PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota tribal activists cheered passage of a law establishing a liaison for murdered and missing Indigenous persons earlier this week at a signing ceremony in the Statehouse.
Gov. Kristi Noem signed House Bill 1199, to "establish the Office of Liaison for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons," the measure that supporters say will aid delving into and investigating the disproportionate number of Native Americans on the state's missing persons database.
It may also mark a turn after rough waters between Noem's administration, which in previous legislative sessions sought to pass bills — such as a controversial riot-boosting measure — decried by tribal leaders.
"I think for leadership in the state of South Dakota and leadership among the tribes, I think it's a normal, natural process to clash," said the bill's prime sponsor, Rep. Peri Pourier, D-Pine Ridge. "But there are issues that are so important, so pertinent for us to align on."
The measure had enjoyed wide margins of support in the House and Senate on the long road to reaching the governor's desk, in part due to the MMIW crisis.
According to a state database, 68 of the 102 people missing are Indigenous. Native Americans make up 9% of the state's population.
Pourier told lawmakers the bill to establish the office — neither supported nor opposed by the Office of the Attorney General during committee hearings — will house an investigator who can specialize in sifting through the mountains of data she says could aid in reconnecting people with families and preventing future abductions.
Following the signing ceremony on Monday, March 29, Kellen Returns from Scout, with the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association, told Forum News Service he viewed this fight not as a political battle, but as a "human rights issue."
"These are individuals who are missing, and we don't know where they're at," said Returns from Scout. "People have the ability and the power to intervene, and we should be intervening."
As part of the new law, the liaison will also seek federal funding for a permanent spot within the state AG's office. A spokesman for the South Dakota AG's office has previously acknowledged the state doesn't currently have personnel "solely dedicated" to these efforts.
On Thursday, newly installed Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold a cabinet-level position in U.S. history, announced the creation of a unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to investigate missing and murdered persons.
"Violence against Indigenous peoples is a crisis that has been underfunded for decades," Haaland said in a statement.
At previous testimony on HB 1199, tribal leaders called for bringing continuity to the state Amber Alert system on reservation lands to sharing resources between state, local and tribal law enforcement officials.