On August 19, 2017, a pregnant 22-year-old named Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind was reported missing in Fargo, North Dakota. Eight days later, her body was found in a nearby river. Two people who lived in the same building as LaFontaine-Greywind were charged with conspiracy to murder her and steal her baby; one has since pled guilty. Per the Forum News Service, her mother Norberta LaFontaine-Greywind felt that local police “just had no care” when she initially reported her daughter missing.
In response, Democratic senator of North Dakota Heidi Heitkamp introduced Savanna’s Act, a bill that aims to fight the prevalence of violence against Indigenous women. LaFontaine-Greywind was a member of the Spirit Lake tribe; her murder is yet another instance of the ways in which the American government is ill-equipped to address cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Yet while Savanna’s act was passed unanimously in the Senate, one Republican congressman is now holding the bill up from being passed in the House of Representatives.
HuffPost reports that Republican representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, who serves as the House Judiciary Committee chair, found issues with the bill, though it’s not clear what those qualms are. An aide simply cited “issues with the language,” telling HuffPost, “We have been working on this bill in order to advance it, including working with DOJ and stakeholders.”
Representative Goodlatte did not respond to the Cut’s request for comment.
If the bill is not passed by Friday, when Congress closes for the year, it will need to be reintroduced in both the House and the Senate in 2019. Neither Senator Heitkamp nor Representative Goodlatte will return to Washington in the new year; Heitkamp lost her bid for reelection, and Goodlatte opted not to run.
“Last week, Savanna’s Act — my bill to help address the nationwide epidemic of missing and murdered Native American women and girls — passed unanimously in the U.S. Senate. It’s telling how Republicans and Democrats have united behind this needed bill,” Heitkamp said in a statement to the Cut. “But now, my bill is being blocked from a vote in the U.S. House because of petty partisan games being played by one individual, Republican congressman Bob Goodlatte.”
She added, “I’d like to see Congressman Goodlatte actually visit a reservation in North Dakota and explain to the families of victims why he is blocking this bill.”
As Section 2 of Savanna’s Act notes, Indigenous women face more violence than any other group; at least 84 percent of Indigenous women have been the target of sexual or other violence in their lifetimes. There are no hard numbers on how many Indigenous women go missing or are murdered every year, owing to a number of factors including a lack of reporting and what one former North Dakota prosecutor told the Associated Press was a “jurisdictional thicket” of laws and authorities, including tribal police, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the FBI, and other law enforcement. (Per the AP, there were at least 633 open missing persons cases regarding Indigenous women alone at the end of 2017; Jezebel notes those numbers are likely higher.)
As the bill explains, “The complicated jurisdictional scheme that exists in Indian country has a significant negative impact on the ability to provide public safety to [Native] communities; has been increasingly exploited by criminals; and requires a high degree of commitment and cooperation among tribal, Federal, and State law enforcement officials.”
Savanna’s Act would then aim to clarify the responsibilities that law enforcement has in responding to cases of missing and murdered Native peoples, as well as to increase communication between federal, state, and tribal officials. It would also increase data collection related to these cases, and require that the attorney general seek recommendations from tribes in doing so.
The bill was jointly sponsored in Congress by Democratic representative Norma Torres of California and Republican representative Tom Kole of Oklahoma. “The increasing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women is one that needs to be addressed with urgency and immediate action; their lives are no less valuable than any one of us and deserve to be protected,” Torres said in a statement when she introduced the bill in November 2017.