Heavy hearts, hopeful prayers at gathering for missing Fargo woman
MOORHEAD, Minn. — The sound of drums symbolizing a mother's heartbeat and the scent of burning sage were soaked in while uplifting prayers were made for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind — a daughter and mother now among the multitude of missing indigenous women.
"She is one of a thousand missing women in Turtle Island," said Denise Lajimodiere, a professor at North Dakota State University, referring to an American Indian term for North America.
In her hands, she cradled a conch shell with smoldering sage leaves inside to cleanse more than 100 people gathered at Minnesota State University Moorhead on Friday, Aug. 25.
That afternoon in the center of campus a somber crowd came together to pray for 22-year-old LaFontaine-Greywind who went missing Saturday, Aug. 19. She was eight months pregnant, and while it's believed her baby girl, Haisley Jo, is alive and healthy, the mother is still missing.
Merlin Deegan, of the White Earth Indian Reservation, smoked a peace pipe before addressing the crowd. He said everyone there knew the circumstances of why they were there, and he could "feel it, a lot of heaviness in our hearts."
"There's a lot of pain," he said.
Although LaFontaine-Greywind did not attend MSUM, Dr. Donna Brown, chief diversity officer at MSUM, said the university's American Indian Student Association felt compelled to host the gathering because "it's a tragedy and it's a native woman," and often times they "are not recognized as they should be."
Indigenous women are disproportionately murdered or missing, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In some counties, the rate of murder against indigenous women is 10 times the national average, the department reported.
Despite the LaFontaine-Greywind case now being national news, Brown said she spoke with people on campus that day who had not yet heard about it, so she felt it was important to raise awareness for this case and address this larger issue affecting indigenous women.
"What today is really about is hope and the power of prayer," she said. "What today is not about is criticizing law enforcement. It's not about speculation and what could've happened."
MSUM President Anne Blackhurst spoke of "forces larger than ourselves" forming powerful connections and their prayers as a collective "will make a difference."
Bill Craft, president of neighboring Concordia College, referred to LaFontaine-Greywind as "a daughter of this community, a mother of this community," and offered his thoughts and prayers to the family.
NDSU also hosted a prayer gathering Friday at the same time as MSUM.
On Saturday, Aug. 26, a prayer walk will take place for LaFontaine-Greywind. Hosted by the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition and sponsored by the Fargo Native American Commission, the walk will start at 2 p.m. in Oak Grove Park. Walkers will head to the Veterans Memorial Bridge for a 3 p.m. ceremony.
Those participating in Saturday's prayer walk are asked to wear red in honor of indigenous women who are missing and murdered.