By Kris Gruber
Just two days before Indigenous Peoples' Day earlier this month, and after three years of bureaucratic delays, President Trump signed Savanna's Act into law.
Given the Dakota name "Where Thunder Finds Her,” Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind's horrific murder and the abduction of her unborn child, in August of 2017, brought the plight of Native American and Indigenous women louder and closer to our community. No longer were the killings, disappearances, and abuses easily dismissed. National attention and local outrage, although belated and insufficient, began the groundwork for the organization of task forces and legislation to take a more proactive stance.
In 2017 the Urban Indian Health Institute compiled the Missing Murdered and Indigenous Women and Girls Report through the Freedom of Information Act. As listed in this report, UIHI identified 506 unique cases of missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls across the 71 selected cities. 128 were missing persons cases, 280 were murder cases, and 98 had an unknown status. They note: ". . . what is reported and recorded by law enforcement, covered by the media, and remembered and honored by community members and family rarely matches."
Savanna's Act was introduced by then-Senator Heidi Heitkamp (who fought tirelessly for approval of the bill) in the fall of 2017. On December 7th of 2018, the bill cleared the Senate but was blocked by one vote: Republican congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia who opposed certain provisions. It passed the Senate unanimously in March of 2020 after being reintroduced by Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski. Finally, it was passed by the House on September 21st of this year and signed into law by President Trump on October 10th.
Savanna's Act, specifically, requires the Justice Department to report statistics on missing or murdered Native Americans, develop guidelines for responses to cases of missing or murdered Native Americans, conduct outreach to tribes and Native American organizations, and provide training to law enforcement agencies on how to record tribal enrollment for victims in federal databases.
On December 1st, 2018, Ruth Buffalo assumed office representing District 27 in the North Dakota House of Representatives. Originally from Mandaree, North Dakota, she is the first Native American woman to be elected to the North Dakota Legislature.
The High Plains Reader spoke with Representative Buffalo about Savanna's Act, related bills, and the steps needed to move forward towards change.
HIGH PLAINS READER: Savanna's Act promises to improve tribal access to federal databases on missing persons and strengthen connections between tribal, federal, state, and local law enforcement. It will also mandate consultation with tribes by the Attorney General with a follow-up report to Congress. Are there any additional steps or functions that you expect to transpire as a result of this legislation?
RUTH BUFFALO: The passage of Savanna’s Act into federal law is a good step forward, but the work continues in each respective community, locally. We need to continue finding ways to make sure individuals, families, and communities are strengthened. It’s important we work to prevent further tragedies from happening. Predators know Indian reservations have weak economic infrastructure, with limited law enforcement coverage. Communities will continue to organize and build stronger safety networks; the change we need will come from the bottom up, not top-down.
HPR: Do you have any concerns about the efficacy of Savanna's Act?
RB: Yes, I have concerns. First of all, we need an administration that prioritizes tribal communities. Until tribal communities are prioritized, we will continue to spin our wheels. It’s really going back to the basics of Federal Indian Law and having an administration who truly understands the federal government's unique political relationship with tribal nations.
HPR: The Not Invisible Act of 2019, introduced by Congresswoman Deb Haaland (NM-01), was just signed into law alongside Savanna's Act.
How do these two bills support each other?
RB: We need allies to work alongside us in this work and I’m so thankful for the allyship and leadership that has led the way in previous years. I’m also thankful to be alive to see federal legislation being introduced by citizens of tribal nations and for citizens of tribal nations. We are the most legislated population and it's time we lead these legislative efforts. These bills support each other in finding solutions to end the epidemic and crisis of MMIW, MMIG2S, and MMIP [Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two-Spirit, and Persons. Two-Spirit describes Native people who fulfill a traditional third-gender (or other gender-variant) ceremonial and social role in their cultures.] The Not Invisible Act uses a comprehensive approach to tackle this epidemic and crisis which also emphasizes the need for better coordination within systems including the different jurisdictions and levels of government, locally, tribal, state, and federal, to identify and combat violent crimes within Indian lands and of Indians by forming a commission.
HPR: A Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act 2019 (HR 1585) is also in the works. Can you tell us more about this Act?
RB: VAWA was established in 1994, to respond to the needs of victims of domestic violence, sexual violence, and stalking. This act is reauthorized every 5 years and provides additional resources to victims and families and communities working to prevent further violence against women. VAWA also provides tools for holding offenders accountable and better data collection. It expired in February 2019 and was passed by the US House of Representatives in April 2019, but is at a standstill due to partisan disagreements. In 2013, the reauthorization of VAWA included tribal provisions, this was in part due to strong advocacy of tribal leaders such as former Vice Chairwoman of Tulalip Tribes, Deborah Parker.
HPR: You formed the Fargo-Moorhead Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Human Trafficking Task Force after the murder of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind. Tell us more about that.
RB: I did bring forth the idea of forming the local task force by posing the question to fellow City of Fargo Native American Commissioners at our then regular scheduled monthly meeting which was held just days after August 27, 2017, when our local search efforts for Savanna had ended. I am a former Native American Commissioner, but I gave my seat up to provide a leadership opportunity for other community members after I was elected to the state legislature. After several community conversations, we knew we had to take action, in getting organized and forming a local task force. Because if and when this should happen again, we, as mothers, knew we weren’t going to waste any time convincing law enforcement our loved ones deserve rapid response when activating a search. We raised awareness on the crisis and epidemic of MMIWP by holding walks/marches and booths at community events. We mobilized the community to bring about positive change to prevent further tragedies from occurring while centering and amplifying the voices of the MMIWP families. The local task force garnered a lot of local attention and support. When I left for Bismarck in the 2019 legislative session, I handed the task force off to local leaders. I believe they have moved towards becoming a nonprofit organization.
HPR: What do you want people to remember about Savanna's Act and the plight of Native American and Indigenous women?
RB: I want people to remember that Savanna’s Act is more than words on paper. There’s a family out there still grieving the loss of their daughter, sister, niece, cousin, granddaughter and mother. I want people to never forget about the victim’s families. From what I have learned of Savanna over these recent years, she was a hardworking, goal-oriented individual who loved her family, she was a leader and she was good to others. I want people to believe and listen to Native American and Indigenous women. It’s universal when they say, “Women are the backbone of their families and communities” and “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it's finished; no matter how brave its warriors or how strong their weapons.” Many tribal nations are matriarchal and matrilineal, so when we lose our women, it is a devastating loss for generations. I want Savanna to be remembered locally, regionally, nationally, and globally, reminding all of us to do better. Combating violence against any human being is needed but understanding the complexity and disparities within the justice system is equally important. Which means working further upstream to get to the root causes of issues in order to find solutions.
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