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McFeely: Native American leader right to use Savanna's death to highlight the big picture

Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, waits to give his speech against the Energy Transfer Partners' Dakota Access oil pipeline during the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland September 20, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Dave Archambault, a Native American leader, is taking a risk by speaking up about the killing of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a Native American victim. Believe it or not.

The Standing Rock Tribal Chairman issued a statement last week in which he used Savanna's killing to broach the broad and horrific topic of violence against Native American women.

"The vulnerability and targeting of our Native women is undeniable, and we must begin looking for new ways to urgently address this plague of violence and disregard," Archambault said. "There are many factors that lead to the unfair targeting of our women. One of the most significant factors is the glaring absence of Indigenous peoples in North American consciousness."

Archambault went on to cite examples of how violence against Native American women is perpetuated, then ignored. He also offered ideas on how to address the issue and bring it to the forefront.

But it's likely Archambault, to the extent the general public is paying attention to his words, will face backlash and be accused of opportunism. Here's why: There's no evidence thus far that the two white people accused of taking Savanna's baby and killing her did so explicitly because she was Native American. It appears, from the outside, it was a crime of opportunity regardless of race, that Savanna was a pregnant young woman who lived in the same apartment building and had some sort of relationship with the killers.

The public by all appearances, too, seems to view the crime not as racially motivated but as a ghastly killing of an innocent young woman — period. Archambault's words, though, seem to imply that Savanna was targeted because she was Native American.

The backlash will come from those who will accuse Archambault of playing "the race card," of applying "identity politics" to a situation that doesn't call for it. Those terms are triggers for those uncomfortable acknowledging the role race and ethnicity play in America. They like to believe that if we ignore talking about race, just sweep it under the rug and whistle while we walk away, that the problem will be solved — or better yet not exist in the first place.

That's exactly the reason why Archambault is right to raise the wider issue of violence against Native American women, even if it turns out that Savanna's death had nothing to do with race. This is an opportunity to talk, to educate, to share — and for those unaware of the startling statistics, to learn if we're willing to listen.

Some of the numbers are astounding and heartbreaking. Native American women are far more likely to disappear — vanish without a trace, never to be found — than women of any other race in the United States. Some reservations report women are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average. A congressional study found that between 1979 and 1992, homicide was the third leading cause of death among Native American women ages 15 to 34.

Sexual assault of Native American women is epidemic and has been for decades, with little action from law enforcement or governments. A U.S. Department of Justice study says 34.1 percent of American Indian women, more than one in three, will be raped in their lifetime. The comparable figure for the U.S. as a whole is less than one in five. It's believed the number of Native American women who are victims of sexual assault is actually much higher, because so many rapes go unreported.

These figures should be unacceptable. Instead they are mostly ignored. That's why Archambault is proper in using Savanna's death as an opportunity.

"The invisibility of our humanity in this country is literally killing our women," Archambault said. "They are offered up as easy prey and their disappearances are often lacking consequences for the perpetrators."

Maybe Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind's death was a result of targeted violence against a Native American woman and maybe it wasn't. But you can't blame Archambault and other leaders for speaking out about the big picture, given how little we pay attention to these problems otherwise.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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