ROSEBUD, S.D. (KELO) — Native Americans make up 11% of South Dakota’s population but account for 62% of current missing persons.
In the last four weeks, 22 Native Americans have gone missing in South Dakota. Of the 157 currently missing in South Dakota, 98 of them are Native Americans with disappearances dating as far back as 1976.
The issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) is considered an epidemic not just in South Dakota, but across the country. The issue is so prevalent that the Rapid City Chief of Police, Don Hedrick, was asked to join the Not Invisible Act Commission to recommend solutions to the Department of Justice to improve communication across law enforcement and jurisdictions.
In Pierre, the Attorney General’s Office is working to create the Office of Liaison for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons.
In 2021, the South Dakota Legislature created the office to create a middleman for law enforcement agencies, both city, state, and tribal, to improve communication to better address the MMIP issue. At first, the office didn’t receive any funding, leaving the position in limbo.
Then, in February of 2022, Native Hope provided the Attorney General’s office with three years of funding after then-Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg failed to secure funding from the legislature.
Now, six months later, the Attorney General is working to hire someone for the office.
“Resumes from interested applicants are in hand and interviews will begin as soon as possible,” the Attorney General’s office said in a statement emailed to KELOLAND News on Friday.
‘It’s crucial’: Addressing the crisis in South Dakota
The office is much needed according to LaToya Lunderman, the co-director for the South Dakota Coalition Ending Domestic & Sexual Violence.
“I think it’s very important, I think it’s crucial. I think it was pivotal to have that come from the state of South Dakota to say that, but it also, you know, we have to hold them accountable to that,” Lunderman said.
The coalition works primary with victims of domestic and sexual violence, as the name implies, but Lunderman said they also focus on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons as the issue has become so huge in Indian Country.
“In the state of South Dakota, there are high rates of trafficking, but also high rates of a lot of our young people being murdered or their lives being taken too,” Lunderman said.
The issue of MMIP is not new, but the response on a state and federal level to address it has been years in the making. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump sign Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act into law. Savanna’s Act works to improve and clarify state, tribal, and local law enforcement responsibilities as well as increase communication among the agencies regarding missing persons. The Not Invisible Act focuses more on coordination and communication in reducing violent crime against Native Americans.
“And with that federal piece of legislation, it allows tribes such as ourselves here and see Chongo country, to develop our own responses, to train our law enforcement as to what to look for how to access databases, just how to coordinate a little bit better on the response,” Lunderman explained.
Lunderman added that she feels it’s the tribe’s responsibility to hold governments accountable through legislation regarding the MMIP issue.
“So, we’re hoping as the coalition that we can kind of help be that liaison in between and help empower tribes and empower groups, such as this one, to really take charge and decide how we’re going to respond should one of our relatives here, come up missing or be murdered.”
Lunderman said that due to all the jurisdictions and agencies, “chaos ensues.” That chaos could be fixed with a coordinated response, she added.
“So, when it happens, we know exactly who to call, who’s in charge, where the resources need to go, but also help them in healing opportunities too. Unfortunately, we have a lot of families here that are grieving, whether they’ve had their loved one murdered, or we’re still looking for some,” Lunderman said.
While Lunderman is happy to see the Attorney General’s office working to address the MMIP issue with the new office, she believes there needs to be support for Indigenous people now.
“Because we can’t wait for positions to be filled, we have too many of our young people come up missing,” Lunderman said.
For Lunderman, these cases are personal. Her nephew, Alize Millard, was killed in 2019 and his family is still seeking justice. Lunderman is also the mother of two daughters.
“And I see what the families go through my heart goes out to them, you know, because the possibility of our daughters or nieces becoming these statistics is very prevalent. It’s very real.”
Over the last few weeks, KELOLAND News has brought you stories of families impacted by the MMIP crisis in Rosebud and Pine Ridge. It’s only a fraction of the cases here in South Dakota.
“But I think it’s also important to remember that, you know, while we’re watching and we’re learning about these stories, the families are going home tonight thinking about their loved ones that they lost and the ones that are still missing,” Lunderman said.
“Once you all pack up and go away, we still are here to deal with it, because it’s going on here in our home.”
Below is a list of all of the currently missing Native Americans in South Dakota as of Friday, August 19.