WASHINGTON ― Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) reintroduced legislation on Monday to help law enforcement respond to a horrifying and largely invisible crisis: Hundreds of Native American women are simply disappearing or being murdered.
There is next to no data available on what, exactly, is going on. At least 506 indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been killed in 71 U.S. cities, including more than 330 since 2010, according to a November report by Urban Indian Health Institute. Most cases have been in the last decade, though the oldest case dated to 1943. But that 506 is likely a gross undercount, per the institute, because of the limited or complete lack of data being collected by law enforcement agencies. A staggering 95 percent of these cases were never covered by the national media, and the circumstances surrounding many of these deaths and disappearances remain unknown.
The overall level of violence faced by Native women is equally appalling. A whopping 84 percent of Native women experience violence in their lifetime, and in some tribal communities, Native women are murdered at 10 times the national average.
Murkowski’s bill, called Savanna’s Act, is as much an attempt to put attention on the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women as it is to understand the severity of the situation.
“We don’t even know what we don’t know with this,” the Alaska senator said in an interview. “It is a challenge, at best, to try to understand the extent of the problem. And if you can’t understand the extent of the problem, it’s really hard to know how to properly resource it.”
Her bill would boost coordination and data collection among tribal, local, state and federal law enforcement in cases involving missing and murdered Native women. It requires the departments of Justice, Interior, and Health and Human Services to seek recommendations from tribes on enhancing the safety of Native women. It requires new guidelines for responding to these cases, in consultation with tribes. It requires that statistics on missing and murdered Native women be included in an annual report to Congress.
The bill is named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old indigenous woman who was abducted and killed in North Dakota in 2017. She was pregnant, and her baby was cut from her womb.
Savanna’s Act was this close to becoming law at the end of the last Congress. It unanimously passed the Senate and was ready for a quick vote in the House. But former Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), then the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, single-handedly prevented the bill from getting a House vote. Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who was the original author of the bill but lost re-election in November, spent her final weeks in the Senate publicly shaming Goodlatte for sinking the legislation.
Heitkamp said at the time that the situation is so dire in her state that almost everyone in Indian Country ― roughly 30,000 American Indians live in North Dakota ― personally knows someone who has gone missing or been murdered.
She and Goodlatte are gone now. But Murkowski said before Heitkamp left, she promised her she would carry her bill forward. She called Goodlatte’s obstruction “unfortunate.”
“I didn’t understand what he was doing,” Murkowski said. “But that member is gone. And I’m still here. And we’re going to move it early and with some force and enthusiasm.”
“It is a challenge, at best, to try to understand the extent of the problem.”
Murkowski’s bill is identical to Heitkamp’s, which means it includes a provision that Goodlatte wanted to strip out. It requires the Justice Department to give preference to states, localities or tribes that apply for law enforcement grants to focus on missing and murdered Native women. Goodlatte wanted that language out because he said it would disadvantage grant applications from law enforcement agencies that don’t have significant Native American populations in their jurisdictions.
Murkowski said she plans to try to get her bill before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee soon. It already has a lot of bipartisan co-sponsors, including Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).
The bill also doesn’t cost any additional federal money. How much easier could this be to pass?
Murkowski could only speculate on why so many indigenous women are going missing or being murdered. She said she was at an Anchorage rally a couple of years ago called The Barefoot Mile, which was a walk around the city to support victims of human trafficking. She learned there that one of the “brutal realities” is that Native women command more money from traffickers.
“Native women, because of their looks, can be viewed as more exotic, more Asian, and apparently there is a higher market for women that are of Asian descent,” said the senator. “When I heard that, it just… It just sickens me.”
Here’s the bill text for Savanna’s Act if you want to read it yourself:
This piece has been updated to confirm that Murkowski’s bill is identical to the version introduced by Heitkamp in the last Congress.