Sen. Heidi Heitkamp: Protect Native women by remembering Savanna
WASHINGTON — Last week from the floor of the U.S. Senate, I looked up at a family who had experienced one of the most heartbreaking losses I could ever imagine as a mother — but whose tragedy had long been ignored by the chamber I was standing in.
They were there that day to hear me tell the story of Lakota. A shy and reserved young woman, Lakota had been forced into sex trafficking, and found brutally beaten, raped, and killed — hundreds of miles and several states away from the family that loved her.
Like so many Native American women, her story is unsolved — no one has been arrested or charged for her murder. Like so many Native families — because they still lack answers and justice — finding peace isn't possible for Lakota's family.
Each day, these tragedies are repeated. In New Town, N.D., Lindsay White was beloved by her community. Called 'Linds' by her family and many friends, Lindsay loved sugar cookies, her job as a waitress, and shared a deep love of the gospel with her mother-in-law — with whom she would exchange text messages of Bible verses. But in July, Lindsay was found murdered in Williston — leaving her family with too many unanswered questions and with the fear that the answers and justice may never come.
Just one month after Lindsay was killed, Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind's kidnapping and horrifically violent death in Fargo shook the nation and our state. But as Savanna's story reverberated in headlines around the world, what wasn't echoed loudly enough was how her story mirrors those of thousands of other indigenous women who are murdered or disappear each year.
Their tragedies persist daily in America, yet they do not command the spotlight or attention they deserve. While too many go unrecorded, the facts we do know are shocking: On some reservations, Native women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average, and nationwide, they are twice as likely to experience rape or sexual assault crimes.
Over 84 percent of Native women experience violence in their lifetime, and homicide is the third-leading cause of death among young Native women between the ages of 10 and 24. Despite these facts, in 2010 U.S. Attorneys declined to prosecute nearly 52 percent of violent crimes that occurred in Indian Country.
We must stop these crimes from going unnoticed and unpursued. I recently introduced a bill, named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, that would improve tribal access to federal crime information databases. Savanna's Act would also address interjurisdictional challenges by establishing standardized protocols for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans, allowing law enforcement to act quickly and resolve cases.
And by requiring an annual Attorney General's report with statistics on missing and murdered Native women, members of Congress can stay better informed and learn how to improve that data collection. When we uncover the true data behind these ugly crimes, we can begin to build the protections to stop them.
That day on the Senate floor, I wanted the injustice experienced by all Native women who have disappeared or been murdered to ring out in Congress. So I told their stories.
Turtle Mountain mother of three Monica Wickre was murdered 25 years ago, yet her family still does not have closure.
The family of Turtle Mountain's Stella Marie Trottier-Graves wasn't notified for almost two weeks that her body had been found abandoned in a pickup truck in an open field — and they are still haunted by the lack of charge or conviction of those responsible for her murder.
For days, family and law enforcement searched for Mona Lisa Two Eagle of the Rosebud Sioux on horseback — only to find her frozen body beaten, possibly raped, and left alone in a blizzard. Almost 40 years later, no one has been convicted or charged for her murder.
But it's not enough to tell their stories. To truly end the brutalization of Native women such as Savanna, Lakota, Lindsay, Mona Lisa, Monica and Stella, we must provide law enforcement with the tools to bring their perpetrators to justice. Only then can we implement the protections Native women need to stay safe from the abuse they too often face.
Heitkamp, a Democrat, represents North Dakota in the U.S. Senate.