MADISON, Wis.— A new task force is getting to work, determined to prevent violence against Wisconsin’s Native women.
The numbers are staggering: Indigenous women are killed at a rate ten times higher than the average population, according to the CDC.
Many more go missing, and end up unreported, or their cases aren’t always investigated. It’s just one piece of the systemic mistreatment of Native people.
“My cousin is Rae Elaine Tourtillott. She went missing and was murdered in October of 1986,” said Andrea Lemke-Rochon. “In the 34 years since her disappearance, we still have no answers, no arrests, no prosecution of her murderers.”
The thing is, we don’t even have an accurate number of how many First Nation Wisconsin women are missing or murdered.
But we do know it’s pervasive. That’s why the Department of Justice created the Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force. It’s following in the footsteps of Canada, Minnesota, and other states that have undertaken similar efforts.
The task force includes survivors, advocates, MMIW family members, people from the DOJ, law enforcement, and members of the Lieutenant Governor’s office. But mostly, and most importantly, the task force includes women and leaders from all 12 Nations of Wisconsin.
At the task force’s first meeting Friday, many members said this movement is long overdue. They shared their stories of how they’re connected to violence against Native women.
“I’m here for all of my relatives, but specifically for my grandmother, my mother, my sisters, my nieces, all are survivors,” said Skye Alloway, Forest County Potawatomi.
“I am a survivor of sexual assault, domestic violence, have multiple perpetrators who are non-Native,” said Jamie Kellicut, from the HIR Wellness Institute. “And I have children who are survivors of that same type of abuse.”
There are lots of reasons why Indigenous women can be at higher risk for violence, and most are systemic factors.
"Poverty, unemployment, violence against women and children, issues with quality of education, issues of housing, access to health care, voting rights, incarceration, over-policing,” said Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes. “And just the feeling of not having a seat at the table.”
There are about three dozen members of the task force. Their first meeting Friday included everybody getting to know one another, and focusing on what they want to accomplish.
“Our MMIW families have really carried this work. It is their movement,” said Kristin Welch of Menikanaehkem. “They are oftentimes alone in this in fighting for justice. Bringing to light the real, the painful…,” she said. “The painful decisions that a lot of times that our MMIW families have to go through alone, and navigating that system and searching for justice.”
They hope to transform the safety of Native women in Wisconsin.
“I do this work in hopes that the senseless act of violence against all women, but especially Native women, can come to an end,” said Lemke-Rochon.
Next, the task force will start outlining specific issues they want to focus on, and gather data. Later, they’ll have listening sessions for survivors and family members.
Eventually, the goal is to create a plan to keep Indigenous women safe.