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ND's US senators propose legislation to address 'epidemic' of missing and murdered Native women

Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind in a photo taken from her Facebook page. It was posted in March 2016. Special to Forum News Service

FARGO—Confronted with demands by American Indian tribes across North Dakota to do more to address what has been called an "epidemic" of missing and murdered Native American women, two members of the state's Congressional delegation are introducing bills in Congress to address the issue.

Public awareness of the issue has risen dramatically since the disappearance and murder of Fargo's Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a case that has drawn media attention from across the nation and around the world.

LaFontaine-Greywind, 22, a member of the Spirit Lake tribe living in Fargo, vanished Saturday, Aug. 19, while eight months pregnant. Her body was found eight days later in the Red River. Police said her death was caused by "homicidal violence." Her baby, alive and healthy, was found in the possession of one of the suspects in the case.

The legislation comes on the heels of a letter sent last week by the United Tribes of North Dakota to the state's Congressional delegation, urging them to take action to combat the issue and making several recommendations.

The United Tribes of North Dakota is an organization composed of the state's five tribes: Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold, the Spirit Lake Tribe, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.

Republican Sen. John Hoeven, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, introduced a bill this week that would create a tribal grant program within the Department of Justice's Office for Victims of Crime. The bill would require five percent of a federal crime victims fund be allocated to Indian tribes.

One of the recommendations in the United Tribes letter was that tribes be given greater access to money in the crime victims fund. Hoeven's office said that currently only about 0.7 percent of those funds are provided to tribes despite the fact that American Indian and Alaska Native communities are victimized at much higher rates than other groups.

"It is critical for tribal communities, which experience some of the highest crime rates in the country, to have greater access to victim resources," Hoeven said.

Hoeven's legislation has bipartisan support. It has seven co-sponsors, four of them Democrats. One of those is North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.

Heitkamp, meanwhile, is planning to introduce a bill of her own this week that would address several other issues related to missing and murdered Native American women. She plans to name the bill for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind.

Although Heitkamp's bill is still being drafted, she said it would include three main elements:

• Establishment of standard protocols for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans, in consultation with tribes, and increase inter-jurisdictional cooperation among tribal, federal, state, and local law enforcement.

• Improving tribal access to federal crime information databases, and revising those databases to make them more relevant to American Indians. It would require the U.S. attorney general to consult with tribes on how those databases can be improved.

• Require that the Department of Justice submit an annual report to Congress containing statistics on missing and murdered Native American women, and recommendations on how to improve data collection.

One of the recommendations in the United Tribes letter was that the Department of Justice collect and provide statistics on missing and murdered Native American women. The letter stated that American Indian women are the only population group for whom such data is not collected.

"We don't have the data," Heitkamp said. "When we don't have the data, (the issue) gets forgotten."

Heitkamp said that she had begun drafting the bill even before the United Tribes letter. She said the proposals are built on other work she has done, such as efforts to combat human trafficking, the extension of the Amber Alert system to Indian reservations, and the vagueness of law enforcement jurisdiction on American Indian lands.

The Hoeven and Heitkamp legislation does not address several concerns expressed in the United Tribes letter.

The letter, sent to North Dakota's Congressional delegation last week, also called on the U.S. government to create a federal-local law enforcement task force to oversee the LaFontaine-Greywind case to ensure that justice is served and appropriate resources are provided to her family and child.

It recommended the U.S. Department of Justice commission a cross-jurisdictional task force to reopen closed cases of missing and murdered Native American woman. It also called on the federal government to provide tribal governments additional funding to develop protocols for investigating missing persons cases.

"The murder of Savanna illustrates a much larger problem of epic proportions," wrote Dave Flute, chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Tribe and chairman of the United Tribes of North Dakota. "In some locations, Native American women are murdered at more than ten times the national average, and one in three experiences sexual violence."

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