Murder is the third-leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women, and rates of violence on reservations are around ten times higher than the national average. In 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, but despite the enormity of this problem, the U.S. Department of Justice only logged 116 cases in their missing persons database. Because these high levels of violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women are being systemically overlooked, there was a profound need for federal legislation to remedy this crisis. As a result, U.S. Senator John Hoeven (R-ND), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, cosponsored Savanna’s Act, which was recently passed to protect American Indians and Alaska Natives.
The Federal Government’s Jurisdiction Over American Indians
While American Indian reservations are considered sovereign states, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court grant the U.S. government ultimate authority over American Indian rights. For instance, Congress’ plenary power over American Indian affairs allows Congress to pass legislation that “limits, modifies, or eliminates powers that tribes possess,” even if it violates their treaties. In addition, the “trust relationship” set forth by U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall denotes the federal government’s promise to protect tribal communities in return for a willingness to give up their land.
While the federal government has supported American Indian tribes, such as by defending their fishing and hunting rights and creating the Bureau of Indian Affairs, it has often abused their power and violated their “trust relationship.” On account of these failures, a positive partnership between federal, state, tribal, and local law enforcement agencies is long overdue. Savanna’s Act is a powerful piece of legislation that will hopefully address this dire need for indigenous communities.
Legislative History of Savanna’s Act
Savanna’s Act is named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a pregnant 22-year-old from Fargo, North Dakota who belonged to the Spirit Lake Tribe. She was murdered in 2017, and had her unborn child – who miraculously survived – ripped from her body.
U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkap (D-ND) first proposed the bill in 2017, which was then reintroduced in 2019 by U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV). U.S. Senators John Hoeven (R-ND) and Kevin Cramer (R-ND) cosponsored the reintroduced bill, where Senator Hoeven advanced it through the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and helped secure its passage in the Senate. U.S. Representative Greg Gianforte (R-MT) then introduced the bill in the House of Representatives. As of September 21, 2020, Savanna’s Act has unanimously passed the U.S. House of Representatives and will now go to President Donald J. Trump to be signed into law.
What Does the Act Do?
Savanna’s Act requires federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement agencies to create protocols to address cases of missing or murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives. According to the bill, its purpose is fourfold:
Clarifying the responsibilities of federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies in responding to cases of missing or murdered Indians;
Increasing coordination and communication among these agencies, including medical examiner and coroner offices;
Providing tribal governments the necessary resources to effectively respond to cases of missing or murdered Indians; and
Increasing data collection related to missing or murdered Indians, as well as the sharing of information among federal, state, and tribal officials responsible for responding to and investigating these cases.
More specifically, the bill requires that the U.S. Department of Justice provide “training to law enforcement agencies on data entry, educate the public on the database, help tribes and Indigenous communities enter information in the database, develop guidelines [to respond] to missing or murdered Indigenous people, [and] provide technical assistance to tribes and law enforcement agencies.”
Next Steps for Protecting Indigenous People in the U.S.
Although Savanna’s Act is widely regarded as a positive first step towards protecting Indigenous people in the U.S., many believe that further legislative action is needed. For instance, Senator Hoeven expressed his mission to further protect Indigenous people in the U.S., noting that he will “continue working to advance more legislation like this to strengthen public safety in tribal communities and ensure victims of crime receive support and justice.”
Senator Hoeven’s agenda includes the following:
The Tribal Law and Order Reauthorization and Amendments Act, which would reauthorize and strengthen several programs that improve tribal justice and public safety in American Indian communities.
The SURVIVE Act, which would require that the Crime Victims Fund allocate five percent of their funds directly to American Indian tribes and effectively expand critical victims services.
The implementation of specialized training for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to address tribal law enforcement needs in the Great Plains.