WASHINGTON - In September 2010, Stella Marie Trottier-Graves, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, went to a bar with her cousin. She was never again seen by family members after that night. Thirteen days later, they were notified that her dead body was found in the pickup of a male tribal member.
In 2005, Lakota Rae Renville, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe of North and South Dakota, met a man online and moved to Missouri to be with him. She was forced into sex trafficking and later that year her dead body was found, wrapped in carpet padding in an open gravel pit.
In April 1993, Monica Wickre, a 42-year-old mother of three, born and raised on the Turtle Mountain reservation, who lived near Aberdeen, S.D., disappeared. Two months later, her badly decomposed body was found by a canoeist in the James River near Aberdeen.
In winter 1979, Mona Lisa Two Eagle, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe of South Dakota, got into a pickup with two men. She never returned. Two weeks later, her father and brother found her frozen body in a pasture. She'd been beaten and left alone in a blizzard.
Nobody has been convicted in the disappearance or killing of any of these native women.
North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp told their stories on the floor of the U.S. Senate Thursday, Oct. 5, to dramatize what has been called an "epidemic" of missing and murdered Native American women on Thursday. She also introduced a bill to address that issue on Thursday.
The bill is entitled "Savanna's Act" and is named for slain Fargo woman Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake tribe, who disappeared in August while eight months pregnant and whose body was found eight days later in the Red River. Heitkamp also told LaFontaine-Greywind's story in her 20-minute speech on the Senate floor.
"These are not isolated cases," Heitkamp said. "This goes on every day in America. It's time for Congress to recognize this epidemic."
The main purpose of Heitkamp's bill is to improve the collection and dissemination of data on missing and murdered Native American women. Activists have argued that one obstacle to improving awareness of the issue is that so little data is available. The U.S. government has no systematic way of collecting data on missing and murdered native women.
Heitkamp's bill, which is co-sponsored by Sens. Al Franken of Minnesota, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Jon Tester of Montana, all Democrats, has four goals:
• Improve tribal access to federal crime information databases and update data fields in those systems to be "more relevant" to Native Americans.
• Require the U.S. attorney general, Department of the Interior and Department of Health and Human Services to seek recommendations from tribes on how to improve access to crime information databases.
• Create standardized protocols for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans.
• Require an annual report to Congress containing data on missing and murdered native women.
According to the National Crime Information Center, at least 125 native women were reported missing in North Dakota in 2016. Nationally, 5,712 native women were reported missing last year.
Heitkamp in her speech also noted that homicide is the third-leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaskan Native women ages 10 to 24. On some reservations, she said, native women are murdered at 10 times the national rate.
The legislation comes on the heels of a letter sent two weeks ago 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 tribe, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.
"This legislation is an important and needed step toward addressing the exploitation of native women and girls," said Dave Flute, chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe and chairman of the United Tribes of North Dakota. "We're encouraged that this bill includes several of the recommendations made by UTND."
The United Tribes letter 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 women. It also called on the federal government to provide tribal governments additional funding to develop protocols for investigating missing persons cases.