Savanna’s Act Becomes Law – Cantwell-Championed Legislation Provides New Tools, Law Enforcement Coordination to Fight Violence Against Indigenous Women

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, bipartisan legislation cosponsored and championed by U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) to help federal, state, and Tribal law enforcement agencies better respond to cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) was signed into law. Savanna’s Act will increase coordination among all levels of law enforcement, increase data collection and information sharing, and empower Tribal governments with the resources they need to respond to cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The legislation was passed unanimously by the Senate in March, and by the House of Representatives in September.

“Finally – FINALLY – Savanna’s Act is law, and much-needed help for Indigenous women and girls is on the way. New law enforcement tools, coordination, and data will help make sure our Native women and girls get the protection and justice they deserve. Thank you to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for keeping up this fight with me, and thank you to the Seattle Indian Health Board for making sure this issue got the attention it needed.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly half of all Native American women in the United States have been raped, beaten, or stalked by an intimate partner; one in three will be raped in their lifetime; and on some reservations, women are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average. A 2018 report by the Seattle Indian Health Board (SIHB) found 506 unsolved cases of missing and murdered Native women and girls nationwide. The report also found that Washington state had the second-highest number of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women of any state. Of 71 urban areas studied, Seattle had the highest number of murdered Native women, and Tacoma had the highest number of missing cases. “This report is the evidence that we need… the problem is more than real – it’s horrifying. And we need action,” Senator Cantwell said as she joined SHIB to release the report in November 2018. 

Another report on the crisis, released in 2019 by the Washington State Patrol, called for more coordination between Tribal, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. It found 56 cases of missing Native women in Washington state – 20 in Yakima County, and 12 in King County.  

Savanna’s Act would:

  • Provide training to law enforcement agencies on how to record Tribal enrollment for victims in federal databases.
  • Provide training and technical assistance to Tribes and law enforcement agencies for implementation of the developed guidelines.
  • Improve Tribal access to certain federal crime information databases and mandate that the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Interior consult with Indian Tribes on how to further develop these databases and increase access to them.
  • Require the U.S. Department of Justice, Department of the Interior, and Department of Health and Human Services 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.
  • Require the creation of standardized guidelines for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans and Alaska Natives, in consultations with Tribes, which will include guidance on inter-jurisdictional cooperation among Tribes and federal, state, and local law enforcement.
  • Require statistics on missing and murdered Native women and recommendations on how to improve data collection be included in an annual report to Congress.

“Senator Maria Cantwell made a promise to Native women the day we released a study that shed light on the MMIWG crisis nationwide, and we are grateful she has kept that promise,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk (Pawnee), chief research officer of Seattle Indian Health Board and director of its research division—Urban Indian Health Institute. “She has shown that she is dedicated to finding solutions to address the MMIWG crisis, which has devastated Native communities for centuries. I know that this is the first step in establishing policy that protects our Native women, and I look forward to her future actions that will build on this.” Echo-Hawk has co-authored two groundbreaking MMIWG reports that raised issues around the collection of data in urban Indian and tribal communities.

“Today’s enactment of Savannah’s Act is an important step in helping the Yakama Nation and tribes across the United States protect our loved ones. In part due to the varying entities that have a role in law enforcement in Indian county, coordination and the sharing of data has been lacking.  This has proven to be a hindrance in determining the status of missing and murdered Indigenous people, particularly our women and our girls.  This new law will ensure the federal government coordinates with tribes and tribal law enforcement agencies through the sharing of information and the establishment of protocols for all law enforcement agencies to use when responding to cases of missing and murdered Indian people. We greatly appreciate that Senator Cantwell was an original co-sponsor of this legislation and played a key role in its passage as did Congressman Newhouse.  Having Senator Murray also sponsor this bi-partisan bill is also appreciated.  The support from our Senators and Congressman is a great example of how the members of the Washington State Congressional Delegation can work together and with the state’s Indian tribes on important issues,” said Athena Sanchey-Yallup, Secretary of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council and Chair of the Yakama Nation Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Committee.

Addressing the epidemic of violence against Native women has long been a priority for Senator Cantwell. In 2018, Cantwell joined the Seattle Indian Health Board (SIHB) to release its first report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 71 urban areas throughout the United States. Shortly after the release of that report, Cantwell and her colleagues on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee voted to advance Savanna’s Act, which Cantwell co-sponsored. Savanna’s Act first passed the Senate in December 2018, but was not passed by the U.S. House before the end of the legislative session.

In 2019, Cantwell re-introduced Savanna’s Act along with Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV). On National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls in May 2019, Cantwell urged Congress to pass Savanna’s Act, and in November 2019, Savanna’s Act once again passed the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Savanna’s Act passed the U.S. Senate for the second time this past March, and Cantwell applauded its passage, saying in a speech on the Senate floor“Indigenous women deserve to have the same rights and same protections under the law. But they need to have people who are tracking these heinous crimes that are happening, because they are the victims of these crimes at a much higher rate than the general population… This is what better protocols, better statistics, and a better system is going to do with the passage of Savanna’s Act, is give us those tools that we need for Indigenous women.”

Savanna’s Act is named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old member of the Spirit Lake Tribe who disappeared on August 19, 2017, while eight months pregnant. Eight days later, her body was found in the Red River north of Fargo, North Dakota. Police determined her death to be caused by “homicidal violence.”

Video of Senator Cantwell speaking at the release of the Seattle Indian Health Board’s report in 2018 is HERE.

Video of Senator Cantwell speaking in May 2019 on the Senate Floor about the legislation is HERE.

Video of Senator Cantwell speaking in November 2019 after Savanna’s Act passed through committee is HERE.

Video of Senator Cantwell speaking in September 2020 after the House of Representatives passed Savanna’s Act is HERE and audio is HERE.