At the age of twenty-two, Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe, vanished from her Fargo, North Dakota home in August 2017, an alarming disappearance given that she was eight months pregnant at the time. Tragically, her lifeless body was discovered nine days later, wrapped in plastic, floating in a nearby river.
The disturbing details of Savanna's demise unfolded as her upstairs neighbor, Brooke Crews, admitted guilt in the heinous crime, confessing to both the murder of LaFontaine-Greywind and the gruesome act of cutting her unborn child from her belly. The legal repercussions saw Crews sentenced to life in prison without parole, while her accomplice and boyfriend, William Hoehn, received a 20-year prison sentence. Remarkably, Savanna's infant, a girl, managed to survive the horrific ordeal.
In a conversation, Mona Gable, the author of the compelling book "Searching for Savanna - The Murder of One Native American Woman and the Violence Against the Many," delves into the profound impact of LaFontaine-Greywind's murder.
Gable sheds light on how this tragic event served as a catalyst for progress in the ongoing struggle to secure justice for missing and murdered Native American women and girls. The interview explores the broader implications of Savanna's case, highlighting the urgent need for awareness and action surrounding the violence plaguing indigenous communities.
Why was Savanna targeted by her neighbors?
The suspicion arises that she was specifically singled out due to her Native American heritage. Although Crews and Hoehn didn't have a close relationship with Savanna, their apparent disdain for her family, coupled with numerous statements and collected evidence, strongly indicates a deep-seated racism towards Native Americans.
The assertion is that if Savanna had been of a different ethnicity, particularly white, Crews might not have had the audacity to commit such a heinous act. The belief is that the perpetrators would have been more apprehensive about potential repercussions if the victim had been of a different racial background, suggesting that racial animosity played a significant role in the targeting and subsequent tragedy.
How was Savanna’s case solved?
The case garnered extensive media coverage, eventually reaching national attention. Savanna's family remained unwavering in their efforts to urge the police to locate her. Despite Fargo being a relatively small town, the community was deeply shocked by the tragic events surrounding Savanna and her infant.
This shockwave led to a grassroots movement of support and a fervent desire for justice on behalf of Savanna. The community's response included organized marches and heightened awareness campaigns.
The collective outcry exerted considerable pressure on law enforcement and prosecutors, compelling them to respond with determination and persistence in addressing the case. The community's active involvement and demand for justice became a driving force that intensified the investigative efforts and commitment to bringing those responsible to account.
You first wrote an article about Savanna’s murder for Pacific Standard magazine. How did the book come about?
The initial phase of my involvement in this project involved thorough research into the case, delving into the disturbingly widespread and longstanding issue of missing Native American women and girls. This exploration prompted multiple visits to Fargo, where I conducted interviews and closely followed Hoehn's trial. However, as of December 2019, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic hindered my ability to travel.
Undeterred, I adapted to the circumstances by conducting numerous interviews over Zoom, engaging with advocates and tribal lawyers. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, this alternative approach proved to be effective, allowing me to gather valuable insights and perspectives remotely, and ultimately contributing to the comprehensive narrative of the book.
Were there any key interviews?
The interview with Savanna's parents stands out significantly, particularly due to their initial hesitancy and reluctance to engage with the media, a sentiment entirely understandable given the circumstances. Their sudden exposure to the spotlight, not just through my inquiries but from the media at large, presented a challenging and emotionally taxing situation for them and their family.
Despite their reservations, I persisted in reaching out, providing reassurance about the nature and purpose of my work, with the added endorsement of the local prosecutor. Securing an in-person interview with them proved to be a deeply moving experience. The parents exhibited remarkable composure, kindness, and a strong sense of family ties throughout our conversation.
Their decision to bring Savanna's child to the interview added an extra layer of emotional impact. Witnessing their profound love for the little girl left a lasting impression. Despite the child being in her father's custody, it was heartening to learn that Savanna's parents maintain a close connection with her, underscoring the enduring bonds within the family even amid the challenging circumstances they face.
How are cases of missing Native American girls and women treated by the justice system?
Prosecuting cases involving missing Native American women poses significant challenges within the justice system due to the complexity arising from jurisdictional issues. The intricate web of federal, state, and local law enforcement often results in complications.
Families, driven by a fervent desire for justice, frequently find themselves frustrated as conflicts emerge among various law enforcement agencies. The intricate jurisdictional landscape can impede investigations, with different entities disputing responsibility for the case.
