Montana’s U.S. senators say they’ll take up a bill targeting the federal government’s handling of missing or murdered Native Americans.
Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines said the bill known as Savanna’s Act needs to advance, despite the departure of its author Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. The North Dakota Democrat was defeated in the 2018 elections. The bill was named for Savanna Greywind, a murdered member of the Spirit Lake Tribe who was eight months pregnant when her baby was cut from her womb by a female neighbor in Fargo, North Dakota.
The number of murdered and missing Native American women is believed to be in the hundreds, but scant records have made tracking those cases difficult. The Urban Indian Health Institute has accounted for 506 cases, while acknowledging there could be more.
Many known cases remain unresolved. Montana has at least 41 cases of missing or murdered Native American women, 29 of them in the Billings area, according to a recent report from the Urban Indian Health Institute. Nationwide, about 19 percent of those cases had an “unknown status” — it was unclear whether the woman had been found, and if so whether she was alive.
Tester told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in December that at least 24 women went missing in Montana in 2018 and haven’t yet been found, citing information from state Native American leaders.
“I’m telling you, 24 doesn’t sound like a lot, but in a state of a million people, if you put that out in the population that would be a ton of folks,” Tester told the committee during the oversight hearing on missing and murdered native women.
The latest victim identified in Montana is 14-year-old Henny Scott, a Lame Deer teen found dead in the Muddy Creek area of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation on Dec. 28, three weeks after last speaking with her mother, Paula Castro.
A 14-year-old girl was reported missing then found dead two weeks later on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Grieving the loss of Henny Scott, her family raise questions about the investigation into her disappearance and death.
“The death of Henny Scott is devastating and underscores the urgent need for Congress to pass legislation that ends this epidemic. I will reintroduce Savanna’s Act at the beginning of next Congress and continue working for justice for missing and murdered women and their families,” Tester, a Democrat, said in an email Wednesday.
Savanna’s Act passed the Senate in December, but was blocked in the House by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. Goodlatte later told the Roanoke Times he blocked the bill because it created grants specific to Native American justice issues, meaning that not all law enforcement agencies would benefit.
Goodlatte retired at the end of the 2018.
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Tester and Daines both serve on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which held a sometimes tearful and angry hearing on missing Native American women Dec 12. Witness Kimberly HeavyRunner-Loring testified about her missing sister Ashley Heavyrunner-Loring, who had vanished in June 2017. Kimberly HeavyRunner-Loring said tribal police and the Bureau of Indian Affairs were dismissive when she reported the disappearance of her 20-year-old sister.
Similarly to HeavyRunner-Loring, Henny Scott’s mother told The Gazette last week that the BIA seemed dismissive when she reported Henny missing. The BIA did add Scott to Montana’s missing person’s database Dec. 13, but a public alert about the missing girl wasn’t issued until the FBI broadcast Scott’s absence the day after Christmas.
“We must not stop working until we solve the epidemic of missing and murdered Native American women and girls on reservations in Montana and across the nation,” Daines said in a text message. “I will continue to fight on behalf of loved ones impacted by such horrible tragedies.”
Earlier, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, assured Heitkamp the bill would be taken up in 2019.
Heitkamp said her intention was to generate more data and accurate information so law enforcement could resolve the backlog of cases involving Native American women believed missing or murdered.
At the end of 2017, Native Americans and Alaska Natives made up 1.8 percent of ongoing missing cases in the FBI’s National Crime Information C…