U.S. senator seeks to address 'epidemic' of missing and murdered Indigenous women with new bill
‘It's not often here in the U.S. that we benchmark our treatment of Indigenous Peoples against Canada'
A U.S. senator from North Dakota has introduced a new bill to address the "epidemic" of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, which has Americans looking north for a better example of how to deal with the problem.
"It is time for Congress to recognize this epidemic and take action to prevent these stories and find out just how many stories there really are," said Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.
The bill, known as Savanna's Act, aims to create better co-operation between jurisdictions and would require annual reporting on the number of Indigenous women and girls who have gone missing or been killed across the country.
It's named for Savanna Greywind, 22, who disappeared from her Fargo, N.D., apartment on Aug. 19. Her body was found Aug. 27 in the Red River in Minnesota, wrapped in plastic and duct tape.
Heitkamp told the Senate last week that she doesn't know "what the actual magnitude of this epidemic really is" because there is no official database to draw from.
The proposed law would improve tribal access to federal crime databases and "create standardized protocols for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans," a news release about the bill said.
It is high time that we acknowledge a problem that has failed to make headlines in this country- Sen. Lisa Murkowski
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski spoke in support of the bill.
"These are not just statistics that we are speaking of. These are real women. These are our sisters. These are our neighbours. These are our friends, and these are human beings who deserve to be respected in their lives but also respected in other tragic deaths," the Alaska senator said.
She raised the example of the Canadian federal government's inquiry into the disproportionate number of deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls.
"It's not often here in the United States that we benchmark our treatment of Indigenous Peoples against Canada," she said.
"But in this case, there is actually a compelling difference between Canada's national response to the tragedy of missing and murdered Native women and our seeming indifference here in the United States."
'A problem exists'
Murkowski said while Canada's National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has been mired in controversy, the U.S. has been late in even admitting the problem.
"It is high time that we acknowledge a problem that has failed to make headlines in this country, because you first have to acknowledge that a problem exists to make headway in addressing that problem."
David Archambault II, former chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota, said the law would bring welcome change.
"Accurate statistics aren't gathered in our communities, leaving problems undiagnosed and potential resources on the table," he wrote in a statement of support for the bill.
"Sen. Heitkamp's legislation aims to close the information gap and make much-needed improvement in co-ordination between local, state, federal, and tribal law-enforcement agencies."
Heitkamp spent much of her time before the Senate telling the stories of five Indigenous women whose lives were cut short by violence: Stella Marie Trottier-Graves, Monica Lisa Two Eagle, Lakota Rae Renville, Monica Wickre and Greywind.
"These are not isolated cases. This goes on every day in America," Heitkamp said.
Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe, was eight months pregnant when she disappeared.
Days after she went missing, her newborn baby was found alive. Three days after that, her body was found by kayakers.
Two people have been charged in connection with her death. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Greywind's case drew international attention and demands from Indigenous leaders that the government take action on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
While the scope of the issue might not be quantifiable in a single, succinct dataset, Heitkamp found some statistics to support her bill, including a 2008 U.S. Department of Justice report that found "Some counties have rates of murder against American Indian and Alaska Native women that are over 10 times the national average." She also found 5,712 cases of missing Native women were reported to the National Crime Information Center in 2016.
When Heitkamp announced her bill online, she said due to underreporting and data collection issues, the numbers are likely much higher.
Heitkamp's news release included notes of support from Indigenous leaders and groups such as the National Congress of American Indians.
The bill has been referred to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.