The Murders in Indian Country
On August 19, 2017, 22-year-old Savanna LaFontaine-Graywind disappeared in Fargo, North Dakota. The upstairs neighbor immediately was a suspect: she had been acting strangely and texted LaFontaine-Graywind earlier that day. Savanna was eight months pregnant, with swollen feet. Her car was in the parking lot, her wallet was at home: wherever she went, she wasn’t planning to go far.
Eight days later, her body was found in the Red River. Her baby had been cut from her womb.
Two months earlier, Ashley HeavyRunner Loring vanished from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. A witness later reported seeing Ashley running from a vehicle on Highway 89.
The two cases are part of storm of domestic abuse and murder hitting Native American and Alaska Native women. Statistical surveys are thin, but the numbers out there indicate that Native American women are murdered at a rate 10 times the national average.
In Montana alone, more than twenty-four Native Americans–most of them women–went missing in 2018, Senator John Tester said at a Senate Indian Affairs hearing last month. “We have an epidemic on our hands.”
The law enforcement response often is tepid.
“Law enforcement did not take Ashley’s case seriously, as well as other girls that have gone missing and been murdered in Indian country,” Ashley’s sister, Kimberly Loring, told Congress.
Days after Savanna’s disappearance in Fargo, a deputy sheriff told a local news outlet that there was “nothing to suggest criminal activity.”
“Where’s the problem? Is it with [the Bureau of Indian Affairs], is it with the FBI, is it with tribal law enforcement?” Tester said at the December hearing. “Why are we not finding these people? We would have a different reaction if this was a non-native.”
Tester, a Montana Democrat, and his Republican counterpart Steve Daines, are pressing Congress to come up with a solution. “Savanna’s Act” would create standardized procedures for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native American and Alaska Native women and sharpen cooperation between federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement. Inter-agency cooperation is often a big problem. The act would also upgrade Justice Department intake of information related to crimes against Native Americans and Alaska Natives. The bill unanimously passed the Senate last year but stalled in the House. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has vowed to reintroduce it.
That’s too late for Savanna LaFontaine-Graywind. The depraved upstairs neighbor murdered her and took her baby. And it’s probably too late for Ashley HeavyRunner Loring. Her family searched the remote countryside in the heat, the cold, the rain and snow more than 120 times and came up empty. Last month, human remains were found on the Blackfeet Reservation. They have been sent to the FBI laboratory for analysis.
The discovery came one day after Ashley’s sister testified to Congress. “We are going missing,” Kimberly Loring said. “We are being murdered. We are not being taken seriously.”
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: [email protected]
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