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Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., attended a hearing in January 2017 to discuss the role of Backpage.com in facilitating human trafficking.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp urged her colleagues to keep working to improve public safety in Indian Country as her legislation to address cases of missing and murdered Native American women took a step forward Wednesday.

The U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved Savanna’s Act, introduced by Heitkamp, D-N.D., and named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who was abducted and killed last year in Fargo.

The legislation would improve data collection on tribal victims, remove barriers for tribal law enforcement and create guidelines for responding when someone’s reported missing.

Heitkamp, who is leaving the Senate after losing the recent election to Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., emphasized the bill is only a first step.

“I obviously will not have a chance to see the reporting and the implementation of this legislation,” Heitkamp told the committee. “I want to encourage this committee to not let this issue slide to the backburner, to not let these women be forgotten, to not let these children be forgotten, not let Indian Country be forgotten as it relates to protecting them from violent crime.”

Wednesday’s hearing coincided with the release of a new report by the Urban Indian Health Institute that identified 506 unique cases of missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls across 71 cities. The report called attention to a lack of data, which causes the number of victims to be undercounted.

Heitkamp joined Sen. Jon Tester, of Montana, in calling for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to hold a hearing before the end of the year to ask the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs how they’re addressing the crisis.

“We need a hearing so we can hold people accountable,” Tester, a Democrat, said during a press conference on Wednesday.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, said he’s working to get a hearing scheduled before the end of the year. Hoeven also said he hopes Savanna’s Act will go to the Senate floor for a vote before the end of the year.

Heitkamp said she has bipartisan support for Savanna’s Act and has coordinated with members of the House to advance the legislation.

Heitkamp introduced the act in October 2017 following the death of LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe who vanished in August 2017 in Fargo while eight months pregnant. Her body was found eight days later in the Red River.

Heitkamp also referenced Wednesday the case of Olivia Lone Bear, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation who was missing nearly a year before her body was discovered.

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“This is anguish that no parent, no child, no aunt, no uncle, no elder should ever experience,” Heitkamp said. “This is a problem that has long been ignored and needs to be brought into the open.”

During Wednesday’s hearing, Heitkamp pressed acting BIA director Darryl LaCounte about inadequate law enforcement staffing, highlighting unfilled positions at the Standing Rock Reservation as an example.

“This is not acceptable,” Heitkamp said. “We aren’t going to solve these problems of missing and murdered indigenous women, of rampant drug crime, of rampant crime in Indian Country without a plan.”

In an interview with the Bismarck Tribune after the hearing, Heitkamp said she plans to continue to be an advocate for Native Americans.

“I think I will always be involved in Native American issues, in one form or the other,” she said.

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(Reach Amy Dalrymple at 701-250-8267 or Amy.Dalrymple@bismarcktribune.com)

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