Consequently, even when families actively advocate for the thorough examination of these crimes, the bureaucratic hurdles and conflicts among law enforcement agencies can hinder the timely and effective pursuit of justice in cases involving missing Native American women. Addressing these jurisdictional challenges becomes crucial in ensuring a more coordinated and streamlined approach to investigating and prosecuting such cases.
Can’t law enforcement figure out who should investigate, or is there more at play?
The belief is that resolving the jurisdictional issues surrounding these cases is feasible, but the crux of the problem lies in the systemic dismissal of the disappearances of Native American women. Frequently, law enforcement authorities fail to acknowledge or respond promptly to these cases, resulting in delayed investigations.
The significant consequence of this negligence is that by the time attention is finally directed to these cases, crucial evidence has often been compromised. Compounding the challenge is the inadequate infrastructure faced by tribal police, particularly on expansive reservations.
Limited technological resources and understaffing hinder their ability to pursue these cases with the necessary rigor. The combination of dismissive attitudes towards these disappearances and the resource constraints faced by tribal police creates a pervasive issue in effectively addressing and preventing the plight of missing Native American women.
Addressing this requires a systemic overhaul, ensuring that these cases are treated with the urgency and gravity they deserve, and providing the necessary resources for thorough and timely investigations, particularly within tribal police departments.
Is racism a factor in how these cases are treated?
A discernible racist undertone becomes evident in the lack of attention and importance given to cases involving missing Native American women, particularly when compared to the media coverage afforded to instances involving white women. The stark contrast in reporting highlights a systemic issue where the urgency and significance of these cases are downplayed or overlooked.
One contributing factor is the lack of connections that many reporters have with Native American communities, leading to a dearth of coverage on these matters. The absence of personal ties often results in oversight, with reporters prioritizing issues they are more familiar with or that align with their immediate surroundings.
Additionally, a prevailing misconception further exacerbates the problem. Many individuals mistakenly assume that Native Americans are no longer a significant demographic, attributing this belief to a lack of personal encounters with Native Americans or limited exposure to information about Native American tribes.
Contrary to this misconception, the majority of Native Americans reside in urban areas, contributing to their invisibility in the eyes of those who hold inaccurate perceptions. Rectifying these misperceptions and biases is crucial in addressing the racial disparities evident in media coverage and fostering a more inclusive and equitable approach to reporting on missing persons cases involving Native American women.
How did Savanna’s murder spark change?
In a significant move, Congress passed two crucial bills in late 2020, namely Savanna's Act and the Not Invisible Act. Native American advocates perceive these legislative actions as instrumental in effecting positive change. Savanna's Act mandates the Department of Justice to provide training to law enforcement and tribal/urban Indian organizations, focusing on tracking cases of missing and murdered Native Americans.
It also allocates grants to implement policies and report statistics, among other provisions. The Not Invisible Act, on the other hand, requires collaboration between the Department of the Interior and the Department of Justice to establish a joint commission on violent crime within Native American lands and against Native Americans.
These legislative initiatives have resulted in increased media awareness, with Savanna's case playing a pivotal role in highlighting the urgency of addressing issues affecting Native American communities. The momentum for change is further bolstered by the activism of young Native American advocates on social media platforms. Their efforts involve raising awareness about these cases, disseminating information, and ensuring that the public remains informed.
Notably, the appointment of Deb Haaland as the first Native American cabinet secretary and the election of two Native American women to Congress contribute to heightened visibility, signaling a positive shift towards greater representation and acknowledgment of Native American issues at the highest levels of government. This increased visibility is crucial in fostering a broader understanding and addressing the systemic challenges faced by Native American communities.
What else are Native American advocates saying needs to be done?
Native American communities require a substantial increase in resources to effectively combat issues such as domestic violence. This includes the establishment and enhancement of shelters dedicated to supporting women and their families who find themselves in dangerous situations. To facilitate the escape from perilous circumstances, a comprehensive approach is essential.
This encompasses a spectrum of resources, ranging from reliable transportation and access to healthcare to childcare services. Recognizing that the problem is multifaceted, addressing these challenges demands a coordinated effort to provide a robust support system that empowers individuals within Native American communities to break free from situations of danger and violence.
The allocation of sufficient resources is crucial to ensuring the well-being and safety of those affected and fostering an environment where individuals can thrive free from the threat of domestic violence.