FARGO, N.D. — A new study warns that available numbers for indigenous women and girls in the United States who go missing or are victims of murder seriously understate the reality of the issue.
Meanwhile, Savanna's Act, a federal bill aimed at addressing the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women, recently received approval from the U.S. Senate's Committee on Indian Affairs.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., is named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who was murdered in a north Fargo apartment in 2017.
Brooke Crews and William Hoehn, who were neighbors of LaFontaine-Greywind in the apartment building where they all lived, are serving life sentences in connection with the 22-year-old's death.
LaFontaine-Greywind was eight months pregnant when she was killed, and her infant daughter survived after Crews cut the baby from her womb.
If passed into law, Savanna's Act would aim to improve data on tribal victims of violence, improve tribal access to crime information databases and create locally developed guidelines for responding to cases of missing and murdered indigenous people.
After she was murdered, LaFontaine-Greywind's body was hidden for a time in the apartment where she was killed. Her remains were later found in the Red River.
A new study by the Urban Indian Health Institute, a division of the Seattle Indian Health Board, sought to place a spotlight on such cases by reviewing a variety of data from 71 cities across 29 states, including Bismarck and Fargo in North Dakota and St. Paul, Minneapolis and Duluth in Minnesota.
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The study identified 506 cases of missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, with 128 of the cases involving missing persons and 280 of the cases involving murders.
Ninety-eight of the cases, or about 19 percent, had an "unknown status," meaning it was not known in those cases whether someone who was missing was ultimately found.
The study said due to challenges in collecting data, about 80 percent of the cases cited in the study had occurred since 2000.
The authors of the study stressed that because of the difficulty involved in trying to research such cases, it is believed the 506 cases identified in the study represent an underaccounting of the actual number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
The study speaks directly to Savanna's Act, stating that one shortcoming of the bill is that it solely asks federal law enforcement to track and report data and that because urban areas are not federal jurisdiction missing and murdered urban victims, including LaFontaine-Greywind herself, would not be included in the data the bill aims to collect.
In announcing the passage of Savanna's Act by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Heitkamp said the committee's approval was an important step forward and a sign the issue is gaining the attention it deserves.
"Not only will this bill help make sure law enforcement has guidelines in place to respond to cases of those who go missing or are murdered, but it will also encourage law enforcement agencies to submit data on those cases annually to the Department of Justice," Heitkamp said in a statement.
Heitkamp recently told the Bismarck Tribune that Savanna's Act has bipartisan support and that she's coordinating with members of the House to advance the legislation.