The law serves as “a reminder that the U.S. government has so much more to do to repair the broken promises to Native communities.”
A bill aimed at providing better information and assistance to address the horrifying violence Native women face was signed into law over the weekend, nearly three years after the bill’s introduction.
Savanna’s Act, originally proposed by former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in October 2017, was named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who was abducted and murdered in Fargo, North Dakota, that year. A nursing assistant, LaFontaine-Greywind was eight months pregnant at the time of her death.
Before losing her re-election, Heitkamp had been helping to draw more attention to the high rates of murder and abduction among Native women, which she’s called an “epidemic.” The bill was reintroduced in January 2019 as a bipartisan effort between Reps. Norma J. Torres (D-CA), Dan Newhouse (R-WA), and Deb Haaland (D-NM), and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who’d previously co-sponsored the original bill.
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On Saturday, President Donald Trump signed the bill into law. In a press release announcing the bill’s signing, the White House called Trump “the first president to formally recognize the tragedy of Missing and Murdered Native Americans.” A day earlier, however, he released a proclamation defending Monday’s holiday—which still lives on as Columbus Day on a federal level—from “radical activists [that] have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy.”
But the disparity of the legislation and the Trump administration’s harmful policies for Native communities has not gone unnoticed.
“When I first introduced Savanna’s Act in 2017, I wrote this bill to take a critical first step to help address this crisis and help raise awareness about it by bringing these women out of the shadows and making them not invisible. Finally, this bill was signed into law. And it happened just before Indigenous Peoples’ Day—a reminder that the U.S. government has so much more to do to repair the broken promises to Native communities,” Heitkamp said in a statement to COURIER.
“Unfortunately, the Trump administration has been particularly terrible for Indian Country— holding back COVID-19 relief funds for tribal communities, trying to end the 2020 census early which would prevent many Native communities from getting counted, and supporting efforts to prevent Native Americans from voting. Savanna’s Act is a reminder that we have taken an important step forward toward addressing an injustice—but there is much work to do.”
The legislation addresses a massive lack of data on missing and murdered indigenous women. On some reservations, Native women are murdered at a rate of 10 times the national average. A widely cited report from 2016 counted 506 unique cases of missing women in Native communities across 71 different cities.
These crimes tend to be committed in remote settings by non-Native individuals, as in the case of LaFontaine-Greywind. The 22-year-old was murdered by a couple under horrific circumstances that included an attempt to kidnap the child she was pregnant with.
In recent years, the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women has become a national concern, yet many understand because data is scarce, justice often goes unserved. Savanna’s Act, along with an additional bill signed this weekend titled the Not Invisible Act, are meant to give resources (such as the means to collect better data) taken for granted in non-Native communities, and build trust in areas where forms of justice and protection are either sparse or non-existent.
Much of the Savanna’s Act seeks to correct gaps between federal, tribal, and local efforts to protect Native communities. Its main goals are clarifying the relationship between law enforcement agencies and increasing “coordination and communication” in each realm. It also aims to increase data collection “related to missing or murdered Indian men, women, and children, regardless of where they reside, and the sharing of information among Federal, State, and Tribal officials responsible for responding to and investigating cases of missing or murdered Indians,” the text states. Correcting this fundamental lack of data is expected to reveal the actual scope of a largely unseen problem.
But What Took So Long?
The 2017 version of Savanna’s Act received unanimous support in the Senate after being introduced by Heitkamp, who represented some 30,000 tribal residents at the time. But the legislation was blocked by former Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia who, like Heitkamp, was serving his final term.
Then-Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Goodlatte objected to a provision that gave preference for grants to law enforcement agencies with links to tribal communities, ostensibly included to create a functional relationship between police and communities in order to address the widespread problem.
Goodlatte told the Roanoke Times in 2018 that the bill “took existing funds available to law enforcement organizations and used it as a reward for people who complied with provisions of the reporting requirements of Savanna’s Act.”
“Only a limited number of law enforcement organizations are eligible for those funds, so every other law enforcement organization in America is opposed to it,” he said at the time, “and the Fraternal Order of Police and groups like that because they’re getting a cut in order to do that.”
A report by the US Department of Justice on Policing on American Indian Reservations in 2001 named poor relationships between tribal communities and law enforcement as a key factor in the high, and then-rising, rates of crime in said communities, citing “cultural match” as a goal.
“A consonance” between the institutions in place in and outside of Native communities is violent crime, researchers concluded. “Only those tribes that have acquired meaningful control over their governing institutions have experienced improvements in local economic and social conditions,” the extensive report also noted.
It’s unclear whether or not Goodlatte was entirely beholden to these objections in his decision to block the bill. The current bill defines “law enforcement agency” as a “Tribal, Federal, State, or local law enforcement agency.”
Despite a convoluted past—and an attempt to co-opt this bill as a victory for the president—the signing of Savanna’s Act is being celebrated widely.
“Every Native family on the Reservation knows a Native girl, woman or transperson who has gone missing or was murdered,” wrote tribal attorney Ruth Hopkins on Twitter on Sunday. “This has gone on for decades & action on it is a long time coming but give credit where its due—with the Tribes, Native women & Congresswomen who made it happen.”