The tragic story of a North Dakota Native American woman murdered, sparked a national conversation.
Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind was pregnant when she went missing, and was later found and her baby had been cut from her body.
The Urban Indian Health Institute is calling cases like Savanna’s, a nationwide data crisis.
A recent study shows that in 2016, over 5,700 missing and murdered indigenous women were reported, but only 116 of the cases were actually recorded.
North Dakota US Senator Heidi Heitkamp introduced Savanna’s Act in 2017, with the hope that tribal lands will someday have the same resources to be able to bring missing women and children home.
We spoke with members of the Thunder Society, a cultural awareness group formed at United Tribes Technical College.
Faculty Advisor Sheridan McNeil says Savanna’s story, although horribly tragic, is important because it finally reached the national news.
McNeil adds, “But there are thousands of other cases that, you know, aren’t being told through national media. So that kind of attention, and that kind of education and awareness still needs to happen.”
Thunder Society President Alexandria Alvarez shares, “As a young indigenous woman, it’s like you had a target on your back. It did feel unsafe, you know. And I really enjoy going to school out here, I’ve learned to love the area, but it did kind of create this paranoia, like ‘What could happen?’ Savanna was right around my age, so that could have easily been me or any one of my friends.”
Alexandria Alvarez is from Idaho, and knows this issue spans the entire country.
She explains, “It’s important that we see as much recognition as anyone who’s missing. No matter if you’re red, brown, white, black, yellow.
Republican US Senator John Hoeven recognizes there is a higher rate of abuse and murder on Native American reservations.
The Senator from North Dakota adds, “Percentage wise, it is higher, and that’s one of the things that Savanna’s Act does, is it helps provide that data information so we can do a better job of enforcing the law and protecting people.”
Both Senators Hoeven and Heitkamp say it will take multiple pieces of legislation to solve the problem.
Senator Heitkamp says, “Unless we keep the lights on this issue, unless we continue to demand that victims, that Native American and indigenous victims are not invisible, this problem will fade into the woodwork with another report on the shelf.”
McNeil says she would like to see some assistance for understaffed tribal law enforcement.
She explains, “To train our law enforcement, to train our lawmakers on our cultures in North Dakota. You know we have five different cultures and everyone of us is different.”
She says to truly see change, the conversation needs to continue, and she hopes lawmakers will leave a seat open at the table for those directly affected by their work.
Both McNeil and Alvarez say the bill is a step in the right direction, but they told me there still needs to be more education and even legislation at the local and state levels.
Like we first reported on Friday, the bill is stalled in the House right now. Senator Hoeven was unsure what the hold up is for the single Republican Congressman, Bob Goodlatte.
But of course, if it doesn’t get moving soon, the bill will expire and have to be re-drafted in 2019.