Utah Task Force investigates Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls

A state task force to explore how the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls epidemic is impacting Utah is seeking input from Indigenous communities in San Juan County.

Activism amongst Indigenous groups in the United States and Canada has brought attention to the higher-than-average rate of murdered and missing cases of indigenous women, and the underreporting of those numbers.

A 2008 report commissioned by the US Department of Justice found that from 1994-1998, the rate of homicide of San Juan County Native American women was 9.67 per 100,000 people. 

Although the rate for Caucasian women in San Juan County is not known during that time period, the national Caucasian women’s homicide rate was 1.72 per 100,000 people.

The data means from 1994 to 1998, Native American women in San Juan County were five times more likely to be victims of homicide than white women.

In an effort to understand the issue, the Utah state legislature passed a bill in March 2020 to establish a task force to study their issue in Utah.

The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls task force is gathering feedback both in person and remotely to allow those impacted by the epidemic to share in a way that’s best for them.

Voicemails can be left at 801-538-1407. Emails can be sent to mmiwgtf@le.utah.gov and physical letters can be addressed to C/O Office of Legislative Research & General Counsel, 36 State Capitol w210, Salt Lake City, UT 84103.

The task force is also holding a public meeting at the Bluff Community Center on Saturday, November 20 at 9 a.m. The meeting will also have a virtual option for those who cannot make it in person and will be streamed on the state legislature website.

Topics at the meeting will include jurisdictional challenges related to crimes on tribal lands, with legal experts speaking on issues as well as input from law enforcement agencies sharing their perspectives.

The meeting will close with a listening session to give the public an opportunity to share experiences, frustrations, and suggestions to the task force.

The task force is made up of elected officials Representative Angela Romero (D) of Salt Lake City and Senator David Hinkins (R) of Ferron. Senator Hinkins is the state senate representative for San Juan County.

Other members of the task force include Dustin Jansen, the director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, Tyler Kotter, who is Chief of the Utah Department of Public Safety, as well as others.

The task force has met one other time this year on June 14. At the meeting, the task force heard reports from a local indigenous-led organization and from a state that had implemented a similar task force.

Restoring Ancestral Winds (RAW) is a Utah organization funded by the United States Department of Justice Office of Violence Against Women. RAW’s mission is to support healing in indigenous communities.

At the June meeting, RAW contractor Moroni Benally outlined that the National Crime Information Center had reported 5,712 known incidents of missing and murdered Indigenous Women in 2016.

Benally explained that socio-economic conditions such as poverty, homelessness, exposure to violence and abuse, and loss of land can all raise risk factors. Those factors can increase the likelihood of domestic violence, stalking, trafficking, and sexual assault, which also contribute to the murdered and missing indigenous women and girls epidemic.

Benally cited data from a 2016 report from the US Department of Justice titled: Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men: 2010 Findings from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey

Benally outlined how nationally 84.3-percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, while 81.6-percent of American Indian and Alaska Native men have experienced violence in their lifetime.

Relative to white women, Native women are 1.2 times as likely to experience violence in their lifetime Relative to white men, and Native men are 1.3 times as likely to experience violence in their lifetime.

Another statistic discussed at the meeting relates to those who commit these crimes against Indigenous people.

“Crimes are being committed by non-native perpetrators,” said Benally. “We don’t really know exactly what that means, but what we do know is that it’s happening inter-racially.”

Also at the meeting, Minnesota State Senator Mary Kunesh reported on the work of their task force in Minnesota, which was formed in 2019.

Kunesh presented a report issued by the Minnesota task force.

A key focus of the report in Minnesota looked at current violence against Indigenous women and girls, and the factors that place them at higher risk, as well as the factors that relate to justice, served in those cases, and how tribal, county, and state entities work together.

The Minnesota report recommended the creation of a Missing and Murdered Indigeinous Women and Girls Office to provide support to examine the systemic causes behind violence that Indigenous women and girls experience.

Whether a similar report or office is created in Utah remains to be seen.

The task force’s meeting at the Bluff Community Center will be on Saturday, November 20 at 9 a.m. 

The Bluff Community Center is located at 3rd East and Mulberry Road in Bluff.

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