Analysis Violence

Woman’s Murder Brings New Urgency to Issue for Native Communities

Mary Annette Pember

The recovery of Greywind’s body from the Red River was an especially painful, synchronous reminder of the symbol the river has represented for missing and murdered Native and Indigenous women in both the United States and Canada.

The murder of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind of the Spirit Lake and Turtle Mountain Chippewa Nations in North Dakota is a wake-up call for all of Indian country, according to advocates working to address the ongoing lack of mainstream awareness of the issue of missing and murdered Native women.

LaFontaine-Greywind’s body was discovered on August 27 in the Red River near Moorhead, Minnesota, after her family reported her missing on August 19. LaFontaine-Greywind, 22, was eight months pregnant at the time of her disappearance.

The circumstances surrounding LaFontaine-Greywind’s murder were especially horrific and garnered national attention. Although police have not publicly confirmed that LaFontaine-Greywind was a victim of fetal abduction, it is likely that the baby found in the home of the woman charged in her death is the baby girl LaFontaine-Greywind was carrying when she disappeared.

In the days before her body was found, LaFontaine-Greywind’s disappearance galvanized Native people in Fargo and surrounding communities as hundreds joined the search for the missing woman. The Spirit Lake Nation and Turtle Mountain Chippewa reservations sent buses filled with volunteers to Fargo to help.

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Although the local Native women contacted by Rewire who helped search for LaFontaine-Greywind were encouraged by the response of Fargo police to the woman’s disappearance, they expressed frustration with the timeliness of the investigation.

“Initially, the Fargo police declared that there was no evidence to indicate foul play,” said Lissa Yellowbird-Chase, a well-known missing person’s advocate and founder of the Sahnish Scouts of North Dakota.

Family members turned to social media and local press and enlisted the help of Yellowbird-Chase in the search.

“They didn’t begin treating the case as a criminal investigation until Aug. 23,” Yellowbird-Chase noted.

“The family really kept up the pressure on police and did an excellent job in getting the word out to the public and the media,” according to Tanya Red Road, project coordinator of the Fargo-Moorhead Native American Center. Red Road is a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe.

For many Native people, the young woman’s disappearance served as a rallying cry. “There is a systemic lack of attention on the high rates of missing and murdered women in Indian country,” said Sunrise Black Bull of the Sicangu Lakota tribe. Black Bull is a project coordinator at the White Buffalo Calf Women’s Society, a domestic violence shelter and advocacy organization, on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.

As reported by Rewire and Indian Country Today Media Network, some reservations report that women and girls are murdered at more than ten times the national average.

Despite this data, however, federal support for tribal organizations to use in education and search efforts surrounding missing and murdered Native women is hard to find, according to Amanda Takes War Bonnet, who is Oglala Lakota and a public education specialist for the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains (NWSGP).

“Funding for tribes and advocates under the Violence Against Women Act and Office of Violence Against Women (OVW) focuses on five crimes that involve intimate relationship dating violence, domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault, and sexual trafficking. When the crime is one such as Emily Blue Bird’s (who went missing on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 2016 and later found murdered) or Savanna Greywind’s where the assailants are neighbors, most OVW programs can’t respond. These crimes are often involved in the disappearance or murder of native womenjust not exclusively,” Carmen O’Leary, director of NWSGP, noted in a statement to Rewire.

Takes War Bonnet noted, for instance, that the work NWSGP does to promote community awareness and foster coalitions that can help connect people with resources if their loved ones go missing is not supported by any of the organization’s federal grant monies. “We work on this issue voluntarily and rely on funding from the community and via crowd funding,” she noted.

The recovery of LaFontaine-Greywind’s body from the Red River was an especially painful, synchronous reminder of the symbol the river has represented for missing and murdered Native and Indigenous women in both the United States and Canada. As reported by Rewire, in 2014 seven bodies of indigenous women were found in the Red River that flows through Winnipeg. Native women in the United States formed a group based in Fargo called Sing Our Rivers Red to call attention to the issue.

“Right now the community is trying to decompress from the news of Savanna’s death,” Red Road noted.

She and others who spoke with Rewire, however, have hope that something good will emerge from this terrible tragedy.

“I think that Savanna’s disappearance and death has brought a real sense of urgency to the issue of missing and murdered Native women. We, as a community need to devise plans for what to do in these situations,” said Ruthanna Buffalo, a local health-care advocate. Buffalo is a member of the Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara tribes of North Dakota.

Both Red Road and Buffalo were encouraged and gratified by the outpouring of support from all members of the local community, Native and non-Native alike.

“Maybe this tragedy will represent a new chapter of awareness, at least in the Fargo community of the seriousness of this problem,” Red Road noted.

Native and indigenous communities throughout the United States and Canada continue holding vigils for LaFontaine-Greywind.

The Rosebud community in South Dakota held a vigil on Friday. The purpose, however, was not only directed toward LaFontaine-Greywind and her family.

“We also wanted to offer an opportunity for the many families in our community to both grieve for and honor the loss of their loved ones who have gone missing or been murdered,” Black Bull said.

When asked by reporters from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation why people were holding a vigil for LaFontaine-Greywind in Winnipeg, indigenous elder Chickadee Richard said, “I think it is because she’s indigenous and that we don’t see borders, she’s a sister.”

LaFontaine-Greywind’s funeral is planned for Thursday in Fargo. 

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