Plain Talk By David Lias September 24, 2021

We Have To Shine A Light

By now, you’ve probably heard of Gabby Petito and know that her life has come to a tragic end.

The FBI confirmed that a body found in Wyoming on Sunday was the missing 22-year-old’s.

Plus, her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, is missing. He returned alone to Florida weeks ago and refused to cooperate with police. Officials are searching for him in a swampy wilderness reserve.

The couple had been on a cross-country road trip when Petito disappeared. Her family says they last heard from her in late August.

This is a sad story, indeed, of death and mystery that seems to have achieved prominence for several reasons.

There’s another sorrowful aspect to all of this. Petito’s story, one can argue, points out a flaw, a double standard, when it comes to focusing on the issue of domestic violence, of the disappearance and of the killing of women.

It’s a story that’s not that unique, really, especially in our neck of the woods.

Approximately two years ago, while presenting the annual Thurgood Marshall Lecture in the courtroom of the University of South Dakota School of Law in Vermillion, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp told the story of Alva, a resident of the Standing Rock Reservation with borders that spill into both South Dakota and North Dakota.

She had lost a friend, the North Dakota senator said, and so she began going door-to-door on the reservation, counting all the missing and murdered women on Standing Rock over the past 20 years.

“She came up with 25 names. She also came up with 10 names of missing or murdered men,” Heitkamp said.

Heitkamp served as a United States senator from North Dakota from January 2013 to January 2019. The need to do something about the plight of women on U.S. Indian reservations led Heitkamp, along with Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada to introduce Savanna’s Act in the fall of 2017. The bill was blocked in the House and was reintroduced in 2019. It became law on Oct. 10, 2020, approximately a year after Heitkamp spoke at USD.

The law is named after Savanna Greywind, a pregnant 22-year-old North Dakota woman and member of the Spirit Lake Nation who was brutally murdered in 2017.

Heitkamp described abused and murdered women on U.S. Indian Reservations as being “invisible.”

She recalled hearing from a Native American acquaintance who said that in just 18 months, six women on the reservations had been killed in domestic disputes. Tribes on North Dakota reservations are made up of about 2,500 women.

“Think about that percentage. Think of if six women in Fargo, a community of 100,000, were killed in 18 months, what would be the community response?” Heitkamp asked. “Why is it that it doesn’t seem that nobody cares? Why is it that the FBI isn’t announcing their most wanted list, talking about what we need to do to cure this problem? Why are these women and children so invisible when we know, if you look at the statistics after the Department of Justice did their report, that Native women are 1.3 times more likely to be victims of crime?

“They’re more likely to be repeat victims of crime, sexual assault, physical violence and they’re most likely to be in a group of people whose offenders are inter-racial,” she said. “Where are they (the offenders) doing this? They’re doing it where they can get away with it, on the reservations.”

In Petito’s case, social media is a likely factor in catapulting her story to national attention.

According to the Associated Press, a multitude of armchair detectives and others sharing tips, possible sightings and theories by way of TikTok, Instagram and YouTube evidently have been chiming in electronically, trying to help what first was a missing person case and what is now, sadly, an apparent homicide.

Months before her disappearance drew more than a half-billion views on TikTok, Petito and Laundrie set out on a cross-country road trip over the summer in a van she decorated boho-chic style.

But they quarreled along the way, and Laundrie returned home alone to Florida in the van in September.

According to the AP, social media users have been fascinated by the case and have been poring over the wealth of online video and photos for clues.

Theories and observations picked up steam on Reddit, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, TikTok and Twitter.

This public fascination likely may be one of the reasons this story has continued to make headlines in a variety of mainstream media sources for so long.

“There’s a lot of different complicated reasons that people are drawn to it, and it’s not all sinister or malicious or creepy,” said Kelli Boling, a professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who has studied audience reception to true-crime podcasts.

While expressing sympathy for Petito, some have detected what they see as a racial double standard, complaining that the media and online sleuths are heavily invested in this case because she is young and white.

“There are a lot of women of color, and especially immigrants, this happens to all the time, and we never hear about it,” said Alex Piquero, a criminologist at the University of Miami.

In the same state where Petito was found, at least 710 Native Americans were reported missing between 2011 and late 2020.

Her case serves as a reminder of Heitkamp’s message here in 2019.

“I think when we look at how we solve this problem, the first thing that we have to do is we have to shine a light,” she said. “We have to force people to see. We have to force people to look.”

In the case of Petito, a young, attractive white woman, the public and the news media have needed very little prodding to become involved.

You and I know that’s not the case in Indian country throughout the Midwest, including in North Dakota and South Dakota.

Savanna’s Act helps a bit. I’m hoping, though, that in the coming weeks, when we hear Petitio’s name mentioned, we also pause a minute to think of the hundreds of women who, unlike her, have lost their lives to domestic violence without garnering a moment of public attention.

We have to shine a light.