Savanna's Act for missing and murdered Native Americans headed to Trump's desk for signature

The U.S. House approved Savanna’s Act Monday, Sept. 21, with a voice vote, meaning the bill is headed to the p

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The U.S. House approved Savanna’s Act Monday, Sept. 21, with a voice vote, meaning the bill is headed to the president’s desk, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a statement. If signed, the Department of Justice will be required to develop protocols to address the issue of missing and murdered Native Americans.

That includes providing training to law enforcement on how to record tribal enrollment for victims in federal databases, implementing strategies to educate the public on the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, consulting tribes on work regarding missing and murdered Native Americans, developing guidelines for cases and reporting statistics.

“Savanna’s Act addresses a tragic issue in Indian Country and helps establish better law enforcement practices to track, solve and prevent these crimes against Native Americans,” Hoeven said in his statement.

Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., introduced Savanna’s Act in the Senate in October 2017, less than two months after the 22-year-old LaFontaine-Greywind went missing. Her body was found Aug. 27, 2017, in the Red River just north of Fargo.

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Prosecutors said Brooke Crews, who is serving a life sentence in prison for her part in the death of the enrolled member of the Spirit Lake Nation, cut LaFontaine-Greywind’s child from her stomach. Crews’ ex-boyfriend, William Hoehn, also is serving a 20-year prison sentence in connection to the kidnapping of the baby, Haisley Jo, who survived.

After unanimously passing in the Senate, Heitkamp’s bill died in the House when former Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia blocked it. The Democrat accused Goodlatte, the then-head of the House Judiciary Committee, of playing “petty partisan games.”

Heitkamp lost her reelection bid to Republican Kevin Cramer in 2018, but Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska who co-sponsored the bill, reintroduced it in January 2019.

Backed by Hoeven and Cramer, Savanna’s Act passed with unanimous consent in the Senate on March 11.

In speaking on the bill, U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., said Monday on the House floor that LaFontaine-Greywind's story exposed that data on missing and murdered Native American women is scattered across government databases "if it even exists at all."

Armstrong said LaFontaine-Greywind's story is not unique. Olivia Lone Bear went missing in October 2017 and was found almost a year later submerged in a truck in Lake Sakakawea. The FBI is investigating the 32-year-old Native American's death, as foul play has not been ruled out.

"Savanna's Act will begin to help address this crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people," Armstrong said, noting Native American and Alaskan Native women face a murder rate 10 times higher than the national average. "Because of outdated databases and lack of coordination between law enforcement agencies, there's no reliable way of knowing how many Indigenous women actually do go missing each year."

Trump has not publicly committed to signing the bill, but he has supported other legislation and executive orders regarding Native Americans. That includes ordering the establishment of a missing and murdered Native Americans task force last year.

Hoeven's office said it has urged Trump to support Savanna's Act. He expects the president to sign it into law, his office said.

Readers can reach reporter April Baumgarten at 701-241-5417 or follow her on Twitter @aprilbaumsaway.
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