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Bills to curb violence against indigenous people, human trafficking sent to North Dakota governor

Ruth Buffalo professional shot.jpg
Legislation introduced by freshman Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, that seeks to address the problems of human trafficking and missing and murdered indigenous people has been sent to the desk of Gov. Doug Burgum. Photo courtesy of Kari Breker, via Ruth Buffalo
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FARGO — A package of legislation aimed at preventing human trafficking and violence against indigenous people is heading for Gov. Doug Burgum’s desk.

Freshman Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, first brought forward one of the bills, House Bill 1313, to create a database for missing indigenous people. But the legislation expanded to include all North Dakotans because the state doesn’t collect this data.

Already approved by the North Dakota House, the bill passed the state Senate unanimously Friday, March 29.

Two other related bills with Buffalo as the main sponsor have been sent to Burgum: House Bill 1311 for law enforcement training on cases of missing and murdered indigenous people, and House Bill 1507 to prevent human trafficking by training hotel employees.

Such training would be encouraged – not mandated like in Minnesota.

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All hotel staff in Minnesota have been required since last November to learn how to identify telltale signs of trafficking and how to report suspected criminal activity. The mandate means Minnesota lodging establishments without training could be at risk of losing their license.

But the issue has played out differently in North Dakota.

“Originally, it started as a stick and moved to the carrot,” Buffalo explained.

There could be incentives for North Dakota hotels participating in the training that could be provided online or through a statewide conference. Those details are still being worked out, according to Emily Schwartz, director of the North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force.

Schwartz said she’s excited the state is prioritizing raising awareness of human trafficking. She said she hopes "it will generate some leads for the task force and generate some investigations with individuals in the hospitality industry better trained."

Along with Buffalo's bills, two resolutions she sponsored have passed. One resolution calls for a study of human trafficking and missing and murdered people. The other resolution urges Congress to pass Savanna’s Act, which seeks to increase coordination among law enforcement and improve federal data collection to combat cases of missing and murdered indigenous people.

Buffalo recently testified at the U.S. Capitol on the importance of Savanna’s Act, named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a Fargo woman who was 8 months pregnant when she was murdered in 2017.

Buffalo said the legislation she's sponsored this session builds off her experience serving on Fargo's Native American Commission and missing and murdered indigenous peoples task force.

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Buffalo, the first Native American Democrat to serve in the North Dakota Legislature, pointed to bipartisan support for the success of her legislation. She indicated there could be a formal signing ceremony for her legislation in the coming weeks.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office said Burgum doesn’t generally comment on legislation until it reaches his desk.

Kim Hyatt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead covering community issues and other topics. She previously worked for the Owatonna People's Press where she received the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Dave Pyle New Journalist Award in 2016. Later that year, she joined The Forum as a night reporter and is now part of the investigative team. She's a 2014 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth.
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