Sen. Murkowski keeps promise to Heidi Heitkamp, reintroduces Savanna’s Act

Senator Lisa Murkowski has kept her promise to Heidi Heitkamp by re-introducing legislation known as Savannah’s Act, after the bill was stalled in Congress at the end of the last session. (photo: Vincent Schilling)

Vincent Schilling

Savanna’s Act, legislation to improve interactions between federal, regional and tribal authorities to benefit #MMIW

Keeping her promise to Senator Heidi Heitkamp, the former North Dakota Senator that was not re-elected in 2018, Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Republican senator from Alaska, has kept her promise to Heitkamp by re-introducing legislation known as Savanna’s Act, after the bill was stalled in Congress at the end of the last session.

As previously reported in Indian Country Today and as described in a release by Murkowski's office, the official background of Savanna's Act is as follows: 'In October of 2017, former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp introduced Savanna’s Act, cosponsored by Senator Murkowski, the first piece of major legislation specifically addressing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The legislation is named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who was abducted and killed last year in Fargo, North Dakota. It passed the U.S. Senate unanimously in December of 2018.'

Heitkamp had been vocal about her disdain for the actions of Congress that failed to approve the bill in the final days of session. The bill had passed unanimously in the Senate but was stalled by a former member of Congress, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia.

In a former interview with Indian Country Today, Heitkamp expressed her frustration at Congressional members who wouldn’t embrace her introduced legislation that would increase the interactions between federal authorities such as the Department of the Interior, the Department of Justice and the FBI as well as with state, regional and tribal authorities in the quest to address the high rates of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Indian Country.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., tells a panel of law enforcement officials that efforts to prevent and solve the deaths and disappearance of Native American women must improve, during a hearing by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., listens at left. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“What it is, is that there is a preference in the bill for grants from two law enforcement grant programs for states, localities, and tribes that have implemented guidelines for addressing the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. A needed step. But Chairman Goodlatte doesn't want that preference for Indian Country or communities. That shows a serious lack of understanding about how serious the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people is. Additionally, Savanna's Act also addresses a serious problem that happens to Native women in urban areas and other parts of the country,” said Heitkamp.

“The most important thing that we can do for these crime victims is to recognize them and to say they are a priority and this year-end refusal to do this does exactly the opposite. That's why I am being so aggressive on trying to get this done. We haven't given up and I'm not going to give up trying to get this thing done until the gavel goes down.”

“Come back to work. You're getting a paycheck,” said Heitkamp.

See Related: On Savanna's Act Heitkamp tells House: Get to work. 'You're getting a paycheck!'

The reason for stifling the bill according to Re. Goodlatte’s offices were language specifics related to the Department of Justice giving preference to states, regions or tribes applying to grants related to MMIW. Critics to Goodlatte maintained the Congressman’s reasons were vague because Savanna’s Act wouldn’t cost enforcement agencies money, but rather would influence greater communication.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte introduces Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge as the new 6th Congressional District winner on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 at Holiday Inn at Tanglewood in Roanoke. (Heather Rousseau /The Roanoke Times via AP)

Senator Heitkamp told Indian Country Today that the actions of Goodlatte were simply “mean.”

Even Jennifer Bendery, a correspondent for The Huffington Post weighed into the stifling of the bill with an article titled, The Dumb Reason Bob Goodlatte Is Tanking A Bill That Helps Abused Native Women, Bendery added a subhed to her article, stating “The GOP congressman is retiring this month. Impressive final act, sir!”

The bill’s description and the re-introduction of Savanna’s Act is now on Senator Murkowski’s website in a press release. It states:

U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D- NV) announced they reintroduced the Savanna’s Act, legislation to combat the epidemic of murdered and missing Native women and girls by improving the federal government's response to addressing the crisis. The bill increases coordination among all levels of law enforcement, increases data collection and information sharing, and empowers tribal governments with the resources they need in cases involving missing and murdered indigenous women and girls wherever they occur. Senators John Hoeven (R-ND), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Tom Udall (D-NM), Jon Tester (D-MT), Christopher Coons (D-DE ), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Thom Tillis (R-NC) are all original cosponsors.

Specifically, the legislation aims to bridge the gap of the limited data on the number of missing Native women by directing the US Department of Justice to formulate new guidelines for the reporting of violent crimes against indigenous people. The bill improves tribal access to certain federal crime information databases by mandating that the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Interior consult with Indian tribes on how to further improve these databases and access to them. It also requires certain federal agencies to solicit recommendations from tribes on enhancing the safety of Native women, as murder rates against indigenous women are ten times the national average.

Heidi Heitkamp has publicly expressed her appreciation to include a tweet thanking Murkowski and Cortez Masto for their efforts. Heitkamp tweeted, “Proud & encouraged that my friends @lisamurkowski & @SenCortezMasto reintroduced my bill, #SavannasAct, to help address the crisis of missing & murdered Native American women. These strong women will carry on this important mantle to help make sure Native women are #NotInvisible

Additionally, Heitkamp’s former Senatorial Communications Director added her remarks on Twitter:

“It’s a public policy win when your political opponents finally realize you were right. Thanks @HeidiHeitkamp for writing & introducing #SavannasAct & helping raise awareness about ending the crisis of missing & murdered Native women.”

Both Senators also offered comments in the release on Murkowski’s website.

“Senator Heitkamp was a true leader on this issue and an advocate for indigenous peoples throughout her tenure in the Senate. I’m proud to reintroduce this bill and continue our efforts to bring much needed attention and coordination to the issue of murdered and missing Native women,” said Senator Murkowski. “In Alaska many rural communities lack public safety and are often hundreds of miles away from the nearest community with a Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) or State Trooper. Compound that with the fact Alaska lacks a unified 911 system, which makes accessing resources even more challenging in many rural communities. Enacting this legislation will allow for greater partnerships between law enforcement at all levels and ensure they have accurate data from which to work. It will also ensure that law enforcement has the resources and cultural understanding to wholly and effectively address this epidemic. We have a duty of moral trust toward our nation’s first people and we must all be part of the solution.”

“It is long past time that Congress took action to help curb the tragic epidemic of violence toward Native American women,” said Senator Cortez Masto. “I’m proud to join Senator Murkowski in reintroducing Savanna’s Act, which gives local and Tribal law enforcement the federal resources they need to finally seek justice for the thousands of missing and murdered Native American women and their grieving families.”

The release also provided details about Savanna’s Act, which is identical to Heitkamp’s bill previously introduced.

Bill Highlights:

  • Improves tribal access to certain federal crime information databases and mandates that the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Interior consult with Indian tribes on how to further develop these databases and access to them.
  • Requires the DOJ, Interior, and HHS to solicit recommendations from tribes on enhancing the safety of Native women and improving access to crime information databases and criminal justice information systems during the annual consultations mandated under the Violence Against Women Act.
  • Requires the creation of standardized guidelines for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans, in consultations with tribes, which will include guidance on inter-jurisdictional cooperation among tribes and federal, state, and local law enforcement.
  • Requires statistics on missing and murdered Native women, and recommendations on how to improve data collection, to be included in an annual report to Congress.

Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling

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