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One Congressman Stands in the Way of a Bill That Addresses the High Rates of Missing and Murdered Native Women

Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old member of the Spirit Lake tribe, was eight months pregnant when she was murdered in 2017 in Fargo, North Dakota. Savanna's Act, a federal bill that would help combat the epidemic of missing and murdered Native American women by improving the government's response to such cases, was named for her.

First introduced by Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) in October of 2017, the bill passed the Senate unanimously. But it has stalled in the House of Representatives, where it's reportedly being blocked by one congressman: Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia), who has not commented publicly on his concerns with the bill.

There's no hard data for how many Native American women go missing or are murdered because so many cases go unreported—it's estimated that Native women are murdered 10 times higher than the national average, though less than half of violent victimizations against them are ever reported. And as former federal prosecutor Tim Purdon told the Associated Press in September, a "jurisdictional thicket" makes such cases in Indian Country particularly challenging. It’s not always clear where a missing person's report should be filed, or who should investigate it. And, according to a federally funded report, this confusion is often exacerbated by "insufficient funding, inadequate training, and victims' lack of trust for outside authority."

The bill aims to gather more data on victims, improve access to law enforcement databases, and create a clearer set of guidelines for how missing persons are reported in Indian Country. "This legislation is an important and needed step toward addressing the exploitation of Native women and girls," Dave Flute, board chairman of United Tribes of North Dakota, said in a statement after the bill's introduction, noting that Heitkamp has "long been an advocate for Native women, children, and families."

Should Goodlatte continue to block the bill, preventing it from passing before the end of the year, it will have to be reintroduced in the next Congress. And Heitkamp, who lost her bid for re-election, won't be there. Neither will Goodlatte, who is retiring.

"We are so close to passing this critical bill to help address the crisis of missing and murdered Native American women, and getting it signed into law," Heitkamp said in a statement. "And the actions of one Congressman shouldn't stop us from improving tribal access to law enforcement databases and preventing the cycle of exploitation, abuse, and violence in Indian Country."