2020 has been a year of achievement for Native American women. Indigenous women’s activism led President Trump to sign Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act into law on Oct. 10th. Both bills address the epidemic of violence against Native American and Alaska Native women and girls. Furthermore, three Native American women were elected to the US House of Representatives – more than in any previous year.
Savanna’s Act is named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe. In August 2017, Greywind was forced into delivery and murdered by a neighbor in Fargo, ND. She was eight months pregnant. Greywind’s death raised nationwide awareness of the high rate of violence against Indigenous women in the US.
Former Senator Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., introduced Savanna’s Act in October 2017. This nonpartisan bill passed unanimously in the Senate. However, former Representative Bob Goodlatte, R-V.A. blocked it in the House. Senators Lisa Murkowski, R-A.K. and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-N.V., reintroduced Savanna’s Act in the current Congress. It passed in the Senate in March and in the House on September 21st.
Savanna’s Act improves coordination between tribes and law enforcement agencies. It requires the Department of Justice (DOJ) to report statistics on missing and murdered Native Americans. The DOJ must also develop guidelines for responding to these cases, improve training, and provide outreach to Native American tribes and organizations.
Not Invisible Act
Along with Savanna’s Act, President Trump signed into law the Not Invisible Act, also led by Senator Murkowski and Senator Cortez Masto. This bill requires the Department of the Interior to designate an official from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to coordinate programming on missing, murdered, and trafficked Indigenous people. It also creates a commission to make recommendations to the Department of Interior and the Department of Justice.
Local Activism, Community Partnerships
Jennifer Buckley is a member of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) taskforce of Fargo-Moorhead. The MMIP is a nonprofit organization working to prevent violence against Indigenous people through education and community partnerships. The MMIP taskforce was a major advocate of passing Savanna’s Act in Congress.
“Marches and rallies were not enough,” Buckley states regarding the organization’s decision to push for legislative reform. “We needed legal representation . . . that promoted the awareness and justification of missing and murdered Indigenous people.”
Buckley says Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act will hold law enforcement accountable in addressing violence against Native Americans. She also believes it will raise greater awareness of the epidemic.
Murder and kidnapping of Indigenous people are not new to the United States or Canada, Buckley affirms. She thinks Greywind’s murder increased acknowledgment of this issue because it happened in the city rather than on a reservation. Buckley says those who do not know someone who has been directly impacted often overlook the scale of this tragedy.
“I believe it’s the issue with anything else,” she says. “If it hasn’t affected you, you’re not gonna think about it.”
Buckley is a registered member of the Fort Yates Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. She says she advocates for Indigenous women so her daughter can live in a better world.
“. . . For my future and for her future, being involved in MMIP is something that I will always promote. I will always make people aware. I will always march. I will always rally.”
Revving Up Representation
Three Native American women also won US House seats earlier this month. The first Native American women to serve in Congress, Deb Haaland, D-N.M., and Sharice Davids, D-K.S., were since reelected. Republican Representative Yvette Herrell also won the House seat in New Mexico, whose House delegates are now all women of color.
Unfortunately, Indigenous women are still underrepresented in Congress. The Center for American Women and Politics affirms that Native American women are about 1.1% of the US population. Yet, the percentage of female Native American candidates for the House this year was only 0.7%.
Yet, there is progress. Not only did three Indigenous women win US House seats, but more Indigenous women ran for Congress than in any previous election. Fifteen Native American women ran for the US House and three ran for the US Senate.
Jennifer Buckley says she hopes having more Indigenous women in government will inspire her daughter to chase her dreams. She appreciates how these legislators, as positive role models, empower women and girls of color. “It really gives inspiration for everybody,” she says. “I think the people of color, women, Indigenous women, are really showing us [that] you just need to make that move, that step forward and reach back down and pull somebody up.”
The March Toward Justice Continues
While we made significant strides this year, there is more work to do. Representative Ruth Buffalo, D-N.D., affirms that while Savanna’s Act is a major step forward, we have not yet achieved justice.
“The response has been good, but many people are still very leery in trusting any level of government,” Representative Buffalo says. “There is so much work that still needs to be done to come to a place of true justice for the families and communities.”
Some of the changes Buffalo hopes to see are better education of systemic issues affecting Indigenous communities, a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019, and permanent funding for Tribal Nations and Urban Centers.
Although we need further progress, we should celebrate these wins for the Native American community. Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act are long overdue legislation that addresses and prevents violence against Native American and Alaska Native women. Moreover, the increase in Indigenous women who ran for Congress demonstrates a more inclusive government is possible.
As a Chinese woman from North Dakota, I understand the value of having leaders who represent your community. It empowers me. I look forward to seeing what it will do for tomorrow’s women.