Unequal Justice Violence Prevention Women's Issues

US Sen. Responds to “Epidemic” of Missing and Murdered Native Women With New Bill

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

Savanna’s Act, a bill introduced this month by US Senator Heidi Heitkamp, aims to address the national crisis of Native American women going missing and being murdered at rates ten times higher than the US average on some reservations.

Heitkamp dedicated the bill to Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe, whose disappearance and death—caused by “homicidal violence,” according to police—were far too common among Native American women.

Eight days after she vanished on August 19, 22-year-old LaFontaine-Greywind’s body was found by kayakers in the Red River near Fargo, ND. She was eight months pregnant.

The bill would improve tribal leaders’ access to federal crime databases, as well as create protocols for the federal government’s response to cases involving missing and murdered Native people, and work to improve cooperation between tribal, federal, state, and local law enforcement officers.

According to Heitcamp, who previously served as North Dakota’s Attorney General, jurisdictional problems create unnecessary roadblocks “to responding to and prosecuting crimes committed on Tribal lands.” But, Heitcamp said, “the complexity of jurisdiction” is “not an excuse” for hampering an investigation. “It can waste crucial time at the beginning of an investigation or a case, but it is not an excuse,” Heitkamp stated. “If we do not act rapidly, we know we lose precious time to prevent homicides and to bring a woman safely home and help apprehend the perpetrators.”

Additionally, Savanna’s Act would require a yearly report of statistics of missing and killed Native women to be presented to Congress, with recommendations regarding ways to better gather data.

“Tribal law enforcement agencies need better access to federal databases and criminal justice systems to solve crimes and develop prevention strategies,” Heitkamp said. “Law enforcement agencies across the board need to collect and keep better data on missing and murdered Native women and children, and we need to provide more federal resources to attack the problem head-on.”

Data on the prevalence of Native American women going missing is limited and what data is available is incomplete.

Heitkamp says that in her home state of North Dakota in 2016, 125 Native women were reported missing to the National Crime Information Center, which is run via a joint partnership between the FBI and state and federal criminal justice agencies. Nationally, there were 5,712 cases of missing Native Women in 2016.

Homicide is the third most common cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And 84 percent of Native women have experienced violence, according to a study funded by the National Institute of Justice.

Here in California, home to 109 reservations, Native Americans face jurisdiction problems that impede investigations into violent crimes, despite 1953’s Public Law 280, which reduced federal jurisdiction and expanded state jurisdiction over reservations in Alaska, California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, and Wisconsin.

As part of a report to Congress of recommendations for addressing violence against women, Bennae Calac, of the Pauma Band of Mission Indians said that on reservations, “confusion from law enforcement officers” due to a “lack of education” is a serious problem, and PL 280 is partly to blame. “When a woman is injured, they don’t take the time to even find out what tribe she’s from,” Calac said. “We need law enforcement in our state to be educated about tribes and jurisdictions.”

Heitkamp’s bill is backed by many tribal officials and advocates, including Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman David Archambault II.

“The vulnerability and targeting of our Native women is undeniable, and we must begin looking for new ways to urgently address this plague of violence and disregard,” Archambault said in support of Heitkamp’s bill. “One of the most significant contributors to the crisis is the glaring absence of Indigenous peoples in the North American consciousness.”

The incomplete (and absent) absent statistics regarding criminal justice in tribal communities leave “problems undiagnosed and potential resources on the table,” Archambault said. “Senator Heitkamp’s legislation aims to close the information gap and make much-needed improvement in coordination between local, state, federal, and tribal law enforcement agencies.”

Image: Savanna Greywind’s Facebook.

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