ONAMIA, Minn. (WCCO) – More than 100 gathered at the Health and Human Services Center near Mille Lacs Lake on Thursday to recognize the National Day of Awareness for Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.

Members of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe shared personal testimonies of missing and murdered loved ones, an issue that has persisted for decades, according to state reports.

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A December 2020 report from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Task Force to the Minnesota State Legislature showed despite Indigenous women making up just 1% of the state’s population, they account for roughly 15% of missing persons cases at any given time.

“This is a real issue,” said Nicole Anderson, the Mille Lacs Ojibwe commissioner of Health and Human Services. “This is not just on TV, this is not just something you see in the movies. This is happening every day all around us all across the nation.”

Nationally, 84% of Indigenous women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime, according to the NCAI Policy Research Center, listed in the state’s report. The 2020 report led to the creation of the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives Office, the first of its kind in the nation.

“This is about seeking justice for the victims and their families. That’s what the mission of this office is,” said Juliet Rudy, who has served as the head of the office since Feb. 28. “It’s very personal to me. I have a cousin that’s been missing since 2017, I have a cousin that was murdered with no justice. I have a friend whose daughter was killed by gun violence.”

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In Onamia, red dresses line a fence along Highway 169. The empty dresses are a symbol of the violence and vitality of the situation, Anderson said.

“Maybe it will prompt a search. Maybe it won’t. But it symbolizes a lot,” she said.

Anderson says she’s hopeful by having public conversations about the issue, other issues like trafficking, harassment and gang violence will be brought to light.

“Those are the things we need to discuss,” she said.

Rudy says her office plans to hire more employees in the coming months.

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“We need to do something,” she said.

Adam Duxter