Arctic Sounder: Murkowski reintroduces Savanna's Act in Senate

After stalling in the House at the end of last year, Savanna's Act is back on the table. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) reintroduced the act this week with fellow Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada).

"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 release. "I'm proud to join Sen. Murkowski in reintroducing Savanna's Act, which gives local and tribal law enforcement the federal resources they need to finally seek justice for the thousands of missing and murdered Native American women and their grieving families."

The act, which works to streamline resources and communication networks to better address cases involving missing and murdered indigenous women, was previously introduced in 2017 by former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota). She was not re-elected to her seat, so in order for the act to be reintroduced, it had to be carried by a new sponsor.

"We really thought we had a strong chance of moving it through the full Congress and having it be signed into law before the end of the year, and so for it to be sidelined over in the House by one member at the very end was not only surprising, but very disappointing," said Murkowski, speaking by phone from Washington. "I gave my support and commitment to Sen. Heitkamp that I was going to move this through and we were going to get this done for her and for all the women who have been victims and whose families are still wondering and waiting for information about their loved ones."

Savanna's Act is named for North Dakota's Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, of the Spirit Lake Nation, who was murdered in 2017.

"(Sen. Heitkamp) had begun to highlight the issue of missing and murdered women on the floor of the Senate some years ago. It was about four years ago I joined her on the Senate floor talking about some of the murdered and missing women, those cold cases, whether it was the story of Sophie Sergie at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, or some of the other tragedies that we've seen around the state," said Murkowski. "We started working on these initiatives years ago. So, when she moved forward with Savanna's Act, it was just natural for me to be her partner in it."

If passed, Savanna's Act would allow for more information sharing between agencies. It would also mandate that the attorney general and secretary of the interior properly consult with tribes and tribal authorities to develop databases dedicated to this issue and improve access to existing data.

"I think the first thing is to recognize that there's just so much that we don't know because we don't have data. We don't know what we don't know," said Murkowski. "So, with any issue, with any problem, until you have identified the extent of it, it's really hard to even get started. But we know that there are technologies that are out there that can be helpful. We know that there is sharing between states, between registries, there's data that's out there but if you don't have a way to cross-access it, that data doesn't do anybody any good."

The act would also call on federal agencies to work with tribes to come up with solutions for better responding to these types of cases, and for improving the safety of Native women and children.

Finally, it would result in the creation of "standardized guidelines for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans," Murkowski's office noted in a release.

Despite the holdups last session, Murkowski said she's optimistic for the future. But that doesn't mean she's expecting an easy pass, she said.

"There's been a lot of discussion about why it was held up in the House and whether it was held because of a policy concern or whether it was just political and the fact of the matter is we can second-guess that all we want. I think we need to move forward. We need to recognize this is a new Congress," she said. "We need to assume that there is a level of support but also that there are people who don't know about this legislation that need to be educated. I'm not going to make any assumptions that because it passed the Senate unanimously that it's going to do so again. I'm going to work it here. I'm going to work it early and aggressively and we're going to make that same effort on the House side."

Co-sponsors of Savanna's Act include Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Delaware), Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-North Dakota), Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina).

By:  Shady Grove Oliver
Source: Arctic Sounder