Last fall, North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) introduced a bill, Savanna’s Act, meant to save the lives of Native American women, who are reported missing and murdered at rates alarmingly higher than other groups in the United States.
Nearly a year later, the bill still sits with the Committee on Indian Affairs and the number of missing women continues to grow. The crisis prompted Heitkamp to create the social media campaign #NotInvisible to bring more attention to the problem. Journalist Sharon Cohen’s September 6 The Associated Press story “#NotInvisible: Why are Native American Women Vanishing?” explores what’s at stake.
The article opens with the search for 20-year-old Ashley HeavyRunner Loring of the Blackfeet Nation, who has been missing since June 2017. Her case, the newspaper notes, is not unique:
Ashley’s disappearance is one small chapter in the unsettling story of missing and murdered Native American women and girls. No one knows precisely how many there are because some cases go unreported, others aren’t documented thoroughly and there isn’t a specific government database tracking these cases. But one U.S. senator with victims in her home state calls this an epidemic, a long-standing problem linked to inadequate resources, outright indifference and a confusing jurisdictional maze.
Now, in the era of #MeToo, this issue is gaining political traction as an expanding activist movement focuses on Native women—a population known to experience some of the nation’s highest rates of murder, sexual violence and domestic abuse.
“Just the fact we’re making policymakers acknowledge this is an issue that requires government response, that’s progress in itself,” says Annita Lucchesi, a cartographer and descendant of the Cheyenne who is building a database of missing and murdered indigenous women in the U.S. and Canada—a list of some 2,700 names so far.
Heitkamp drafted Savanna’s Act in an attempt to solve these crimes and decrease the number of missing women:
It’s another Native American woman whose name is attached to a federal bill aimed at addressing this issue. Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, 22, was murdered in 2017 while eight months pregnant. Her body was found in a river, wrapped in plastic and duct tape. A neighbor in Fargo, North Dakota, cut her baby girl from her womb. The child survived and lives with her father. The neighbor, who pleaded guilty, was sentenced to life without parole; her boyfriend’s trial is set to start in September.
In a speech on the Senate floor last fall, North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp told the stories of four other Native American women from her state whose deaths were unsolved. Displaying a giant board featuring their photos, she decried disproportionate incidences of violence that go “unnoticed, unreported or underreported.”
Her bill, “Savanna’s Act,” aims to improve tribal access to federal crime information databases. It would also require the Department of Justice to develop a protocol to respond to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans and the federal government to provide an annual report on the numbers.
The article also details the disproportionately high rates of crimes that occur against Native women. “A 2016 study found more than 80 percent of Native women experience violence in their lifetimes,” it says, adding that they are murdered at a rate of more than 10 times the national average. Native women are also more than 0.7 percent of the missing person cases in the country, though they represent about 0.4 percent of the U.S. population. Reports The AP:
There are many similar mysteries that follow a pattern: A woman or girl goes missing, there’s a community outcry, a search is launched, a reward may be offered. There may be a quick resolution. But often, there’s frustration with tribal police and federal authorities, and a feeling many cases aren’t handled urgently or thoroughly.
So why does this happen? [Blackfeet Nation filmmaker Ivan] MacDonald offers his own harsh assessment.
“It boils down to racism,” he argues. “You could sort of tie it into poverty or drug use or some of those factors…[but] the federal government doesn’t really give a crap at the end of the day.”
In addition to Savanna’s Act, Senators Heitkamp, Lisa Murkowski (R-Ala.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) introduced another bill in July. The End Trafficking of Native Americans Act would expand efforts to combat human trafficking of Native Americans and Alaska Natives, and create an advisory committee to better organize across federal agencies.
“Violence against Native American women has not been prosecuted,” Heitkamp said in an interview with The AP. “We have not really seen the urgency in closing cold cases. We haven’t seen the urgency when someone goes missing…. We don’t have the clear lines of authority that need to be established to prevent these tragedies.”