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DULUTH – Jessica Smith's story is woven into the fabric of centuries of trauma faced by Indigenous women. She stood before a theater of people Monday and told of the trafficking and abuse she faced — and how she found a way out.

"I have overcome all the things that were made to destroy me," said the University of Wisconsin-Superior student. "It's up to us to be each other's strength."

Local Native American and political leaders marked Trafficking Awareness Month in Duluth on Monday by reckoning with their challenge: More than 80% of Indigenous women and men face violence in their lifetimes. Native American women are twice as likely to be raped, and in some areas they are 10 times as likely to be killed. In 2016 there were more than 5,700 reports of missing and killed Indigenous women and girls.

Activists say there is reason for hope, because awareness is turning into action.

"There is a little bit of justice in the acknowledgment there is injustice," said Rachel Goodsky of the Sacred Hoop Coalition. "For the first time the U.S. government is taking steps to addressing a problem that until recently went unnamed."

In November, President Donald Trump signed an executive order creating a task force to address the missing and slain indigenous women crisis, with Minnesota tribal leaders present at the signing.

Minnesota launched its own task force in 2019 that has until the end of this year to present policy recommendations to the Legislature.

"Everyone in this room is here to lead the revolt," said DFL Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, co-chair of the task force. "We're ready to lead to victory against those who will continue to exploit our loved ones through human and sex trafficking."

Rep. Pete Stauber said he would ensure that the new federal task force works with the state's.

"We need to solve this, and only together can we do it," the Hermantown Republican said.

In December, Stauber was added as a cosponsor of Savanna's Act, a measure that would boost resources for tribal law enforcement, among other initiatives. He was also one of 33 Republicans to vote for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which awaits action in the Senate.

"It is time for the Senate to take up VAWA reauthorization so these critical policies and services for survivors can continue," said Ravyn Gibbs, the Native American outreach director for Sen. Tina Smith, reading a letter on her behalf.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-888-373-7888 or by texting HELP or INFO to 233733. The StrongHearts Native Helpline is available from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily at 1-844-762-8483.

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496