Updated: September 25, 2020 06:38 PM
Created: September 25, 2020 06:11 PM
A brutal murder three years ago is leading to change in Washington, D.C. The House of Representatives passed a bill called Savanna’s Act on Monday, which is now awaiting President Donald Trump’s signature.
The legislation seeks to improve how cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous peoples are handled.
“What Savanna's Act will do is really help to be able to bring our systems up to speed and get the training and protocols that are really necessary to address this issue,” said Nicole Matthews, the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition.
A study from the Urban Indian Health Institute, called "Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls," shows Minnesota ranks ninth among the 10 states with the highest number of missing and murdered Indigenous women cases.
“Many of us have relatives that have gone missing or who have been murdered, so this issue is very close to us,” said Matthews. “We know these stories, these stories are our relatives.”
Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe, was murdered in North Dakota in 2017. Her neighbor was convicted of killing her and cutting her baby from her womb.
The 22-year-old’s child survived.
Her death prompted former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp to introduce a law in her name.
The version now passed by both the House and Senate requires U.S. attorneys to work with federal, local and tribal partners to create “regionally appropriate guidelines” for responding to these cases, including best practices for conducting searches, standards for collecting and recording data, and improving law enforcement response rates and follow-ups.
It also requires training for law enforcement on how to record a victim's tribal enrollment information or affiliation in federal databases. In addition, the attorney general must develop and implement a strategy to educate the public on the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a critical tool.
Under the legislation, the attorney general is also required to report annual statistics on missing Native Americans, including case status.
“It’s hit or miss how they're being responded to,” said Matthews. “Some systems have great responses and are doing much better to educate themselves and respond appropriately but, by and large, what we have had is grassroots efforts for searching for women.”
Matthews said the data is essential for funding and policy decisions.
“Sometimes we think about data collection as just numbers but numbers tell a story,” she said. “We need to have those numbers to help tell a story that we know to be true because we are living it.”
Matthews is a member of the Minnesota Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force, chaired by Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein.
“We know that data often moves money and often moves policy but unfortunately, historically that data has not been collected or its been collected in a haphazardly way,” said Kunesh-Podein. “Therefore, there’s no justice, it continues to happen, get swept under the rug.”
She said the information can help drive decision-making.
“Do we need more policing?” she asked. “Do we need more education around the matter? Do we need to understand and follow the trends of violence against women?”
The state task force plans to release its recommendations in December, many similar to provisions set by Savanna’s Law.
“Those are precisely what many of our recommendations will actually be,” she said. “We are finally bringing that attention to be sure there is some accountability and we are able to, hopefully within a short time, reduce those numbers of violence against women in Indian country.”
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