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Bills introduced to improve response to missing, murdered indigenous people in North Dakota

Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, has introduced two bills in the North Dakota Legislature that would require law enforcement training and data collection related to missing and murdered indigenous people. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK — Two bills introduced in the North Dakota Legislature would require law enforcement training and data collection related to missing and murdered indigenous people.

The proposals, sponsored by Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, are mirrored after Savanna’s Act and prompted by discussions by a local task force following the 2017 death of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind in Fargo.

“It’s unfortunate that it takes tragedy to sometimes bring people together to fix the gaps that exist,” Buffalo said Tuesday, Jan. 8. “Hopefully, moving forward, this can prevent further tragedies.”

House Bill 1311 would require the attorney general’s Human Trafficking Commission to promote law enforcement training on missing and murdered indigenous people.

House Bill 1313 would require the criminal justice data information sharing system to include data related to missing and murdered indigenous people.

In 2016, North Dakota had 125 cases of Native American women and girls reported missing to the National Crime Information Center. However, the actual figure likely is higher due to a lack of reporting.

A recent report by the Urban Indian Health Institute highlighted a lack of data for cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.

"Through raising awareness, we’re hoping to prevent further cases from occurring," Buffalo said.

The brother of Olivia Lone Bear, who went missing in 2017 on the Fort Berthold Reservation and was found dead nearly a year later, called the bills a step in the right direction.

“Law enforcement doesn't treat these issues with urgency. Olivia was missing for six, seven days before law enforcement even started asking questions,” Matthew Lone Bear said. “I think having more training on that would definitely help.”

North Dakota Indian Affairs Commissioner Scott Davis said both bills are important to help law enforcement develop procedures to respond to missing person cases and to develop mechanisms to track data.

“I think that her bills are very, very important for all agencies to look at,” Davis said.

The goal of the training and data collection would be to make it available across jurisdictions, including for tribal law enforcement, Buffalo said.

Buffalo said she received strong bipartisan support for the legislation, with 11 legislators from both parties listed as co-sponsors.

The proposals are the first bills introduced by Buffalo, the first Native American Democratic woman elected to the state Legislature.

House Bill 1311 was referred to the House Human Services Committee and House Bill 1313 was referred to the House Judiciary Committee. Neither has a committee hearing scheduled yet.

At the federal level, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp introduced Savanna’s Act in fall 2017 following the death of LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe who vanished in August 2017 in Fargo while eight months pregnant. Her body was found eight days later in the Red River.

Heitkamp’s bill passed unanimously in the Senate but stalled in the House in the final days of the session. Supporters of Savanna’s Act in the Senate have voiced plans to push for the legislation in Congress this year.