WASHINGTON ― It’s taken all year, but the Senate finally inched forward with legislation on Wednesday that addresses a largely invisible crisis in America: Indigenous women and girls are going missing and being murdered.
At least 506 Native American women and girls have gone missing or been killed in 71 U.S. cities, with 330 of those cases occurring since 2010, according to a November 2018 report by Urban Indian Health Institute. The institute says that 506 number is likely a gross undercount because of the limited or complete lack of data being collected by law enforcement agencies. A staggering 95% of these cases were never covered by the national media, and the circumstances surrounding many of the deaths and disappearances remain unknown.
There is also next to no data available on what, exactly, is going on.
The Senate Indian Affairs Committee voted on two bills on Wednesday, Savanna’s Act and Not Invisible Act, that are as much an effort to put attention on the issue as they are to understand the severity of the situation. Both passed the committee with no opposition.
Savanna’s Act would boost coordination and data collection among tribal, local, state and federal law enforcement in cases involving missing and murdered Native women. It also directs the attorney general to develop law enforcement and justice guidelines. The Not Invisible Act would help establish an overarching federal strategy to address Indigenous women going missing, being murdered or being forced into sex trafficking. It coordinates prevention efforts between the secretary of the interior and outside organizations.
Savanna’s Act is named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old Native woman who lived in North Dakota. She was eight months pregnant when she disappeared in August 2017. A neighbor later confessed to killing her, cutting the baby out of her womb and dumping her body into a river.
These should be some of the easiest bills Congress passes into law all year. They’re bipartisan. They’re desperately needed. They don’t cost any additional federal money.
Native women deserve to have this in law this year. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.)
“I think we’re in a really good place with these bills,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a co-sponsor of both pieces of legislation. She said she’s talked to countless people affected by the loss of missing and murdered Native women and girls, and she described a scenario that at least partly explains how they go missing in the first place.
“Unfortunately, we know far too many vulnerable women who may leave their village, go to visit a friend, come to the city ― the statistics are shocking in terms of how quickly they are swept into a net that is devastating,” said Murkowski. “Within 24 hours of being in town, they can be caught up in a trafficking operation without even knowing. Far too often, what happens is they go missing, they’re trafficked, they’re murdered.”
She described families facing both the “unspeakable loss” of a loved one and the feeling of being let down by a government that isn’t protecting them.
Savanna’s Act was really close to being passed into law in late 2018, but a single GOP congressman, former Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) blocked it. It turned out he tanked the entire bill over a relatively small provision, too.
“I think today who might have been saved had we moved forward on this then,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who noted that Seattle has the highest rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the country.
“Native women deserve to have this in law this year,” she said.
Both bills now head to the Senate floor, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will decide when or if they will get voted on.