Missing and murdered Native American women deserve justice.
That, in brief, is the urgency behind Savanna’s Act — legislation that has been awaiting action in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate for an entire year.
The Senate bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, was unanimously approved by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee Wednesday. Tester, one of the original bill sponsors, is a member of that committee as are Republican Sens. Steve Daines of Montana and John Barrasso of Wyoming. There was no partisan division in the vote on S.1942. But we must ask: Why did it take so long?
“We need Savanna’s Act to improve information sharing between law enforcement agencies, establish better response protocols and put an end to these crimes committed across Indian Country,” Tester said in a press release.
The bill spells out the terrible danger that engulfs Native American and Alaska Native women and girls more often than other U.S. women:
On some reservations, Indian women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average.
American Indians and Alaska Natives are at least twice as likely to experience rape or sexual assault crimes — compared to all other races.
More than 84 percent of Native American and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime.
Homicide is the third leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women between 10 and 24 years old.
U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute nearly 52 percent of violent crimes that occur in Indian country, according to a 2010 report from the General Accountability Office. Investigation into these cases of missing women is hindered by a lack of training, equipment or funding and a lack of interagency cooperation, the bill states, continuing: “The complicated jurisdictional scheme that exists in Indian country has a significant negative impact on the ability to provide public safety to Indian communities.”
The act aims to clarify the responsibilities of federal, state, tribal, and local governments. That includes increasing coordination and communication among federal, state, tribal, and local law enforcement agencies. It is intended to empower effective response to cases of missing and murdered Indians and to increase the collection of data related to missing and murdered Indian women.
Savanna’s Act is named for a young Native woman, Savanna LaFountaine-Greywind, who was murdered last year in North Dakota when she was eight months pregnant.
In December 2017, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee unanimously approved the Survive Act. It still awaits Senate floor action. Tester is a sponsor of the Survive Act, which sets aside 5 percent of the Crime Victims Fund to provide an additional $150 million that tribes could use to assist survivors of violent crimes. The Survive Act can support domestic violence shelters, medical care, counseling, legal assistance and services, and child and elder abuse prevention.
In Montana, home to seven Indian reservations, we have seen horrendous crimes committed against Native women. Both Daines and Tester have supported resolutions recognizing May 5 as the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. May 5 is the birthday of Hanna Harris, a young member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe who was murdered in July 2013.
The Senate Committee vote for Savannah’s Act Wednesday was a hopeful step, but the hope will disappear when the lame duck Congress adjourns.
We urge Tester and Daines to talk with their Senate colleagues about passing both Savanna’s Act and the Survive Act very soon. Members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee should be leaders in persuading Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring these lifesaving measures to the Senate floor to become part of the year-end legislation that the House and Senate agree to send to President Donald Trump.
Don't force Native American women to wait even longer for justice.