PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Nearly a year after a bill passed in the South Dakota Legislature to establish the Office of Liaison for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP), a private organization is providing funding to fill the position.

In a tribal relations committee meeting at the start of the 2022 legislative session, Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg said that the office was still seeking funding and asked for between $60,000 and $70,000 to fill the position. At the time, Ravnsborg said he had asked for funds in his fiscal budget.

Wednesday morning, Native Hope announced that they would provide the MMIP office with three years of funding with $85,000 being allocated per year through 2024.

Jennifer Long, Executive Director of Native Hope, told KELOLAND News on Wednesday that the organization had heard of the lack of funding for the position through the news. “We wanted to assist any way we could.”

Native Hope is an outreach organization of St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota. The school has various outreach programs to address different needs of the Native community in South Dakota according to Clare Willrodt, Director of Communications and Outreach at St. Joseph’s. Native Hope in particular focuses on elevating stories and creating what Willrodt calls “boots on the ground” initiatives. Long says that Native Hope focuses on raising awareness around human and sex trafficking in South Dakota, especially during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and the start of pheasant hunting season.

For the students at St. Joseph’s, Willrodt says the endemic of missing and murdered indigenous people is personal. According to Native Hope, approximately 40% of sex trafficking victims in South Dakota are Native American women and children. Willrodt said that when she began her work with the school, they hosted several memorials for missing girls at the school.

Now that the office has funding, consultant Paul Omodt says the next steps are to begin the hiring process to fill the role. Omodt says the Attorney General’s Office has the infrastructure in place, all that is needed is someone to take over.

“We hope 30 days from now that there’s someone there doing this work,” Omodt said.

Addressing the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous persons

The office itself will work to identify and coordinate the different processes of local, state and tribal governments when it comes to missing Indigenous people.

“Wherever there’s a crossover in jurisdiction between tribal, state, federal and local it’s difficult for the communication to happen that has to happen. There’s just a lot of red tape and different ways of doing things,” Willrodt said.

The person that fills the role will work to build training and improve communication from the various government entities and tribes, Willrodt explained.

Of the 109 people listed on the Attorney General’s Missing Person’s site, 72 are Indigenous. Of those 72 missing Indigenous people, 37 are male and 35 are female.

Indigenous women in particular are impacted by this endemic according to Native Hope. Programming at the non-profit, and at St. Joseph’s, focuses on the education and empowerment of girls to protect them against trafficking. The Red Sand Project in particular provides students with statistics, prayer, and information regarding sex trafficking.

“No more missing sisters, no more missing Indigenous people.”

Jennifer Long, Executive Director of Native Hope

State lawmakers joined Native Hope and St. Joseph’s Indian School Wednesday morning to discuss what they called a critical issue in South Dakota. Mike Tyrell, President of St. Joseph’s said that Native Hope’s funding will allow the office to meet the need for resources to address the issue of missing Indigenous people.

“Even one missing person is too many. Students at St. Joseph’s have lost loved ones and family members through this human tragedy,” Tyrell said. 

Senator Troy Heinert (D-Mission) expressed pride that St. Joseph’s would be funding the office. “Today is a good day,” Heinert said.

Representatives Peri Pourier (D-Pine Ridge), Rebecca Reimer (R-Chamberlain), and Tamara St. John (R-Sisseton) were also in attendance at Wednesday’s conference and spoke in support of the office finding funding.

In a statement sent following the announcement, AG Ravnsborg called the announcement an “exciting step forward” for the people of South Dakota.

“Our goal is to improve the outcomes for missing and murdered indigenous persons, but also to build and become a model for other situations where jurisdictional gaps create issues,” Ravnsborg said.