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What is Savanna's Act, the US Law protecting indigenous women that's now in jeopardy?

Posted by
Alicia Lutes
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The bill was expected to pass handily — so why is it in trouble now? 

Savanna Greywind was 22-years-old and 8 months pregnant when she was murdered in 2017. 

In the year since, her story has become the face of the fight against the violence towards Native American women — women that also go missing at an alarming rate. It’s an epidemic of violence in the United States that has inspired the bill S.1942, also known as Savanna’s Act, championed by outgoing Democratic senator from North Dakota, Heidi Heitkamp. After a unanimous Senate passing vote, however, things have stalled out and the bill may be dead. But why, and why now?

Before we get into all that, let’s break down what Savanna’s Act is all about, how it passed, and the politics that have led to its current state.

What is Savanna’s Act?

Savanna’s Act was drafted to address the alarming rate of violence and kidnapping perpetrated against native and indigenous women. 

According to The National Crime Information Center, in 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, but only 116 of those cases were logged though the US Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database, NamUs. The National Institute of Justice also claims that 84 percent of indigenous women face violence in their lifetime. 

This, of course, begs the question: why is this happening, and being so under reported?

We need Savanna’s Act

The short answer? It’s complicated. 

Inadequate resources, apathy, racism, as well as the jurisdictional maze of governing on and in cooperation with reservations (officially recognized Tribal Nations have their own systems of rule in concert with the US government), have all been blamed in varying combinations. 

Mucking up the gears most of all is perhaps the last point: the maze. Tribal police and investigators from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs serve as law enforcement on reservations, otherwise known as the sovereign land on which Tribal Nations operate (all told, Indian Country—as it is officially called by the US government—ostensibly makes up the fourth largest state in the union). 

But in addition to tribal police, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) also has jurisdiction over certain offenses, with the US Department of Justice prosecuting major felonies that happen on the land, such as murder, kidnapping, and rape. All of which boils down to: a lot of inactivity and red tape.

Jurisdiction over crimes committed on Tribal Nations land is a “maze”. 

The bill would hope to erase all that by implementing rules that would clarify, codify, and increase the data on victims, improve access to law enforcement databases, and create clearer guidelines for reporting missing indigenous persons. 

By requiring “the Department of Justice (DOJ) to update the online data entry format for federal databases relevant to cases of missing and murdered”, Savanna’s Act would create “a new data field” for victims. In addition, Savanna’s Act requires the DOJ to “make standardized law enforcement and justice protocols that serve as guidelines for law enforcement agencies, … develop protocols to investigate those cases, … [and] consult with Indian tribes, and provide tribes and law enforcement agencies with training and technical assistance relating to the development and implementation” of new protocols.

So what happened?

On 6 December, the bill had already passed the senate unanimously and was awaiting a vote in the House of Representatives – a vote it was projected to win. But by 10 December, the bill was officially “held at the desk” of the House for reasons heretofore unexplained. That is, until 13 December, when Heitkamp called out retiring Virginia Representative Bob Goodlatte in a Twitter thread, accusing him of keeping the bill from moving to a vote. 

There are no reports as to the alleged reasoning Goodlatte is keeping the bill from moving forward, and similarly outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan did not respond to The Huffington Post’s request for comment.

But why? Short answer: no idea. But in all likelihood? Politics (because isn’t that always the answer?) 

In a statement obtained by HuffPo, Heitkamp explained that “the bill is being blocked from a vote in the House because of petty partisan games being played by one individual.” The statement implied that Goodlatte was purposefully holding the bill back until Heitkamp — who will leave the Senate at the end of the year after not winning her reelection bid, perhaps thanks to some seriously shady voter suppression antics aimed at, you guessed it, native and indigenous people — is politically neutered. 

She went on to add that, “Unlike Congressman Goodlatte, I am serious about saving lives and making sure Native American women are invisible no longer ― and I’m determined to not let Savanna’s Act go down without a fight.”

We’re rooting for you, Heidi.

Images: Unsplash, Getty

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Alicia Lutes

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