SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — As of today, there are 103 people missing in South Dakota with Indigenous people making up 62% of all missing persons despite being only 8.7% of the state’s population. According to the Attorney General’s Missing Persons page, Indigenous women make up 28% of all missing persons and 63% of women currently missing in South Dakota.

Indigenous women in particular face higher rates of violence according to the United States Justice Department who report Native American women are murdered at a rate ten times higher than the national average. Indigenous women also face high rates of sexual and physical violence with 46% of Indigenous women having experienced rape, physical violence or stalking.

A study from the Sovereign Bodies Institute and Brave Heart Society found that across the Upper Plains (Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, and South Dakota), a lack of infrastructure and communication between jurisdictions has led to conditions that allow cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women to remain unsolved. It is the lack of communication and collaboration that led one South Dakota organization to provide the Attorney General’s office with three years of funds to establish the Office of Liaison for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP).

In February, Native Hope announced it would provide the office with $85,000 per year to fill the position after the AG struggled to find funding from the South Dakota Legislature. Jennifer Long, Executive Director of Native Hope, says the organization saw an opportunity to step in and help.

The MMIP Office will serve to bridge the gap between tribal, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies as there is a lack of collaboration between the jurisdictions at this point in time. That can cause issues when it comes to reporting, Long says, which can also affect that data that is provided on missing and murdered Indigenous women. Right now, organizations like Native Hope and Sovereign Bodies Institute acknowledge that there is likely underreporting happening when it comes to the gender-based violence and missing persons, not only in South Dakota, but across the country.

“That gap in communication, gap in data is what we’re missing,” Long told KELOLAND News on Tuesday.

Epidemic of missing & murdered women

In the mid-1950s, the U.S. government passed the Indian Relocation Act, which provided financial incentives for Native Americans to leave reservations and assimilate into American society while also decreasing federal funding to tribal lands. According to the United States Archives, this led to an increased number of Natives in urban cities where they faced homelessness, low-paying jobs and discrimination as they were forced to assimilate.

Over the years, Indigenous people, and women in particular, have gone missing and been murdered at disproportionate rates when compared to other racial and ethnic demographics. According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, murder is the third leading cause of death among Indigenous women. While the reason behind the disappearances is not yet clear without more data and research, Long points out that South Dakota is a “major pipeline” for sex trafficking.

“We also know domestic violence [and] generational trauma are key factors in this issue that affect the number of missing and murdered Indigenous persons,” Long said.

The Never in Season campaign from Native Hope focuses on the disparities between Native and non-Native girls that experience sex trafficking, especially during pheasant hunting season. In South Dakota, 40% of sex trafficking victims are Native girls according to the campaign. The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally can also be another hub for sex trafficking in South Dakota.

Despite the disparities in the data, the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women is not as prevalent in the national conversation. Long says that this may stem from the belief that because it affects a minority group, it is seen as a minority issue. “That disparity creates the lack of awareness.”

“Indigenous people are going missing all the time and you don’t hear about it on the news.”

Jennifer Long

Besides funding the MMIP Office, Native Hope advocates for awareness on the epidemic through initiatives such as the Red Sand Project, the Never in Season campaign, collaboration with the Red Ribbon Skirt Society and Voices Unheard, which is a fictional film that highlights the stereotypes and disparities that are associated with missing Indigenous women. In addition to the missing gap of data and reporting, Long adds that a lack of resources for mental health, education and substance abuse contributes to the violence that Indigenous men and women face.

While missing and murdered women is one of the pillars of Native Hope, the organization also seeks to tell the stories of Native people across South Dakota and all of Native America. The organization shares those stories of hope and resilience through YouTube videos and blog posts as well as outreach programs.

“There are rich and beautiful things that we wanna share,” Long said. “Certainly, the role of Native American women in keeping the culture and traditions of Native America alive through the difficulties of forced assimilation are key to that.”

Tuesday is International Women’s Day, and the organization is recognizing the role that women play in Native communities. Prior to colonization, women contributed to more than just the matriarchal roles in society and participated in the gathering and building of homes, according to Native Hope. Women were honored by the men as sources of life and harmony. As time went on, and colonization became rampant in America, those roles shifted as women became treated as lesser and faced higher rates of violence across America.

“We want to highlight, Native Women, past and present, their resiliency, and the beautiful traditions they keep alive,” Long said.

To see a full list of missing people in South Dakota you can check the Attorney General’s Missing Persons Page.