The FBI recently notified Mysti Babineau that — after 20 years — they had closed their missing persons case on her mother, who disappeared when she was just two. “So when it comes to losing a woman and not knowing where she is, that is incredibly close to my heart,” Babineau says.
Babineau is a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians in northwestern Minnesota and has spent much of her life on the Leech Lake Reservation. When it comes to a missing loved one, she isn’t alone — almost anyone you speak with in tribal communities knows an Indigenous woman who has gone missing.
“This is something that has been happening in my community since the 1400s [since White settlers began colonizing North America],” Babineau says.
After her mom’s disappearance, Babineau entered the foster care system, and spent much of her childhood in homes across Minnesota. In middle school, she was adopted by an ex-girlfriend of her father. “She saved my life, but I also experienced a lot of horrific things that maybe I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t adopted into a Native family,” Babineau says.
When she was 12, Babineau’s grandmother was stabbed to death in front of her. The attacker then advanced upon her and her adoptive mother. She survived that encounter, stopping the knife with her hand. At 22, she was kidnapped and taken to St. Paul. “I was beaten. I was raped. And I fought and got away.”
Babineau’s survival story informs her day-to-day work as a water protector and climate justice organizer for the environmental group MN350, a Minnesota chapter of 350.org. Her fight feels urgent, as Canadian pipeline giant Enbridge Energy seeks to build one of the largest crude oil pipelines in the country through tribal land in Minnesota, including treaty territory where tribes hunt, fish, and gather wild rice. The pipeline, known as “Line 3,” will transport oil from the Alberta tar sand mines in Canada all the way to Wisconsin for processing in Midwest refineries. Oil pipeline construction brings with it an influx of workers — and as a result — the growth of so-called “man camps” to house workers along the pipeline route.
Man camp establishments near oil extraction sites and along pipelines often look like makeshift trailer parks, and they correlate with an increased number of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two Spirit people (who are believed to have both feminine and masculine spirits), or MMIWG2S as they are referred to collectively within the Indigenous rights movement. Pipelines also coincide with higher rates of human trafficking, domestic violence, drug and alcohol use, toxin exposures, and other societal stressors.
“They [extractive industries] treat Mother Earth like they treat women,” Lisa Brunner, a member of the White Earth Ojibwe Nation and former program specialist for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, said several years ago at a rally to oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline. “They think they can own us, buy us, sell us, trade us, rent us, poison us, rape us, destroy us, use us as entertainment, and kill us.”
According to the UN Development Program, fossil fuel industries perpetuate violence, environmental harm, gender inequalities, and displacement. Even the US Department of State admitted last year that the link between extractive industries and sex-trafficking is “increasingly an issue of grave concern.”
In North Dakota, this link is clear. The Bakken oil boom, which began in 2006, brought more than 10,000 itinerant workers to the state. Crews are made up of mostly young men who work long days, are socially isolated, and are paid good money. Crime in North Dakota increased roughly 18 percent between 2008 and 2013 (during the peak of the oil boom). When Indigenous girls go missing in northern Minnesota, the Bakken oil fields is often the first place that the authorities look.
Now, Indigenous communities in Minnesota are fatigued by yet another pipeline threatening to exacerbate a pattern of violence against women while also eviscerating their sacred treaty land. But the Line 3 project, which will replace the company’s existing Line 3 pipeline, seems to be proceeding as planned. In June this year, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission voted to approve the Certificate of Need for Enbridge’s proposed pipeline, essentially giving the project the green light. Indigenous and environmental groups are planning to appeal this decision.
During final testimony before the Public Utilities Commission, Enbridge declared that they would not build “man camps” along the pipeline route to house the 1,800 itinerant workers expected to help lay the pipe. Instead, they will put up their contractors in hotels and resorts. For this reason — and because they also employ women workers — Enbridge refutes the term “man camp” in relation to the project. The company has also committed to developing an education plan and awareness campaign around the issue of MMIWG2S with the companies and subcontractors it hires to construct, restore, and operate the pipeline. Despite the fact that it is now a condition of their permit, organizers point out that Enbridge has not demonstrated progress or met self-imposed deadlines to develop such a training.
Sheila Lamb, an Indigenous woman and MMIWG2S advocate, says she is not convinced that integrating these men so closely within local communities in hotels will mitigate potential threats. “This is such a huge concern that it is going to overburden our police officers,” she says. “It’s also going to have a great socioeconomic impact as you’re dealing with multigenerational historical trauma.”
The Public Utility Commission’s decision regarding the pipeline is viewed by many as part of an ongoing erasure of Native sovereignty and cultural identity. “This is a continuation of cultural genocide … that we have been trying to heal from,” says Lamb. “It is going to put a great burden on our tribe and on the state of Minnesota if [Line 3] is allowed to happen.”
Lamb works at Sol House in Duluth, MN where she provides a loving and nurturing home to sexually exploited teens. Her job entails running cultural competency training groups for kids, cooking with them, participating in family meals, and putting positivity into food.
Teaching kids how to bead or speak their native language is a conduit for them to reconnect with their culture, the earth, and their creator, all as a way for them to heal.
