Savanna's Act Addresses Alarming Number Of Missing Or Killed Native Women : Updates: The Fight Against Racial Injustice Sarah Deer, citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and University of Kansas professor, discusses the measures to strengthen investigation procedures and why it's taken so long to address the issue.

Savanna's Act Addresses Alarming Number Of Missing Or Killed Native Women

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TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

Three years ago, a group of kayakers found the body of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind floating on the Red River near North Dakota. Savanna was 22 years old, eight months pregnant and a member of the Spirit Lake Sioux Nation. Authorities say she'd been murdered. Last week, Congress passed a bill that aims to address the alarming number of Native women who go missing or are murdered. It's called Savanna's Act, and it's been three years in the making. And joining us now to talk about this is Sarah Deer, professor at the University of Kansas and citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma.

Welcome.

SARAH DEER: Thank you for having me.

MOSLEY: Sarah, you've been studying violence against Indigenous women for over 10 years now. What's the scale of this crisis?

DEER: Unfortunately, most Native women in our country expect that they will be victims of violence. And the statistics bear that out. Almost 80% of Native women will experience some form of physical abuse, and over half will experience some form of sexual assault. So when we talk about the homicide rates, they seem to be sort of the end result of these efforts to extinguish the lives of Native women on reservations. And it just hasn't gotten the kind of attention that it deserves.

MOSLEY: Why has a lot of this gone unreported or investigated?

DEER: Well, I think that Native people in general just tend to be still really invisible in the larger society. And our criminal justice system, particularly that that applies on reservations, makes it very, very difficult to investigate a crime. You have a number of different agencies that may have all different directives or different protocols. You have the FBI involved. You have the U.S. attorneys. You have tribal police. You have Bureau of Indian Affairs Police. And the problem has been that the efforts to locate these women just have not been coordinated.

MOSLEY: To what extent does this new act, the Savanna's Act, help in this?

DEER: It's a great step in the right direction. I mean, the first thing that we really need to do is to figure out who is doing what and when. And so what Savanna's Act requires is that the Department of Justice create a task force to make sure that everyone's on the same page. When a woman goes missing from a reservation, what's the first thing we should do - right? - because you get different answers to that. It will also require the Department of Justice to have training for law enforcement officers, from the tribal police to the FBI, to understand what their role is in finding these women and putting the families at ease that their case is being taken seriously because in the past, most families have reported that they didn't feel the law enforcement authorities took enough action to try to locate their missing loved one.

MOSLEY: Why has this taken so long to get to this point?

DEER: Well, I think that we didn't really have data until very recently that told us the true scope of this crisis. It wasn't until 1999 that the Department of Justice released any crime data pertaining to Native people. So it really hasn't been that long that we have known about this problem.

MOSLEY: In many ways, this is your life's work. You've been working on this for many, many years. On a personal note, how does it feel to get to this point where we're now seeing this - what could potentially become law?

DEER: It's sad that we have to have this law. But I think that one of the things that's most poignant about this law is the name of Savanna. This gives us hope. It means that we are becoming visible. It means that Native women matter and that our stories matter and that the families deserve answers.

MOSLEY: Sarah Deer is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Kansas and a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation.

Thank you so much.

DEER: Thank you.

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