Savanna Greywind, 1995-2017, was eagerly documenting her pregnancy on social media before she went missing in North Dakota in August 2017. Two people are charged in connection with her disappearance and murder.

Sen. Heitkamp introduces bill to address 'epidemic' of missing and murdered Native women

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) is seeking to bring justice to missing and murdered Native women with a new bill named in honor of a citizen of the Spirit Lake Nation who was brutally killed.

In a case that generated headlines far beyond Indian Country, Savanna Marie Greywind went missing in Fargo, North Dakota, on August 19. Her family and friends were especially alarmed because the 22-year-old was 8 months pregnant at the time.

A little over a week later, Greywind's body was found in a nearby river. Authorities said she was a "victim of a cruel and vicious act of depravity" -- her unborn child was taken from her body yet miraculously survived -- and charged two people in connection with her disappearance and murder.

But in a remarkable speech on the floor of the Senate on Thursday, Heitkamp said Greywind's situation is sadly not unique. As she shared the stories of four other Native women whose cases remain unsolved, Heitkamp criticized the federal government for being unable to account for the true numbers of the mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts and other loved ones who have gone missing or have been murdered.

"It's time for Congress to recognize this epidemic and take action to prevent these stories and find out just how many stories there really are," Heitkamp said. "It's time to give voice to these voiceless women."

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) on YouTube: On Senate Floor, Heitkamp Shares Stories of Missing & Murdered Native Women

Savanna's Act aims to change the situation by requiring federal agencies to discover the extent of the problem by reporting on the numbers of missing and murdered Native women every year. To address potential shortfalls, it creates a standardized protocol for federal, tribal, state and local governments to follow in dealing with these types of cases.

"We really don't know how many Native women and girls have gone missing and that's a big part of the problem," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is co-sponsoring Savanna's Act.

The new bill builds on the efforts of advocates for Native women, who have long pressed the government to pay attention to the struggles facing their sisters. Numerous federal studies have shown that Native women are more likely than any other racial or ethnic group to be victimized, and most are victimized by someone from a different race.

The stories shared by Native women have resulted in some important legislative achievements, most notably the Violence Against Women Act of 2013. The historic law recognizes the "inherent" right of tribes to arrest, prosecute and punish non-Indians who abuse their partners.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Savanna's Act on the Senate Floor

With the start of the 115th Congress in January, advocates have been focusing on two additional policy areas: missing and murdered Native women and human trafficking. A briefing on Capitol Hill in February was followed by the release of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report in July which showed that Native women suffer from the second-highest homicide rate. Most of the victims are young, like Greywind and some of the women Heitkamp mentioned in her speech.

Heitkamp shed further light on the problem by citing a previously unreported figure that comes from the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a federal database. As of 2016, she said there were 5,712 cases of missing Native women and girls, with 125 in North Dakota alone. Heitkamp believes the true number is much higher.

Through the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, another legislative success, Congress required the federal government to open the NCIC and other databases to tribes. Seven years later, the Department of Justice this week barely announced the third round of participants in a program that has only reached a small number of reservations.

Savanna's Act would expand on the 2010 law by requiring the department to consult tribes on ways to make the database more responsive to their needs. It also seeks to ensure tribal access to a broader set of data from local, regional and state systems.

On human trafficking, the Government Accountability Office released two reports in April and in July which showed that the department doesn't keep track of Native victims even though the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the network of U.S. Attorneys across the nation are responsible for investigating and prosecuting such crimes in Indian Country.

"You would think that that trust responsibility demands us to be paying even closer attention and yet it seems that we just withdraw from that," Murkowski said on Thursday.

The director of the Office of Tribal Justice, an agency at the department, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last week that collecting data on Native trafficking victims makes them reluctant to seek out services, an explanation refuted by advocates for Native women.

84% of Native American women have experienced violence in their lifetime, and 56% have experienced sexual violence....

Posted by Senator Heidi Heitkamp on Thursday, October 5, 2017
Senator Heidi Heitkamp on Facebook: Stories of Missing and Murdered Native American Women

Separately from Savanna's Act, the chairman of the committee introduced the Tribal Law and Order Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act. One provision requires the department to collect data on Native victims of human trafficking "both in and outside Indian Country," said Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota).

“This bill enhances current law to ensure tribes have the tools to combat crime and keep their citizens safe and secure,” Hoeven said in a press release on Thursday. “It also increases coordination between our tribal, federal and state law enforcement officials, so that we can more effectively improve safety in tribal areas and surrounding communities.”

The two people who were charged in connection with Savanna Greywind's murder have pleaded not guilty. Brooke Lynn Crews, 38, and William Henry Hoehn, 32, lived in the same apartment complex as Greywind in Fargo, where she was last seen alive.

Greywind's baby girl was found in the defendants' apartment in the complex. She survived the ordeal is being raised by her father and grandparents, Heitkamp said on Thursday.

Greywind was enrolled in the Spirit Lake Nation, where her father is a citizen. Her mother is from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, another tribe in North Dakota.

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