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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Two new laws addressing the issue of missing and murdered Native Americans are drawing widespread praise as a step toward addressing needs identified by tribes and experts in law enforcement and justice, including better data collection, coordination and increased resources.

President Donald Trump signed Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act on Saturday.

Julie Kitka, Chugach Eskimo and president of the statewide advocacy organization Alaska Federation of Natives, called the legislation a “huge victory for Native families seeking justice.”

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer in a statement thanked the bills’ sponsors, grassroots advocates and others who “fought long and hard to push these important measures over the finish line to help bring an end to the ongoing losses of life, trauma and devastation caused by the missing persons crisis across our country.”

Other supporters noted the laws bring hope to communities grappling with the effects of violence.

On some reservations, Native American women are murdered at a rate of 10 times the national average. And 84 percent of Native American women experience violence in their lifetime. Homicide is the third leading cause of death for Native American and Alaska Native women and girls, yet advocates say cases have long been overlooked. A 2018 study by the Urban Indian Health Institute, a tribal epidemiology center, showed that of 5,712 cases reported by the National Crime Information Center, only 116 were in the Justice Department database.

The lack of data is at the root of several problems. Without information, advocates are hard-pressed to come up with or measure the effectiveness of remedies. Police, policy makers, and legislators allocate fewer resources for investigation, research and aid for victims’ families, who are also pained by the lack of public awareness.

Savanna’s Act is named for Savanna Greywind, Sioux, of the Spirit Lake Nation. The 22-year-old pregnant Greywind was murdered in Fargo, North Dakota, in 2017, and her unborn baby was cut from her body. Two people are in prison in her death. Her baby survived.

Savanna’s Act requires the Justice Department to develop guidelines for responding to cases of missing or murdered Native Americans, to develop a public education strategy, to provide law enforcement agency training, and to work with tribes and tribal organizations in implementation. Savanna’s Act gives the U.S. attorney general 180 days from its signing to consult with tribes on improved data collection.

In a Monday, Aug. 28, 2017 file photo, a makeshift memorial to Savanna Greywind featuring a painting, flowers, candle and a stuffed animal is seen on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Fargo, N.D., outside the apartment where Greywind lived with her parents. Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski from Alaska is taking up the cause for a bill aimed at helping law enforcement with cases of murdered and missing indigenous women. Former North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp introduced and helped pass Savanna's Act in the Senate before she lost election, but it was blocked in the House by a retiring Republican. (AP Photo/Dave Kolpack, File)

The Not Invisible Act aims to increase coordination of efforts. It establishes a joint commission to develop recommendations for the departments of Interior and Justice. The commission is to come up with ideas for better identifying, reporting and responding to cases of missing persons, murder and human trafficking.

The urban institute found states with the highest rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women were: New Mexico (78), Washington (71), Arizona (54), Alaska (52), Montana (41), California (40), Nebraska (33), Utah (24), Minnesota (20), and Oklahoma (18).

(See: Justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women and their families must be a priority)

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The issue is “very personal to every Indigenous woman,” Marci McLean, executive director of Montana-based advocates Western Native Voice, recently told Talli Nauman of Native Sun News Today. “Most Indigenous women have a story of a friend or relative who has gone missing or has been murdered.”

McLean, Amskapi Piikani of the Blackfeet Nation, said the legislation would “open up the conversation on a national level” to address causes of violence and injustice towards Indigenous women and other women of color.

North Dakota Native Vote board member Lisa Casarez, of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, joined McLean in the statement, saying passage of the legislation means a lot, Nauman reported.

“Although it won’t bring Savanna back, it can provide Savanna and her family some semblance of justice,” Casarez said. “This can be one good thing that comes from a horrible murder that has happened right here in our own state and has affected Native communities across North Dakota and beyond.”

Savanna’s Act was introduced in 2017 by former Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. It was reintroduced in the current Congress by Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. The bills were passed by the Senate in March and the House last month.

Murkowski said in a statement Saturday: “Today we’ve reached a huge milestone in our efforts to provide justice for victims, healing for their families and protection for women, children and families across the nation.”

Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada sponsored the Not Invisible Act. She said in a statement that the “signing puts us on a path towards greater justice for thousands of Native women and girls that have been missing, trafficked, or taken far too soon and puts into place the tools needed to give our Native sisters, mothers and daughters greater security.”

(See: National Indigenous Women's Resource Center statement on 2020 Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls — May 5th)

Vivian Korthuis, Yup’ik, is CEO of the Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents 56 tribes in western Alaska. She praised the new laws but said rural Alaska’s public safety crisis has many causes, including “lack of access to public safety personnel and facilities and therefore an inability to protect our most vulnerable tribal members; as well as the epidemic of missing and murdered Alaska Native peoples.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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