Minnesota tribal license plates raise awareness of missing, murdered Natives

CARLTON, Minn. — Two northern Minnesota tribes will issue license plates intended to capture attention for persistent but often overlooked crimes against Indigenous people.

The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa created plates that bear the letters MMIR, an acronym for missing and murdered Indigenous relatives. The plates were unveiled in a ceremony last week at Black Bear Casino Resort here.

“This affects me directly,” said Fond du Lac Chair Kevin Dupuis. “My sister, years back — Trina Langenbrunner of Fond du Lac — was murdered and found on the side of the road.”

Langenbrunner, 33, was the mother of three children. She was brutally killed near Cloquet, Minn., in 2000, in what became a cold case for 13 years. A neighbor eventually confessed to the killing and was sentenced to nearly four decades in prison.

The plates are for women like Langenbrunner, and the untold number of missing Native Americans stemming at least to the boarding school era, where Indigenous children were forcibly separated from their families, said Cathy Chavers, chair of the Bois Forte Band.

“It goes way, way back,” she said. “Anishinaabe have been invisible … for far too long.”

The plates, for now available to Fond du Lac and Bois Forte citizens who live on their respective reservations, are part of a larger movement in recent years to raise awareness of the under-reported reality that often includes trafficking.

A first-in-the-nation state office — the Office for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives tasked with addressing the problem — opened this year. State Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, was instrumental in its creation. And now, the Standing Rock Lakota descendant, one of only a handful of Indigenous legislators, is trying to pass legislation that would create similar state-issued license plates.

“You beat me to it,” Kunesh said to tribal leaders at the ceremony. “It’s really important that tribes are starting to lead on these efforts.”

Native American women and girls are affected disproportionately. They make up only 1% of the state’s population but 8% of all murdered women and girls in Minnesota from 2010 through 2018. Between 27 and 54 Native American women and girls in Minnesota were missing in any given month from 2012 to 2020.

Solving their cases, and shedding light on the number of Native Americans who go missing, either indefinitely or later found killed, has long been a goal of Fond du Lac tribal leaders, said Roger Smith Sr., a tribal council member who was a deputy for St. Louis County when Langenbrunner was murdered.

“I’ve sat across from families, grieving mothers of daughters,” he said. “I’ve seen what it does to families, what it did to Chairman Dupuis’ family.”

The new office and solving cases “gives them hope,” Chavers said. “But the people out there still waiting to hear about their missing relatives are still waiting.”

The hearing at the Capitol in 2019 that ultimately led to the new office “was a true education of the Legislature,” Kunesh said. “They had no idea it was going on.”

Chavers hopes that and the new plates lead to more people asking questions, eventually eliminating the need for heightened awareness.

“The issues that face us today are many, but one by one we are taking them on,” she said. “Today emphasizes our tribal sovereignty. … This is a huge accomplishment for us, because we are working together as two tribes, and we hope other tribal nations will follow.”

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