Congress Is Addressing the Epidemic of Violence Against Indigenous Women

Supermajority Education Fund

October 12, 2020

On September 21, the House of Representatives passed a new, bipartisan bill aimed at addressing the epidemic of violence committed against Native American women across the country. The legislation is called Savanna’s Act, in honor of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old citizen of the Spirit Lake tribe in North Dakota who was lured into a neighbor’s apartment and killed while eight months pregnant in 2017. The bill, which is the first piece of major legislation specifically addressing missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, already passed unanimously in the Senate in March, and is now expected to be signed into law in the coming weeks.

Since 2010, more than 310 Indigenous women and girls have gone missing or have been killed in American cities, according to a 2018 report from the Urban Indian Health Institute. But despite the fact that Indigenous women in the United States are ten times more likely to be murdered than other women, the researchers found that these disappearances and killings were unlikely to receive media attention or were covered in highly stereotypical ways. 

The number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States is also believed to be severely undercounted because police and medical officials often misclassify the race of the victims in question. The researchers found that 13% of American cities said they were unable to search for American Indian, Native American, or Alaska Native people in their official databases. A lack of communication between tribal nations and police departments also leads to many disappearances not being investigated fully, if at all.

Savanna’s Act would put much-needed federal funding toward improving both communication and data collection between tribal, local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. The federal government would also be required to collaborate with tribal nations to develop strategies to protect Indigenous women and create guidelines on how to best handle cases when women go missing or are killed.

Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and co-sponsor Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) first introduced the bill in 2017, and the Senate passed the legislation in 2018. It was then stalled in the House Judiciary Committee by then-Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) as one of his last acts in Congress. It was not until 2019 that Savanna’s Act was reintroduced by Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Cortez Masto.

“It is long past time that Congress took action to help curb the tragic epidemic of violence toward Native American women,” said Cortez Masto in a statement after the bill was reintroduced.

The House also passed related legislation that had already gone through the Senate on September 21; the Not Invisible Act would guarantee that the federal government formulates a nationwide strategy to address violence against Indigenous people. The Act would also create an advisory committee comprised of tribal, federal, and local leaders tasked with creating recommendations for the Justice Department as to how to prevent violent crime and the trafficking of Indigenous women.

Advocates like Annita Lucchesi, Executive Director of the Indigenous data collecting group Sovereign Bodies Institute, say the passage of Savanna’s Act is an important step forward when it comes to protecting Indigenous women. “I’m very happy to see Savanna’s Act move forward. It was unfortunate that it stalled as long as it did, in large part due to bias that favored law enforcement convenience over meaningful action to protect Native women,” Lucchesi told Supermajority News.This is a disturbing reality among many policymakers and law enforcement agencies, which view a missing or murdered Indigenous person as an inconvenience rather than an injustice.”

While “there is still a long path ahead and much work to be done” to ensure that both Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act are “successful and effective, and to ensure that state and local agencies join us in the work,” Lucchesi added, “we are encouraged to see them both move forward.”