Lamb says traffickers prey on kids who run away from home or find fliers for after-school jobs that prove to be set-ups. Sometimes girls are ambushed while simply walking to and from school. But more often they enter into a relationship with pimps who “groom them and love them.”
“They move in together and they’re living with a guy that they think is so good to them,” Lamb says. “He hooks them on drugs. They’re gang-raped, desensitized. They break them, their self-worth, their self-esteem … Who at 14 or 15 is able to handle that?”
Indigenous women are two-and-a-half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other demographic in the US, and the expansion of extractive industries in and around tribal lands often leads to rates of violence that are even higher. The fact that boom towns often form in remote places makes it hard for victims to access protective services, legal advocates, and allies. According to a 2016 National Institute of Justice Report, 56 percent of Indigenous women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, and 38 percent were unable to receive any type of victim services.
“National stats of missing and murdered Indigenous women [are] mind-blowing,” says Lamb. “If I can touch one of them, just one, and help them change lives and never go back to that again, to heal, in my eyes that’s huge.”
Sharyl Downwind/WhiteHawk, a counselor for White Earth Tribe in Minnesota and advocate for MMIWG2S, says that in 30 years of counseling survivors of abuse, it’s rare for her to find an Indigenous woman who has not experienced abduction, rape, or other forms of violence. Downwind/WhiteHawk — who has suffered abuse herself — says her main purpose in the world is to prevent these things from happening to her daughters.
“Gangs intentionally target Native girls because no one comes looking for them once they disappear,” she says, in reference to local and federal law enforcement. “If you sell drugs and guns, then [they’re] gone, [but] you can sell a woman many times.”
Murder, kidnapping, and trafficking of Indigenous women, girls, and Two Spirits is hard to fight, in part, because the scope of the problem is hard to quantify. There is no accurate data on how many women actually go missing.
For instance, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, the US Department of Justice’s public database of missing persons, lists only 16 cases of missing or unidentified Indigenous females, all 16 of which are unidentified human remains. In comparison, the National Crime Information Center lists 5,700 missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Fear of retaliation and distrust of law enforcement means that many Indigenous women rarely report offenses to local or federal agencies. When crimes are reported, many women say they go uninvestigated or unprosecuted.
Barriers within the legal system pose an added challenge, since it can be difficult to even determine whether the state, the tribe, or the federal government has jurisdiction in many of these cases. And though Indigenous women are much more likely to be victimized by non-Native offenders than by tribal members, in 1978, the US Supreme Court stripped tribes of their ability to prosecute and punish non-Native offenders in tribal courts.
The US made progress when Congress passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act in 2013. This law allows tribes to prosecute non-tribal members, but only in cases of partner violence. In 2015 Obama also signed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act that is meant to prevent trafficking and improve services for victims. Among other things, it requires the Department of Justice to better train law enforcement agencies on handling trafficking cases, punishes people that advertise for and profit from commercial sex with minors, and enforces a $5,000 fine for offenders.
Currently, there’s also a bill under consideration in Congress that specifically addresses the issue of MMIWG2S. Named Savanah’s law for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind — a young Indigenous woman murdered in Fargo last year when she was eight months pregnant — the bill would mandate development of law enforcement protocols for addressing the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
In Minnesota — where in some parts of the state, Indigenous women are murdered at rates more than ten times the national average — Representative Mary Kunesh-Podein (a descendant of the Standing Rock tribe) authored a house bill for the creation of a Governor’s Task Force on MMIWG2S to develop culturally appropriate ways to collect data on the issue, analyze the systemic problems perpetuating this epidemic, and provide recommendations to reduce and end this violence. The bill was defeated in May.
Outside the legislative realm, Indigenous women are also leading a movement to increase public awareness around MMIWG2S, elevate one another’s stories, and support healing among all who have been impacted.
“I really feel like nothing is ever going to get better until we start dialoguing with our men,” Downwind/WhiteHawk says. “We’ve got to get people to help in all areas. We have to start healing the moms so they can raise healthy children. We’ve got to start healing our men, so they can fulfill their role that they’re meant to — to protect us and not perpetuate [violence] against us and to raise good sons.”
Kahea Pacheco with Women’s Earth Alliance, an Earth Island Institute project, stresses the importance of solutions that are community-based and Indigenous-led, and that treat the systemic root causes of violence.
“The point is to support communities to address and heal from the colonial, patriarchal legacies that allow for the devaluation of Indigenous lands and bodies,” says Pacheco. “This work to address environmental violence has been going on for generations. Grandmothers and aunties and sisters working for the protection of land and body because they understand that it’s all connected … This is not new. It’s built on a solid foundation laid down by these Indigenous leaders and knowledge keepers.”
Despite the enormity of the challenge and the continued approval of projects like the Line 3 pipeline, advocates aren’t losing hope. Babineau is working to reintroduce a version of Kunesh-Podein’s MMIWG2S bill in the Minnesota legislature, and she’s optimistic that it will receive bipartisan support. Downwind/WhiteHawk, for her part, continues to bring healing to her community.
“I will say it’s unbelievable the feeling of triumph I get when I can take something I went through that was horrible and turn it around and use it to help someone else. It’s that feeling of victory that it didn’t take me down, and I’m using it to help someone else.”