Death and Disappearance Congress

FILE —  This Aug. 28, 2017, file photo shows a memorial to Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind outside the apartment where Greywind lived with her parents in Fargo, N.D. The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs unanimously approved Savanna's Act on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. The legislation would improve data collection and information sharing, standardize law enforcement protocols for responding to cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and provide tribal governments with more resources.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Stressing again the physical and sexual violence Native women have suffered for decades, members of a Senate committee unanimously passed legislation created to combat the epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women.

After half an hour of remarks Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approved two pieces of legislation— Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act. With that the bills move on to the full Senate for consideration.

Among other steps, the legislation would improve data collection and information sharing, standardize law enforcement protocols for responding to cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and provide tribal governments with more resources.

Savanna’s Act was introduced in the Senate this year by Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev.; and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., all of whom spoke in support. Cantwell also co-sponsored Savanna’s Act last Congress. It passed the Senate unanimously but did not pass the House of Representatives before the end of the 115th Congress.

Cantwell mentioned the Yakama Reservation in her comments. It’s unknown exactly how many Native women and girls, and men and boys, have gone missing, have been murdered and have died mysteriously on and around the 1.3-million-acre reservation.

“The Yakama Nation has decades-old unsolved cases of family members that have gone missing, been murdered, or had mysterious deaths that have not been solved. This, too, is unacceptable,” Cantwell said.

“This epidemic is unacceptable. And we can’t ignore the families and friends who have been left without answers.”

Savanna’s Act is named in honor of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old member of the Spirit Lake Tribe who disappeared on Aug. 19, 2017, while eight months pregnant. Her body was found eight days later in the Red River north of Fargo, North Dakota, her nearly full-term baby cut from her womb.

Native women experience alarming rates of violence, Cortez Masto said. “The two bills we are considering today are crucial to improving the safety of Native women,” she said.

“It’s time for us to show that we care and we want things to change. These two bills will make necessary improvements” to ensure that Native women and girls feel safer and get justice, she added.

Among the many challenges in addressing the crisis is inaccurate and inconsistent data. Underreporting is rampant, and numbers are often unavailable to the public. That has spurred some organizations to do their own research.

In late 2018, the Seattle Indian Health Board released a report that found 506 unsolved cases of missing and murdered Native women and girls nationwide. Of the 71 urban areas throughout the United States included in the study, Seattle had the highest number of missing and murdered individuals, as well as the highest number of murdered individuals. Tacoma was found to have the highest number of missing individuals.

And in September, the organization issued a study critical of a Washington State Patrol report on missing and murdered indigenous women, noting issues with incomplete or incorrect data. For example, some Native women have been classified as white, skewing the data.

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican from Sunnyside; Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico and Norma Torres, D-Calif., reintroduced Savanna’s Act in the House, where it awaits a committee hearing. Among its goals, the legislation will address issues with data, Newhouse has said.

In late October, Newhouse met with JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Tribal Council, and Tribal Council member Lottie Sam. They also spoke to other officials in their trip to Washington, D.C., Newhouse said in an Oct. 24 Facebook post.

Reach Tammy Ayer at tayer@yakimaherald.com or on Facebook.