PIERRE, S.D. — Nearly 70% of the missing persons in South Dakota are Native American, according to state records, and a plan to dedicate an officer within the state attorney general's office to this epidemic is advancing in Pierre.
A bill that would permanently install a staffer in the Office of the South Dakota Attorney General to handle missing and murdered Indigenous persons cases received a favorable vote on Monday, Feb. 22, passing the bill onto the House floor.
"There is a paradigm shift in how we confront issues in Indian country and South Dakota," said Rep. Peri Pourier, a Pine Ridge Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill, in an interview with Forum News Service. She noted the many supporters of the bill, including Oglala Sioux Tribal President Kevin Killer, suggest a new desire to work across tribal and state jurisdictions.
"There are people here (in Pierre) who were never here before," Pourier said.
House Bill 1199, an act to establish the "Office of Liaison for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons," still faces an uphill climb in the Legislature's remaining three weeks, including passing out of the House before moving to the Senate and, possibly, to Gov. Kristi Noem's desk.
According to a clearinghouse maintained by South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg's office, 75 of the 108 persons currently listed as missing in the state are Native American.
Pourier's bill would require the AG's office to establish the liaison's office and install a full-time staff member in that office to tackle the myriad jurisdictional conflicts between state, federal and tribal agencies advocates say complicate efforts to find Indigenous women and children who go missing.
Some lawmakers spoke in opposition to the implementation of the bill, arguing the AG's office — which did not send a representative in favor of the legislation — would normally vouch for the staff addition.
"What we want to do is go back through the appropriations process, have the attorney general's office ask for authority to establish this program, fund it and staff if," said Rep. David Anderson, R-Hudson.
Rep. Kevin Jensen, R-Canton, however, noted the AG's office also could've appeared to oppose the measure — which they did not do.
"We've tried a lot of different things, and we've gained no ground," Jensen said. "This is a different opportunity."
The bill ultimately received a favorable "do pass" motion in a 9-4 vote. After the vote, a spokesman for the AG's office said they're "watching" the measure.
"At this time, we do not have personnel solely dedicated to these efforts," said Tim Bormann, the Ravnsborg's chief of staff. "It is spread around along with various other duties."
The bill proceeds now to the House floor.