Tue, May 07, 2019 - Page 9 News List

A Native American woman’s brutal murder could lead to a life-saving law

Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind’s murder sparked outrage in the US, but now a bill named after her aims to address the crisis of violence against native women

By Jenni Monet  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

There was heartbreak across Indian Country in August 2017 when the body of 22-year-old Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind was found duct-taped in plastic in the Red River.

The ribbon of water demarcates North Dakota from Minnesota, a tributary flowing northward across the Canadian border. It is where, a few years earlier, a Native American girl, 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, was discovered wrapped in a duvet cover and weighted down by rocks.

The tales of these two tragedies and the river itself are emblematic of a modern violence against one of the world’s most vulnerable populations, Native American women and girls. It is a problem that police and authorities in the US have been accused of ignoring.

Over the decades, the river has come to be seen by many in the Native American community as a dumping ground for discarded bodies, but their sense is that detectives do not take this seriously. In 2014, after finding Fontaine, loved ones of the missing started to drag the Red River on their own. That year, advocates said seven bodies were pulled from the river.

Native American women in the US and Canada are murdered, vanished or found dead without explanation at rates well above national per capita averages. Advocates on both sides of the border blame the crisis on a lack of specialized investigative policing, as well as extreme gaps in government oversight.

Others are more blunt and call the problem something else: racism, a discrimination breeding distrust in authorities among Native American peoples. The discord suggests that whatever statistics are known are likely a disturbing undercount. Crimes are unreported and when they are, incidents often lack essential data and facts.

However, unlike Canada, the US lags behind in awareness and action to curb the injustice. Fontaine, whose death is still unexplained, renewed calls by First Nations advocates for a national inquiry into the broader issue — a cause Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to in 2017 . The nearly two-year investigation concluded in December last year. A report is expected to be released next month.

It is unclear just how extensive the problem is in the US. A review of the FBI’s 2017 violent crime report lists incidents that occur on tribal lands, but does not tell anything about the gender or ethnicity of the victims.

Statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that young Native American women are less likely than other women to be victims of homicide. Advocates have said that such statistics might reflect poor data collection, not less violence.

The murder of LaFontaine-Greywind sparked a national outrage in the US, and last year, a bill named after her became the first in the US Congress to propose increasing coordination among federal, state and tribal law enforcement to curb the chronic rate at which Native American women go missing or are slain. However, passing Savanna’s Act has been on an uneven path.

In August 2017, during her last month of pregnancy, LaFontaine-Greywind, whose Dakota name is “Where Thunder Finds Her,” placed a pizza delivery order to her family’s Fargo apartment before heading upstairs to see a neighbor. It was the last time her parents would see their daughter alive.

Kayakers found the Spirit Lake Nation woman eight days later. Her baby had been cut from her womb. Police had found the healthy newborn 72 hours earlier on the bed of her neighbor, Brooke Crews. The woman was arrested, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life without parole. Her live-in boyfriend, William Hoehn, was also sentenced to life for conspiring to kidnap Savanna’s baby, Haisley Jo.

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