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Community Innovator:  Representative Heather Keeler Finds Power in Policy for Indigenous Women

State Sen. Mary Kunesh, State Rep Heather Keeler, and State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn wear Indigenous American ribbon skirts to the MN state capital the day that Deb Haaland made history as the first Indigenous American to be confirmed into the U.S. Office of the Interior.  The tradition of creating and wearing ribbon skirts dates back to at least the early 1800’s. Rep. Keeler says they connect the wearer to her Indigenous culture, and are considered a connection to Mother Earth. “We love our ribbon skirts,” she says of the vibrant skirts, each one unique.

 

By: Darcy Berglund
March 31, 2022

Minnesota State Representative Heather Keeler had no plans to run for state office while growing up, but today she represents District 4A, a district on the Minnesota side of the Fargo-Moorhead area. She is also Ihanktonwan with lineage to Eastern Shoshonean.

Rep. Keeler describes herself as a people person, not a policy person. Her ideas on how to make an impact began to shift, however, when she bonded with Ruth Buffalo, a community leader on the North Dakota side of the Fargo-Moorhead area, when the two of them created a task force to help with the search for missing North Dakota resident Savannah LaFontaine-Greywind. 

Savannah was pregnant and near term when she disappeared in August of 2017. Savannah’s body was found by kayakers 8 days after her disappearance, the victim of a brutal murder, it is difficult to report, as her baby was cut out of her body and kidnapped. (The baby is now 5 years old and living with her father, while the murderers, a man and a woman, are in prison for life.)

The tragic death of Savannah LaFontaine-Greywind hit Heather Keeler hard. Keeler had just given birth to one of her own children, so the unspeakable crime impacted her on a personal and profound level. 

Compounding the tragedy, national news did little to report on Savannah’s story; Rep. Keeler remembers that it was almost a week before they covered it at all. Whereas the coverage, a couple of years later, of a young white woman who disappeared while camping with her fiancé got so much coverage that her name, Gabby Petito, became a household name across the U.S. 

The unbalanced coverage of missing and murdered Indigenous women, together with lack of enforcement around these crimes, changed in 2019 when the Minnesota Legislature created, thanks to the leadership of MN Senator Mary Kunesh, a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women task force, or MMIW.  Native American women make up less than 1 percent of the state’s population, but homicide rates for Native women were seven times higher than for white women between 1990 and 2016, MPR reported. A task force was long overdue.

For Rep. Keeler, hearing of the establishment of the MMIW task force was an “eye-opener” for her. Two years after she and Ruth Buffalo had formed their task force to search for Savannah LaFontaine-Greywind, here was a similar task force, but on a state-wide level. When Keeler learned that the state representative for her district—District 4A—was retiring, she decided to run for the seat, and was elected in November of 2020. (Ruth Buffalo, by the way, is also now a state representative, for her district of North Dakota.) 

Now there are four Indigenous women elected to the Minnesota state government. Keeler and Jamie Becker-Finn are in the MN House, and Mary Kunesh in the MN Senate. Peggy Flanagan, serving as Lieutenant Governor, is in the Executive Branch. Rep. Keeler explains that not only is four a powerful number in their culture, but with the four of them spread out over different areas of government, they can get things done. 

Thanks to the efforts of these four women, Minnesota’s MMIW is now not only a task force, but a funded office as well, with a director and small staff. Minnesota is not the only state in the U.S. to have a MMIW task force, but it is currently the only state in the U.S. to have a fully-funded MMIW office. 

There are also other ways to get things done, Rep. Keeler explains, ways to give voice to those whose voices have been either suppressed or ignored. She and other leaders like her are encouraging Indigenous youth to enter journalism. There are also small media groups, she says, visiting the Capital and serving as an authentic voice of those so often not heard

She believes this is especially important when you have media juggernauts like Disney portraying highly fictionalized, often damaging versions of Native Americans. The idea, she says, is not for journalists in-the-making to enter journalistic institutions with the message “here is what we want you to do,” but with the message “here is the impact that your lack of accurate reporting does to a population.”

In terms of telling stories, Rep. Keeler points out that culturally her people are storytellers, and she advocates that up-and-coming Indigenous journalists be funded so that they can share their ways of telling a story. 

Rep. Heather Keeler feels, on a deep level, that The Creator put her where she is to amplify Indigenous voices. “I show up every day, I work to be an authentic voice, and I share the data and the reality of where we are.”

Rep. Keeler will be discussing media bias when she joins the Valiant Voices conversation hosted by Global Rights for Women, entitled “Reporting Survivor Stories: Transforming Media Portrayals of Gender- Based Violence.” April 5th, 11:00am – Noon. To register, click here.

 

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