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Senate committee discusses bills introduced in wake of LaFontaine-Greywind killing

Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind in a photo taken from her Facebook page. It was posted in March 2016.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held hearings Wednesday, Oct. 25, on two bills introduced by North Dakota senators to address issues raised after the killing in August of a 22-year-old Fargo woman, Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, and abduction of her newborn child.

Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp introduced "Savanna's Act" to the Senate three weeks ago in response to what she has called an "epidemic" of missing and murdered native women. It would create standard protocols for responding to cases of missing and murdered American Indians, improve the collection and dissemination of data about missing and murdered native people, and enhance tribal access to federal crime databases.

A week before Heitkamp introduced her bill, Republican Sen. John Hoeven, chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, introduced a bill that would require 5 percent of a federal crime victim's fund be allocated to tribes.

Hoeven's bill was introduced after the United Tribes of North Dakota, responding to LaFontaine-Greywind's slaying, sent a letter to the state's congressional delegation urging them to take action on the issue of missing and murdered native women and making several recommendations. One of those recommendations was that tribes be given greater access to money in the crime victim's fund.

The hearing also considered a third bill, the reauthorization of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, which, among other provisions, expanded the authority of tribal courts to prosecute crimes occurring on reservations.

"I'm encouraged that today's hearing just comes three weeks after my bill was introduced," Heitkamp said. "I hope we can continue this momentum. We have a problem in this country, a problem of missing and murdered indigenous women, that has gone on far too long without any national response."

The hearing heard from five witnesses, including Dave Flute, chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe of North and South Dakota, and Carmen O'Leary, director of the Native Women's Society of the Great Plains in Eagle Butte, S.D.

Savanna's Act received less attention than the other two bills at the hearing, though members of the committee and witnesses expressed support for it.

R. Trent Shores, U.S. attorney for the northern district of Oklahoma, said about Heitkamp's bill, "The Justice Department supports the goals of this bill and the effort to take on this dark and tragic issue. We've identified some technical issues in the course of our review and looking forward to working with you to address those."

Only two of five witnesses spoke about Savanna's Act. The only one who spoke at length about it was O'Leary. She suggested that the committee consider conducting field hearings on the bill to obtain input from tribes.

"There are so many women who have gone missing or have been murdered," O'Leary said. "It is truly a crisis."

Discussion of Hoeven's bill occupied more time at the hearing and received more enthusiastic support from speakers than Heitkamp's. The bill is known by the acronym SURVIVE, which stands for Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment Act, the formal name for the act.

Hoeven proposed the bill because American Indian tribes currently receive only about 0.7 percent of funds from the federal crime victim's fund — about $30 million out of $3 billion allocated — despite the fact that American Indian and Alaskan Natives are victimized at much higher rates than other groups. The amount provided to tribes would increase to about $150 million if the act becomes law.

"We encounter too many victims who do not have the resources that they so desperately need," Shores said. "The SURVIVE Act addresses a longtime issue in Indian country. The importance of providing effective services to victims of crime cannot be overstated."

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