FARGO – Even in death, Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind is giving life.
To her baby, of course — a dark-haired girl named Haisley Jo, discovered in good health in the Fargo apartment of the two people charged with conspiracy to kidnap and murder LaFontaine-Greywind, who was eight months pregnant when she disappeared Aug. 19.
Now, as mourners gather for her funeral Thursday at a Fargo church, American Indian leaders vow that LaFontaine-Greywind's legacy will be greater awareness of the plight of Indian and indigenous women, who are about twice as likely to have experienced recent violence as white women. Nearly 85 percent of Indian women have experienced violence in their lifetime, according to a study by the U.S. Justice Department.
"As we collectively reel from Savanna's loss, the people are coming together like never before to honor this young woman, find comfort as human beings and take a hard look at what we can each do individually," said Dave Archambault, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
Indians came by the hundreds to search, march and pray for LaFontaine-Greywind in the days after her disappearance. Hundreds more showed up at a prayer service on the Veterans Memorial Bridge in Fargo the day before LaFontaine-Greywind's body was found in the Red River north of town, wrapped in plastic and snagged on a fallen tree.
"What I see today — what I've seen all this week — is a family, a community," Willard Yellow Bird, an Indian cultural liaison, said then.
Two neighbors in the small apartment house where LaFontaine-Greywind lived with her parents are charged in her death. Brooke Crews, 38, and William Hoehn, 32, are charged with conspiring to kill the expectant mother, who had gone upstairs to help Crews with a sewing project.
Five days later, police serving a search warrant found Crews with a newborn baby girl in her apartment. Authorities are waiting for the results of a DNA test to officially pronounce the baby LaFontaine-Greywind's daughter, but her family has no doubt. They've claimed the baby as their own, listing her among the survivors in LaFontaine-Greywind's obituary.
Fargo police, while releasing few details of the incident, issued a statement saying LaFontaine-Greywind died of "homicidal violence."
'She brightened their day'
LaFontaine-Greywind was like many young women her age — balancing a full-time job as a nursing assistant with family time, listening to music and snapping selfies on social media.
She loved spending time in nature and riding horses, family members said, and she was a gentle soul, a girly-girl who loved getting dolled up with makeup.
"She was always smiling and positive," said Chris Gilson, executive director of Eventide Fargo, a senior-living facility where LaFontaine-Greywind had worked as a certified nursing assistant for three years.
"She honestly just loved helping people," he said. "Residents said she brightened their day when she came in. She was bubbly, outgoing.
"It's kind of surreal. I think it took a while for it to sink in. This doesn't happen — this isn't supposed to happen."
Most of all, LaFontaine-Greywind was eagerly anticipating the birth of her first child with Ashton Matheny, who had been her boyfriend since they met in ninth grade.
Even as she suffered with back pain and swollen feet late in her pregnancy, it wasn't at all surprising that she'd be ready to help her neighbors, said her aunt, Tarita Silk of Spearfish, S.D.
"That's just the kind of person she was," Silk said, adding that she felt sorry for the accused suspects.
"Did they realize she was a smart, sweet girl that was completely pure?" she said.
Many people have asked what they can do to help, Silk said. Her answer: Donate to local organizations like women's shelters and centers for missing children.
"Make sure Savanna's spirit doesn't get lost," she said, sobbing.
'How could this happen?'
The crime has shocked the Fargo-Moorhead area and people from around the world, where it made international headlines.
Messages have poured in on social media with offers to donate money, baby clothes or other items to LaFontaine-Greywind's family. Thousands of people have clutched candles at vigils held in her memory, from St. Paul and Rochester to Seattle, Winnipeg, Sioux Falls and her hometown of Belcourt, N.D.
"It's affected everyone. How could this happen?" said Myra Pearson, chairwoman of the Spirit Lake Tribe, where LaFontaine-Greywind was enrolled. "This only happens in the [Twin] Cities; it doesn't happen in North Dakota. I've never heard of anything so terrible."
At the small Spirit Lake reservation on Devils Lake, about three hours northwest of Fargo, a vigil was held in LaFontaine-Greywind's honor. Residents in the area, both native and nonnative, have been devastated by the killing, Pearson said.
"It doesn't matter the color of your skin. Everybody has taken this seriously," she said, adding: "She was so energized. She looked forward to being a mother."
Now the buses have brought tribal members back to Devils Lake, Standing Rock and Turtle Mountain, but the emotion stirred by a glowing young woman's death won't soon subside, Yellow Bird said.
"This has brought the Native American community together," he said. "We've become one soul, one spirit and one community with one voice."
And little Haisley Jo one day will be proud of her mother, Yellow Bird said.
"She's going to realize that what happened opened the eyes of the people," he said. "Because of what happened to her [mother], [it] opened the eyes of people across America to murdered and missing indigenous women. Hopefully she'll think about it that way."
Staff writer Liz Sawyer contributed to this report.