab this. We have to figure out a way to name this, to identify it, to find strategies that will work, and that is what this legislation will do," she said.
Bewley stressed the need to begin with the basics. "This bill is going to let the state know that we are ready to focus on what the state can do to gain an understanding of these circumstances of Native women and then to see how we can best compliment the work that they're doing on the reservation at the Tribal level because we simply must do more than what we are."
The bill's larger mission is to not just establish new strategies, but to complement existing strategies at the Tribal level. This focus on cooperation was inspired by Minnesota's bill, which also followed up on work already completed by activists without the help of legislation.
Representative Beth Meyers shared her excitement about the bill. "I think it's long overdue," she said.
Meyers has close personal connection to the issue, as she explained that she lives on the Red Cliff Reservation and that her children and relatives are Red Cliff Tribe members.
Although the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women has been ignored for years, Meyers remained hopeful, saying, "It should have happened a long time ago that we addressed this issue. But today we are. And today's a good day to start."
It's still unclear how and why this issue is only now reaching public attention, but when asked for her thoughts on the matter, Gralewicz said, "I think Indigenous people are tired of being ignored on mass media. When we see other U.S. Americans go missing, or children go missing, we see mass media get so involved and engaged and you see them on national news, but we don't see our sisters on national news."
In fact, the UIHI found that of the 506 cases identified in the report, 95% were never covered by national and international news.
"It's exhausting. It's exasperating," said Gralewicz.
Wisconsin legislators will soon have the opportunity to raise awareness about missing and murdered tribal women. If passed, Wisconsin will join a growing number of states that have taken action in trying to understand why violence against Native women is so prevalent. The hope is that preventative measures can be put into place sooner rather than later.
Now that the bill has been brought public, Gralewicz says there will be more opportunities for citizen engagement. "From this point on, we'll be reaching out and asking more people to be more active in helping us get this passed, she said.
The introduction of the bill is a step in the right direction, but there is still much more work to be done by the state, law enforcement, and communities to protect the safety of Idiogenous women and girls across Wisconsin.
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