One of the issues North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp fought to address during her time in Congress was the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States. Her legislation, Savanna's Act, would improve federal response to the crisis and provide support to tribes, without requiring additional federal funding. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate in November, but was stalled and allowed to expire by retiring Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, as his swan song before leaving Congress.
After losing her re-election bid, Heitkamp won't be back in the Senate when the 116th Congress comes into session in January. But it looks like one of her final acts as senator was to make sure a colleague will carry on her mission to help Indigenous peoples. HuffPo reports that Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski plans to resurrect Savanna's Act and push for it to be passed. "I’ve committed to Sen. Heitkamp that this priority that she has helped to advance, I am going to encourage every step of the way, aggressively and early,” Murkowski told reporters, according to audio obtained by HuffPo. “I’m looking for partners. I’ve already talked to Sen. [Maria] Cantwell, she’s willing to join up with me.”
The legislation is named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old woman and member of the Spirit Lake tribe who was kidnapped and brutally murdered in Fargo, ND last year. She was eight months pregnant at the time of her death. The case is part of a broader crisis of violence against Indigenous women, which is not discussed enough. About 84% of Native women report experiencing violence in their lifetime — including 56% of women who've faced sexual violence and 55% who've been victims of intimate partner violence. In some counties, Indigenous women are also killed at 10 times the national average.
At its core, the bill improves communication between between federal, state, local and tribal officials. Some of its requirements would be to strengthen data collection on violence against Native women and require these stats are reported to Congress; improve tribes' access to databases containing information about federal crimes; and create standardized protocols for responding to cases of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples.
Heitkamp's goal was for the federal government to develop a better response to the crisis of violence against Indigenous women. In a statement provided to Refinery29, she praised Murkowski for committing to reintroducing Savanna's Act. “We have made great strides over the past several years to stand up for Native American families and children and protect them from violence. I know Sen. Murkowski and many others in the new Congress will continue to carry on this important mantle and I’ll continue to be a vocal advocate," she said. "We need to stand up and fight injustice to make real change — that’s what I’ve been working to do to stop the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and I know we can soon get Savanna’s Act across the finish line."
This story was originally published at 11:04 a.m. It has since been updated with comment from Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.