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Mary Lyons, an Ojibwe elder, fought back tears as she heralded what she called a "new beginning for indigenous women" in Minnesota: the launch of a state task force to address disproportionately high rates of violence against American Indian women and girls.

"Today we as indigenous women rise, we are not being forgotten," Lyons told a crowd gathered on St. Paul's East Side on Thursday. "We can call each of our missing and murdered women's names out loud and embrace them into louder prayers. Today we let them know they did not fall to their deaths only to be forgotten."

Indian leaders and advocates have for years called for more to be done to address cases of missing and murdered indigenous women. Nationwide, more than 5,700 Indian and native women were reported missing in 2016. But just a fraction of those cases were included in a federal crime database. Another study, published in 2008, found rates of violence against women in such communities are up to 10 times higher than the national average. Activists say the problem persists in Minnesota.

"Too often native women at best are invisible and, at worst, we are disposable," said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe. "That must and that will change."

Advocates and public health researchers say a lack of data as well as shortfalls in law enforcement's handling and prosecution of such cases have hindered efforts to address the issue. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force is meant to help fill those gaps.

Members of the panel will spend the next 15 months examining the causes behind the violence and then make recommendations to help victims and their families heal. The commission's mandate includes a review of data collection and the current policies at institutions ranging from child welfare services to coroners' offices.

Members of the task force say the first step will be trying to understand the scope of the issue in Minnesota. Patina Park, president and CEO of the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, said the panel must "take the time to look and see how many women are missing, how many women's families are still looking for them."

"We're going to look at data," Park said. "Data is another area where our people have been erased, where the incidents of many things have been kept out of systems."

The task force includes representatives from tribal nations and law enforcement. It was established by the Legislature as part of a broader public safety bill this spring. Lawmakers attending a ceremonial bill signing at the panel's first meeting Thursday highlighted bipartisan support. But they said credit for its passage largely goes to Indian women who shared their stories of losing loved ones as they advocated for the bill's passage.

"All of these women felt it was so important to come and tell their stories again and again as hard and as painful as it was, and I believe we owe them a debt of gratitude," said DFL Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, a sponsor of the legislation and member of the task force. "It's not without these stories that we are able to move folks to action."

More awareness of the issue of missing and murdered Indian women has sparked calls for action at the state and federal level in recent years. A proposal in Congress to improve data collection and guidelines for investigating such cases has attracted bipartisan support. Legislators in Nebraska, Wisconsin and Washington state have considered measures to create commissions similar to the one in Minnesota.

Minnesota's task force is set to issue recommendations by December 2020. Advocates attending Thursday's ceremony emphasized that convening the group is just the first step.

Flanagan pledged to seek bipartisan support to "implement and fund the solutions" the committee proposes in upcoming legislative sessions.

"The true victory is when we can really say, 'not one more,' " she said.

Torey Van Oot • 651-925-5049