Indigenous Women Are Disappearing — Can New Legislation Quell The Epidemic?

Savanna Act

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America has finally broken its silence regarding the hundreds of Indigenous women that have gone missing or have been murdered in recent years.

On September 21, 2020, the House passed legislation to help law enforcement respond to this horrifying yet massively invisible crisis. The bill, deemed Savanna’s Act after murder victim Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, passed quietly through the house and is now headed to President Donald Trump to be signed into law.

LaFontaine-Greywind went missing on August 19, 2017. A week later, the 22-year-old woman was found dead by kayakers on the Red River near Harwood, North Dakota. LaFontaine-Greywind was eight months pregnant at the time of her death, but her baby was cut out of her womb.

While her body had been wrapped in plastic and hung up on a log, LaFontaine-Greywind’s baby was found alive and in the custody of her killer Brooke Crews and her boyfriend, William Hoehn. Because there was little media coverage throughout the search for LaFontaine-Greywind, Savanna’s Act was designed to increase and improve data collection for other cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Democrats introduced Savanna’s Act in 2017, but a series of delays kept the bill from becoming law in 2018. Although it had unanimously passed the Senate, former Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) prevented the bill from getting a House vote.

The original author of the bill, former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), spent her final weeks in the Senate shaming Goodlatte for his failure to pass the pivotal piece of legislation. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) took on the bill in early 2019 and promised Heitkamp that she would have it passed into law the following year.

According to a November 2018 report by Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI), at least 506 Indigenous women and girls have gone missing or have been murdered in 71 U.S. cities. Despite this alarming quantity, it is highly likely that the overall count is a gross underestimation of the actual number of missing and/or murdered Indigenous women. Why? There is a complete lack of data being collected by law enforcement agencies, and the media is failing to report on these women’s cases.

The chief research officer at the Seattle Indian Health Board and the director of UIHI, Abigail Echo-Hawk, says that Native women and girls go missing “three times” — in life, in data, and in the media. In Echo-Hawk’s view, these women’s deaths “are only visible to their families and to their communities who hold that grief, that hardship. And yet nobody sees it but them.”

Bree Black Horse, an attorney who works to protect the civil rights of tribal individuals, believes that the issue should be considered an epidemic. It “touches everybody in the community,” she said. “As Indian people, we all know somebody who has been murdered or who has gone missing or had been the victim of violence.”

What causes this epidemic to disproportionately affect Indigenous people? Murkowski speculated that one of the reasons why so many Indigenous women have been going missing or are turning up dead is because Native women earn traffickers more money than women of other ethnicities. “Native women, because of their looks, can be viewed as more exotic, more Asian, and apparently there is a higher market for women that are of Asian descent,” Murkowski told HuffPost in 2019.

A 2016 study funded by the National Institute of Justice found that more than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetimes. Within this cohort of women, more than half experienced sexual violence. Yet, representation of the violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls does not exist within the global Me Too movement.

Black Horse posited that the Me Too movement “applies to Native American women, but not in the same way.” With violence and abuse so prevalent in their lives, “it’s hard to worry about things like equal pay and fair treatment in the workplace when, as a Native American woman, at times you’re just trying to survive.”

In response to this epidemic, the also Senate approved the Not Invisible Act in March. The bill, which aims to step up the federal government’s response to Indigenous women going missing, being forced into sex trafficking, or being murdered, was passed through the House on Monday. In order to become law, the fates of both the Savanna Act and the Not Invisible Act rest in the hands of President Trump.

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