Lawmakers push for funding for missing Indigenous role

February 4, 2022 GMT

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A bipartisan group of South Dakota House lawmakers on Friday recommended a pair of proposals to fund a position in the attorney general’s office to coordinate law enforcement investigations into the disappearance and murder of Indigenous people.

The House Judiciary committee’s recommendation came after the Legislature last year created the position and pushed Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg to work with the tribes to pursue funding to staff it, but he has not obtained the funds. The Republican has called the position an “unfunded mandate,” but said he is pushing for the funds to fill it this year.

But Democratic Rep. Peri Pourier, who proposed the position last year and the money to staff it this year, called the delay “bewildering” and another example of miscommunication between law enforcement at the tribal, state and federal levels.

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“All this misinformation, misunderstandings, miscommunication, missteps — this is what this office is intended to resolve,” Pourier said. “This office is meant to try to bridge the gaps that are costing lives — children’s lives.”

Pourier sponsored a bill to fund the position for five years, saying she wanted to see it become a permanent fixture in state law enforcement. Republican Rep. Tamara St. John brought a bill to fund it for one year. And the committee recommended both proposals, sending them to lawmakers who are ironing out the state’s annual budget.

Gov. Kristi Noem’s administration said she would rather the proposals be included in the regular budgeting process, but that she too supported the ongoing funding of the office. Pourier credited the governor for prioritizing the issue, but said the separate proposal would ensure it stayed a highlighted priority during budget negotiations.

Ravnsborg said Thursday that he is looking for funding, including from the tribes, as he beefs up the state’s resources to tackle the problem. He plans to have the person he hires work with his office’s human trafficking coordinator, as well as launch a more robust website listing missing people.

“Anything we can do in that area, I think helps relations between tribes and the state and also helps to find victims. Native, non-Native — I’m looking to find everybody who’s missing,” he said.

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However, Pourier said Indigenous people are disproportionately at risk, presenting statistics from last year that showed over 70% of the state’s missing people were Native American. But the issue is not confined to Indian reservations, she said, pointing out that some of the highest numbers of missing Indigenous people were in the state’s largest cities, Sioux Falls and Rapid City.

“We have a vulnerable population who is across jurisdictional lines,” Pourier said.

St. John, who is also an archivist with the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, said the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people was rooted in historical injustices and she hoped whoever fills the position would be able to uncover the historical issues and crimes such as drug trafficking at play.

“I’m hoping that with this office, that person will be able to collect that data, those stories that we can start to understand it,” she said.