The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in its report released June 3 pointed to the residential school system, forced sterilization of Indigenous women and allegations of police inaction on murder cases to reach what it called the “inescapable conclusion” that genocide had been committed by the state.
Indigenous women across the United States also face higher rates of violence than non-Indigenous Americans, according to Ruth Buffalo, a representative from the North Dakota legislative assembly and member of the MHA Nation.
Buffalo is a keynote speaker at Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women: An Epidemic Crossing the Medicine Line, a conference held June 10-11 at the University of British Columbia in collaboration with Georgetown University. The “medicine line” refers to the 49th parallel between the U.S. and Canada.
Buffalo says despite inaccurate data, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls have been an issue in the U.S. for decades.
“We have community members who know and still are trying to find their missing relatives to this day. So, it is an ongoing issue and it should really be declared a public health crisis,” Buffalo told Stephen Quinn, host of CBC’s The Early Edition.
Unlike Canada, there has not been a U.S. national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Buffalo says while different legislation is being enacted at the federal level and across the U.S. in different states to address the problem, there has been no concerted effort to implement the exact same legislation state to state.
Buffalo has introduced two bills on missing and murdered Indigenous people in North Dakota. Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, South Dakota and Washington states have also passed legislation to address the MMIWG epidemic.
Contributing factors to the crisis in the U.S. are Indigenous people’s access to health care, housing and transportation — some of the same issues as Canada, says Buffalo.
“All of these social determinants of health are very important and need to be examined. And nobody should have to search for their loved ones.”
In 2017, Buffalo found herself helping in the search for 22-year-old Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a young Indigenous woman in Fargo, North Dakota who was eight months pregnant when she went missing.
Buffalo says at the time, law enforcement was not anticipating looking for a body or a baby. Instead it was looking at all modes of transportation exit from Fargo, believing LaFontaine-Greywind had left town on her own.
“The family was like, ‘No. She would not have left. She’s eight months pregnant.’ That leads into the question of the cultural responsiveness of our Indigenous communities,” Buffalo said.
Greywind disappeared from her apartment on Aug. 19, 2017. Her body was found Aug. 27 in the Red River in Minnesota, wrapped in plastic and duct tape.
Fargo resident Brooke Lynn Crews and her boyfriend, William Henry Hoehn, were each charged with conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit kidnapping and providing false information to police. When they were arrested, they had a healthy baby with them they told police was Greywind’s child.
“Seeing it unfold was traumatic. To see a family that really wasn’t being heard by our justice system …,” Buffalo said.
Crews was sentenced to life without parole for conspiracy to commit murder, according to the Associated Press. Hoehn was acquitted.
Marion Buller, chief commissioner of the MMIWG national inquiry, is a keynote speaker at the conference as well.
Buller says the inquiry’s finding that the disappearances, murders and violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls amounts to genocide was “pretty obvious” to her, but “apparently it’s controversial.”
She adds commissioners heard family members and survivors share heartbreaking stories of love, loss and grief, but they also heard stories of courage and resistance against colonialism.