Arctic Sounder: Savanna's Act passes U.S. Senate

A bill calling for more law enforcement focus on cases of missing and murdered indigenous women has passed the U.S. Senate.

Savanna's Act is named for 22-year-old Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, of the Spirit Lake Nation, who was murdered in North Dakota in 2017. The act passed unanimously on Dec. 6 and has now moved to the U.S. House of Representatives for consideration.

"This legislation combats the epidemic of murdered and missing Native women and girls by improving the federal government's response to addressing the crisis," wrote Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on Facebook. 

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) introduced the bill last year. Murkowski co-sponsored it, alongside representatives from a number of rural states.

"Native women go missing and experience violence at alarming rates but, too often, cases go uninvestigated and unresolved. Native women deserve better," wrote Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), a fellow co-sponsor, in a release. "Savanna's Act will improve data collection, enable information sharing, and facilitate coordination between federal, state and tribal law enforcement agencies to better address the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women."

The bill calls on the Department of Justice to change the way it handles online data on missing and murdered indigenous people. For example, the department must standardize its guidelines for handling such information, along with meet tribal consultation requirements, engage with tribes and other law enforcement on these cases and develop "protocols to investigate those cases that are guided" by the new standards.

"Savanna's Act will provide Indian tribes with better access to databases that track missing and unidentified persons across the country," said Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), in a release announcing the act's passage.

Hoeven chairs the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which housed much of the discussion of the act before its passage by the full Senate.

While Savanna's Act takes its inspiration from a case that happened far from Alaska's borders, it touches on a subject that's dear to many of the state's residents. A number of recent and prominent cases of violence against Native women have led many Alaskans to call for more attention to the issue.

Speaking to Indian Affairs about the issue before the bill passed, Murkowski made a point of wearing purple as a tribute to Ashley Johnson-Barr. Ten-year-old Johnson-Barr was raped and murdered by a fellow Kotzebue resident earlier this year. Her death sparked an outcry from across the state.

"Violence against Native American and Alaska Native women is a dire issue, with murder being the third-leading cause of death of indigenous women, and the Savanna's Act is an essential first step in addressing the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls," Murkowski wrote, announcing the act's passage. "We have a duty of moral trust toward our nation's first people and must be part of the solution."

By:  Shady Grove Oliver
Source: Arctic Sounder