Many readers in the Upper Midwest will remember the high-profile 2017 murder of 22-year-old Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind. The pregnant American Indian woman from Fargo, N.D., was brutally killed by a neighbor who cut her baby from her womb as she faded in and out of consciousness and eventually bled to death.
There was a conviction and life sentence in Greywind's case. But for thousands of murdered and missing Native and Indigenous women, killers are never found and brought to justice.
That's why recently announced federal assistance to help solve such crimes is needed and welcome — if it complements local efforts already underway. President Donald Trump's daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt visited Bloomington on Monday to open the first of seven federal offices around the nation that will investigate unsolved cases of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board has long-advocated for more resources to protect Native women and resolve crimes involving kidnapping, trafficking, assault and murder.
The Bloomington office is a product of the Operation Lady Justice Task Force created by President Trump in a November executive order to address violence against Native Americans with a focus on girls and women. The task force, co-chaired by Bernhardt and U.S. Attorney General William Barr, was created to improve data and other information collection about cold cases. And the group was charged with developing directions for how law enforcement should respond to reports of missing and murdered Native Americans.
A special agent from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services will lead the effort and is expected to coordinate efforts by local, federal and tribal law enforcement personnel.
According to the FBI, of the more than 1,400 known unresolved cases of American Indians and Alaska Natives, 136 are in Minnesota. Native women make up less than 1% of the state's population, but their homicide rates were seven times higher than those for white women between 1990 and 2016, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
However, advocates believe that the number of missing is likely much higher because many crimes against the women go unreported.
The local visit by Ivanka Trump and the announcement of the opening of the office was criticized by some Native leaders, including Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, because local officials and communities were not included.
Late last year, a state task force on missing and murdered Native women co-chaired by Kunesh-Podein began meeting. The panel, which includes representatives from tribal nations and law enforcement, will spend the rest of this year examining the issue before making recommendations.
Kunesh-Podein, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, told reporters she wasn't contacted about the new federal office, which will be staffed by one special agent. "That is part of the historic trauma that our American Indians have carried for hundreds and hundreds of years where the federal government is setting things up, putting things in order for the good of the Indian people and not taking into consideration their viewpoints," she said.
Erica MacDonald, U.S. attorney for Minnesota, said she "shares the concern" about lack of notification about the office's opening, but she added that she welcomes help and resources.
The success of the federal effort will depend on collaboration with Native communities, advocates and Minnesota law enforcement. That outreach and cooperation should have started before this week's announcement, but it's not too late for it to begin.