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Will Savanna's Act Protect Native American Women?

Introducing Savanna's Act, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, is raising awareness about violence against Native American women. (Jay Mallin/Housing Assistance Council)
Introducing Savanna's Act, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, is raising awareness about violence against Native American women. (Jay Mallin/Housing Assistance Council)
December 26, 2017

BISMARCK, N.D. -- The murder of a Native American woman in North Dakota has inspired lawmakers in Congress to introduce a bill aimed at protecting Native women.

The bill from North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is known as Savanna's Act for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, the pregnant 22-year-old Fargo resident who went missing in August and was later found dead.

Caroline LaPorte, senior policy advisor on native affairs at the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center, said the police response to cases of missing Native American women has been riddled with prejudice. And said often, no report is taken at all. Savanna's Act focuses on this issue.

"It's really supposed to require them to come up with a protocol to address the issue,” LaPorte said. "And that's great and we support the bill, and we supported the bill when it came out. But really, they should be doing that already."

LaPorte said the bill's greatest accomplishment may be raising public awareness of this issue. According to the Department of Justice, Native American women on some reservations are murdered at 10 times the national average, and 84 percent have experienced violence.

Sen. Heitkamp is among those who call these figures an epidemic. But LaPorte contends it's been the status quo for Native American women since the colonization of North America.

LaPorte pointed out another disturbing statistic. Of Native American women who have been sexually assaulted, 96 percent said their assailants include at least one non-native perpetrator. She said that's problematic for native communities because the Supreme Court has ruled tribes don't have jurisdiction to prosecute non-natives for crimes committed on tribal lands.

"Really, what it was, was an inherent stripping of the authority that tribes have based in their sovereignty, which predates the U.S. Constitution,” LaPorte said. "So, it's kind of the fight that we're always fighting in the background - on top of the gender-based violence, we're also always trying to consider those sovereignty pieces."

Jurisdictional lines often cross in cases on reservations, which can make it confusing for local law enforcement to know what authority they have. LaPorte said the federal government often ends up stepping in. She added the many tribal, local, state and federal agencies involved could make implementing Savanna's Act tricky if it passes.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ND