The fight for justice for missing and murdered indigenous women is starting again in Congress.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat from Nevada, introduced Savanna’s Act on Monday morning. According to a press release sent out by Murkowski’s office, the bill will cover the same ground as the previous iteration, which former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp introduced before Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte blocked the bill. The text from Murkowski and Cortez Masto’s bill has not yet been released; this post will be updated when it’s available.
Savanna’s Act is a centuries’ overdue piece of legislation—the crisis of Native and indigenous women being murdered and abducted at sky-high rates and law enforcement failing to serve any semblance of justice is older than this nation. The bill is named after Savanna Greywind, a pregnant 22-year-old North Dakota woman and member of the Spirit Lake Nation who was brutally murdered in 2017.
Savanna’s Act was initially introduced in 2017 by Heitkamp, who quickly became a champion of the issue in the Senate. The bill languished in committee before finally emerging in November 2018, after Sheena Between Lodges, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, was beaten into a coma.
With only six weeks left to pass the bill, the chances were slim to begin with given the timing; matters weren’t made much simpler when Heitkamp lost her bid for re-election in the 2018 midterms. But the Senate, for once acting as the reasonable chamber, passed the bill unanimously, leaving it to the House to pass. Then Goodlatte went to the mat for cops and blocked the bill from becoming law.
According to his alternate version of the bill, first obtained and published by Splinter, the retiring Republican wanted Savanna’s Act to be all bark but no bite when it came to ensuring police officers and detectives would actually do their jobs as it relates to protecting Native women. He removed all grant-related incentives in the “compliance” section and removed the stipulation that the U.S. Attorney General’s office would “disclose and publish” the law enforcement agencies that did not adhere to the guidelines found in Savanna’s Act. When the bill officially expired, Murkowski vowed to finish what Heitkamp started and re-introduce the bill in 2019.
It is presently unclear whether Murkowski and Cortez Masto’s version of Savanna’s Act will contain any of the incentivizing measures that Goodlatte gutted from his redlined version of the bill at the close of the 2018 congressional session. Per the duo’s press release, the bill will require the United States to start keeping and publishing statistics related to the disappearance or murder of ay Native women. The bill will also seek to improve access for sovereign tribal governments and their tribal law enforcement agencies to the United States federal crime information databases—one of the major issues currently facing both the investigators working for the Native nations and American government is the lack of communication. The issue was the subject of a hearing held in December about the crisis, in which Heitkamp and Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montanta, lambasted the FBI and Bureau of Indian Affairs for failing to effectively work with tribal police.
While the federal government has sat on its hands on the issue, the recent influx of Native and women legislators in state governments across the nation has produced a number of bills. South Dakota, Nevada, and Montana’s state leaders have all committed to tackling the issue in their current legislative sessions. Hopefully, the folks in D.C. will follow their lead and pass Savanna’s Act once and for all this time around—not that Congress has cared much about them before now, but the lives of Native and indigenous women across the continent depend on it.
Update Jan. 29, 11:11 a.m. ET: Murkowski’s office provided Splinter with the latest version of Savanna’s Act. It’s worth noting Murkowski’s version includes the grant incentives and publication of complying law enforcement offices that Goodlatte attempted to excise from the 2018 version. The bill can be read in full below: