Senator Heidi Heitkamp United States Senator for North Dakota

Press Releases

Oct 25 2017

U.S. Senate Committee holds Hearing on Heitkamp’s Savanna’s Act that would Help Address Crisis of Missing & Murdered Native American Women

Carmen O’Leary, Executive Director of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains, Testified about Need for Savanna’s Act as Native Women are Murdered at 10 times the National Average

WASHINGTON, D.C. –The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs today held a hearing on Savanna’s Act, a bipartisan bill introduced by U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp to help address the epidemic of missing and murdered Native American women. Today’s hearing comes just three weeks after her bill was introduced, reinforcing the need for urgency and broadened awareness to address this crisis.

During today’s hearing, Heitkamp – a member of the committee -- questioned Carmen O’Leary, executive director of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains and vice chair of the board for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, about the urgent need for Savanna’s Act. O’Leary spoke about how Heitkamp’s bill would help provide tribes with the information and resources to protect women and girls from violence, abduction, and human trafficking. O’Leary has worked for years on the epidemic of missing and murdered Native women.

On some reservations, Native women are murdered at ten times the national average, and 84 percent of Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime. In 2016, North Dakota had 125 reported cases of missing Native women according to the National Crime Information Center, but numbers are likely much higher as cases are often under reported and data isn’t officially collected.

Named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who was abducted and tragically killed in August, Savanna’s Act builds on a bill Heitkamp introduced earlier this year to expand Amber alert warnings in Indian Country – where such alerts often do not exist – to help stop abductions.

“To better protect Native women, we must start by raising awareness about the epidemic of missing and murdered Native women to bring this terrible problem out of the shadows, and then find solutions,” said Heitkamp. “It’s encouraging that Savanna’s Act is already receiving a Senate hearing, and hopefully that’s a positive sign that this tragic issue is finally coming to the forefront. Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind and so many other Native women whose lives were taken too soon – or have gone missing – must never be forgotten, and with this bill and today’s hearing we’re working to make sure that moving forward we are doing more to prevent these tragic crimes from continuing to wreak havoc on the  lives of Native women and their families. Let’s continue this effort by raising our voices about these terrible crimes and bringing Savanna’s Act up for a vote in the full Senate so we can implement the changes and awareness needed to keep all of our women and children safe.”

“When it’s common knowledge that Native women aren’t safe anywhere – from the Walmart she browses to her own home on her reservation, that’s an injustice in America. But from my decades of work to protect Native women and children from domestic violence and abuse, I know it’s an injustice that’s been ignored,” said Native Women's Society of the Great Plains Director Carmen O’Leary. “For years I’ve heard the same tragic story too many times – of mothers, daughters and sisters who one day disappear, and are found brutalized and murdered. Their families are the only ones to come to their aid, to search for them and to seek justice for them. But Senator Heitkamp’s bill is working to change that. By obtaining the research, the resources, and the communication needed on all sides of the communities, Savanna’s Act is the first step toward making sure the countless Native women who have been brutalized like Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind are not forgotten and the lives of Native women and girls are protected with dignity.”

Click here for statements of support for Savanna’s Act from United Tribes of North Dakota, National Congress of American Indians, and other tribal chairmen and leaders across North Dakota.

U.S. Senators Jon Tester (D-MT), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Al Franken (D-MN), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) cosponsored the legislation.

Specifically, Savanna’s Act would:

  • Improve tribal access to certain federal crime information databases. The bill would update the data fields to be more relevant to Native Americans, and mandate that the Attorney General consult with Tribes on how to further improve these databases and their access to them. The Attorney General would then submit a report to Congress on how the U.S. Department of Justice plans to implement the suggestions and resolve the outstanding barriers Tribes face in acquiring full access to these databases.
  • Require federal agencies to get recommendations from tribes to combat domestic violence. The Attorney General, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services would solicit recommendations from tribes on improved access to local, regional, state, and federal crime information databases and criminal justice information systems during the annual consultations mandated under the Violence against Women Act.
  • Create standardized protocols for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans. These protocols would take place in consultation with tribes, which would include guidance on inter-jurisdictional cooperation among tribal, federal, state, and local law enforcement.
  • Require an annual report to Congress with data. The report would include statistics on missing and murdered Native women, since there is little data on this problem and there isn’t a central location for keeping that information. The report would also include recommendations on how to improve data collection.

Click here for a fact sheet on the legislation. Heitkamp also launched a website with key resources and information on missing and murdered indigenous women, including offering steps to take if you know or suspect a person has gone missing by force.

Background

Heitkamp has long worked to stop violence, exploitation, and trafficking of Native women and children by:

  • Combating human trafficking in Indian Country. Heitkamp held an initial Senate hearing in September 2013 on stopping human trafficking with a focus on Indian Country. She has worked closely with Cindy McCain, a global leader in the effort to stop human trafficking. McCain testified at a Senate hearing earlier this month on human trafficking in Indian Country and highlighted Heitkamp’s work on the issue. In 2015, Heitkamp brought Cindy McCain to Fort Berthold, to talk about how to combat human trafficking. In September, Heitkamp called for federal agencies and organizations to provide specific training on human trafficking to federal government employees in Indian Country. Heitkamp also played a key role in passing bipartisan legislation in 2015 to fight human trafficking, and introduced multiple other bills on the issue.
  • Calling for a permanent federal law enforcement presence in Indian Country. When she served as North Dakota’s Attorney General and now as a U.S. senator, Heitkamp has worked to raise awareness about the need for a permanent federal law enforcement presence across Indian Country. In 2016, she brought then-Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James B. Comey to Fort Berthold to press him on the issue. Just a few weeks ago, Heitkamp spoke with the current FBI director about law enforcement challenges in Indian Country and pressed the agency to make these issues a priority.
  • Protecting Native women from violence. In the U.S. Senate, Heitkamp has built on her work as North Dakota’s Attorney General to combat domestic violence. The first bill she cosponsored was the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which she then played a major role in passing in 2013. Heitkamp worked to include a key provision in the bill to address the continuing crisis of violence against women in tribal communities. The provision strengthens the existing programs and provides tribal governments the force they need to prosecute non-Indian perpetrators who commit these crimes on tribal land.

Keeping communities strong and safe. Through her Strong & Safe Communities Initiative, which Heitkamp launched in September 2014, she has worked to address the emerging challenges in North Dakota as a result of the state’s population boom, including crime, exploitation, and trafficking issues in Indian Country.

 

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Contact Senator Heitkamp's press office at press@heitkamp.senate.gov