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Public given opportunity to pray, have sorrow wiped away at ceremony honoring LaFontaine-Greywind

Eagle wings are used to wipe the sadness away as individuals kneel on a setting considered sacred by Native Americans during a gathering for healing Thursday, Sept. 21, at Island Park in Fargo in response to the death of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service

FARGO — Community members saddened by the tragic death of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind were given the opportunity to pray and have their sorrow swept away in a traditional ceremony on Thursday night, Sept. 21, at Island Park.

About 100 people attended the "Gathering for Healing" ceremony beneath tall pine trees on the north end of the park in downtown Fargo. The ceremony was led by J. R. Fox of the Spirit Lake Nation, a Dakota Yuwipi medicine man. It was sponsored by the Fargo-Moorhead Native American Center, with support of the city of Fargo's Native American Commission.

It was the first public event honoring LaFontaine-Greywind since her body was found on Aug. 27 in the Red River north of Fargo.

LaFontaine-Greywind, like Fox, was a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe. Her father is a Spirit Lake Indian and her mother is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. She was born in Belcourt, lived in Fargo until age 9, then moved to the Spirit Lake Reservation, where she lived until moving to Fargo last year.

She disappeared in August while eight months pregnant. Her daughter was found five days later, alive and healthy, with one of the suspects who has been charged in her death. LaFontaine-Greywind's body was found three days after that. Police later said she died from "homicidal violence."

LaFontaine-Greywind's family attended Thursday's ceremony, but didn't participate. Her mother and father, Norberta LaFontaine-Greywind and Joe Greywind, sat in chairs beneath the pine trees, a baby in front of them, presumably Haisley Jo, the daughter of Savanna and Ashton Matheny, her boyfriend.

Fox, founder and director of Thunder Medicine Lodge, a nonprofit based in Spirit Lake that seeks to support and teach about traditional Native American social and cultural values, and practices, began the event by explaining what was about to happen.

Forecasts for clear skies were wrong as clouds moved over the park when the ceremony was about to begin, a few rain drops falling, symbolic it seemed.

"We've been asked by the community, by the sacred spirits," Fox said, "to do this on behalf of all the people who were affected by what has happened here. Many of us were touched so deeply. It affected me. My family, my daughters have all been affected. They're in pain. Some of the people who had gone out on the search, and the friends and family were the same way."

Two buffalo hides had been laid on the ground beneath the trees. Seven prayer bundles in different colors stood on short poles at one end. Animal skulls, rattles, eagle feathers and other sacred items were placed on the hides. A drum circle featuring 10 drummers and singers sat to one side.

Fox invited people in attendance to come up individually to one of the buffalo hides to pray. About a third of them did. Males and females lined up in separate rows. Each was given tobacco — "tobacco that's sacred," Fox said, to use for their prayers.

Fox prayed first, holding his hands containing tobacco above his head. He played a flute and shook two rattles. When he finished, one-by-one people came forward to pray. As they waited their turn, helpers passed burning tobacco up and down their bodies, from head to toe.

When it was their turn to pray, they kneeled on the buffalo hide, prayed and placed their tobacco on a red cloth. While they prayed, helpers shook rattles beside them and swept their bodies with eagle feathers, to "wipe you," Fox said, "of your sadness."

After they prayed, helpers escorted them to another buffalo hide, where they were invited to eat berries and dried meat, and drink water "to feed your spirit," Fox said.

The ceremony took just over an hour to complete, the drum circle performing all the while. Afterward, two pieces of red cloth containing the tobacco used in prayers was tied up. It was to be taken to a sweat lodge on the southwest side of Fargo for a private ceremony.