‘Savanna’s Act’ advances in US Senate; Aimed at mending police response to violence against Native women

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. (Photo by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

WASHINGTON – The Senate Indian Affairs Committee passed a bill Wednesday aimed at improving how law enforcement agencies deal with cases of murdered and missing indigenous women.

Savanna’s Act would require better data collection. It would provide training and technical assistance to tribes and local police and it would foster cooperation among agencies. 

The sponsor, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, says equally important to any provision within the bill’s 14 pages is the message it sends to Native communities.

“Because for far too long the message has been sent that you don’t matter,” Murkowski said later. “That you’re invisible. That a loved one — a daughter, a sister, a friend — can go missing and it’s just, ‘Well, she’ll show up later.'”

Statistics are limited, but Justice Department research found more than 80% of American Indian and Alaska Native women have been victims of violence and more than half have been subjected to sexual violence. Murkowski says collecting data is key.

“First you have to identify the problem,” she said.

Research has already shown that violence against Native women is not a problem that’s limited to villages and reservations. Murkowski says many rural women become victims of crime or trafficking within 24 hours of arriving in a city. And too often, she says, police don’t respond quickly enough when a Native woman is reported missing. 

“When we take that attitude, we find out that awful things have happened,” the senator said. “And if we could have intervened earlier, maybe that trail would not have gone cold. Maybe we could’ve gotten to her before others got to her.”

The bill is named for Savanna Greywind, a North Dakota woman who was killed in 2017.

The Senate passed Savanna’s Act last year, but the bill was blocked in the House by a committee chairman. It was one of his last acts before retiring from Congress.