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Legislation seeks to improve how states handle cases of missing, murdered indigenous people

by Mitch Arvidson ~ February 2019 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Two bills introduced early in North Dakota’s 2019 legislative session aim to raise awareness and improve law enforcement’s responses to cases of missing and murdered indigenous people within the state, but outside of tribal lands.
Under HB 1311, the state’s police officers and prosecutors would receive training on these specific types of cases. HB 1313 would require North Dakota’s existing information-sharing system for law enforcement to include “data related to missing and murdered indigenous people.”
The bills are similar in intent to federal legislation that advanced through the U.S. Senate in 2018 before stalling in the U.S. House. Known as Savanna's Act — Named after a Native American pregnant woman from North Dakota who was murdered while living in Fargo — the legislation would have implemented data collection and training standards at the federal level. Another version of Savanna's Act has been introduced this year.
The federal government investigates and prosecutes most violent crimes committed on tribal lands, while states and localities are responsible for surrounding areas. The overlapping nature of these law enforcement jurisdictions can lead to poor criminal reporting practices and missing information.
Most Native Americans, too, now live in urban areas. Two years ago, the Urban Indian Health Institute sought data from 71 U.S. cities on cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. It identified a total of 506 cases, including 80 in the Midwest, though that number is likely an “undercount,” institute researchers say. 
"We do not want to forget about our urban populations," says Rep. Ruth Buffalo, a Native American woman from Fargo who was elected to the North Dakota Legislature in 2018, and who introduced HB 1311 and 1313 in early 2019.
“Savanna’s murder happened in Fargo. Savanna was a member of a federally recognized tribe, but once you leave the reservation, you lose some of those protections.” 
Rep. Buffalo first began working on the issue as a member of a local task force that formed in the wake of Savanna's disappearance and death. One of her takeaways from the work on that task force: the need for proper data collection and sharing.
“[It] raises awareness and shows that there is a need for special attention to this issue,” she says, “because if there is no data to be shown, then it looks like there is not an existing problem.”
North Dakota is not the only state seeking new ways to address the issue. In Nebraska, for example, legislators heard testimony in January on LB 154, which calls for a study on how the state can improve the reporting and investigation of missing Native American women.

 

Article written by Mitch Arvidson, CSG Midwest staff liaison to the Midwestern Legislative Conference Criminal Justice & Public Safety Committee.