Today, Native American activists in Oregon and elsewhere will hang red dresses, carry portraits, and grieve missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW). Red Dress Day is observed annually on May 5 to draw attention to the issue, and coincides with the National Day of Awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in the United States.
The CDC says nearly half of all Native women suffer sexual or physical violence, and in some parts of Indian Country, are 10 times more likely to be homicide victims. But recent developments are giving advocates hope.
Merle Kirk and her family have felt the pain firsthand. In 1957, her grandmother was killed on the Yakama reservation. In 2009, her sister was allegedly run over by her boyfriend, but he was never charged. That piles on to the grief of yet a third tragedy.
“My first cousin is Lisa Pearl Briseno, she’s been missing since 1997,” said Kirk, her voice shaking. “That affects our whole family. She stayed with my dad and mom until she graduated. And so, she’s like my sister.”
Kirk lives on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and is of Warm Springs, Wasco, Dine (Navajo) and Yakama descent. Her beaded portrait of her late sister, Mavis Kirk-Greeley, has become a symbol of the movement in Oregon to draw attention to the murders and disappearances. The portrait graces t-shirts and pins at various events.
Kirk has also testified at listening sessions and legislative hearings across Oregon, including for House Bill 2625, enacted in 2019. It directed Oregon State Police (OSP) to find ways to improve its investigations and responses to MMIW cases.
“This is what we’ve been dealing with for a very, very long time,” said Oregon Representative Tawna Sanchez, who was the primary sponsor of the bill and is of Shoshone-Bannock, Ute, and Carrizo heritage. She said her legislation has served as a model for other states trying to improve their response and handling of MMIW cases.
Efforts by Sanchez, state police, and other governmental agencies to hold 13 listening sessions with native communities across Oregon last year were cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. Only five were held before the governor’s directive to limit gatherings in March 2020. But the OSP still made recommendations in a legislative report presented last September. Sanchez said those recommendations will inform pending legislation likely to come in February 2022.
“We’re just really hoping that we can continue to work with Congress as well as the state of Oregon to develop other opportunities for shared information and better tracking, and better communication with law enforcement around these issues.”
Sanchez is pleased by one development announced last month: Deb Haaland, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, is forming a special unit under the Bureau of Indian Affairs to investigate missing and murdered cases.
“To have Secretary Haaland in that field, in that area, is just going to be amazing,” said Sanchez. “Representation matters.”
The newly-formed unit has $6 million in funding, six times more than Operation Lady Justice was given after it was formed in 2019 during the Trump Administration. Secretary Haaland says the unit’s resources will be devoted to keeping active cases from becoming cold case investigations.
“I have 100 percent faith in her,” Deborah Maytubee Shipman told KLCC. A member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, she heads Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA, based in Portland. It was founded after two of Shipman’s friends were found murdered in Gallup, New Mexico. The group tracks cases and offers self-defense courses.
Shipman said while trust-building needs to happen between Native communities and the justice system.
“… You can’t blame it all on all outside forces. We need to take ownership of our own. And also hold accountable those things that are dragging us down and continuing to make these numbers rise.”
In tight-knit tribal communities, witnesses may be afraid to report perpetrators because they’re a relative, friend, or someone with strong political or social influence. There’s also the fear of retaliation, in areas where tribal police are stretched thin.
“When you’ve seen so many murders around you, and the lack of being able to keep safe … people aren’t going to talk about it,” added Shipman.
“Because their loved ones, their neighbor, their sister … it’s like, ‘That didn’t protect them.’ So people don’t talk, and that is the biggest obstacle.”
Shipman says awareness of the issue has improved, and in areas like Montana, justice and law enforcement are beginning to step up efforts.
Another development is the recent creation of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) Coordinators in eleven states with significant native populations.
A member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, as well as a descendant of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa, Cedar Wilkie Gillette is the first MMIP Coordinator for the District of Oregon. Among her tasks is streamlining inconsistent data.
“There’s national databases that have their own definitions of what they consider missing and murdered data, and what they would even consider data in Oregon, and they are largely inconsistent at the moment. They’re not made to work together.”
For example, the OSP says there are 13 missing and three murdered Indigenous people in Oregon, while the National Crime Information Center says there are nine and three, respectively. Meanwhile, the University of North Texas’ NaMUS database says there are eight missing Natives in Oregon, but does not track murdered data.
Adding another layer of bureaucratic complexity are cases of racial misclassification, where a Native person is mistaken for white, Latino, or other race that might prevent them from being included in MMIP data. That was the case with Heather Cameron, a Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde member who went missing in August of 2012. Not only was she misclassified as white in initial reports, but her last known location outside Redding, California, caused her to be excluded from Oregon data.
“So right now, the national databases would not count her as Oregon data,” says Gillette. They would count her as California data. But our office would count her as Oregon data because she’s a tribal member from Oregon.
Since starting last June, Gillette’s worked with spreadsheets and websites to create a new database. She’s also developing a community response plan with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, to help them address MMIP incidents (The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes announced the nation’s first tribal community response plan in April.)
“I really do think that working on Indigenous issues is vital,” said Gillette. “And almost every part of the law in general, but I’m really glad and I feel privileged to be working on MMIP.”
And last October, Savanna’s Act was signed into law. It’s named for Savanna Greywind, a North Dakota Indigenous woman who was murdered by her neighbor, who also cut open her womb and took her infant girl (the child survived.) The law requires the Attorney General, U.S. Attorney’s Offices, and the FBI to give Congress current MMIP data every year.
These are all new developments, but ones that can improve investigations into a problem that’s haunted generations. Until then, missing and murdered victims advocates will hold vigils during today’s Red Dress national observance as they have for years.
In the evening along the banks of the Willamette River in Springfield, the Native American theater group illioo and the University of Oregon’s Indigenous Womxn’s Group will hold a night of poetry and remembrance. Participants will hang red garments on trees and end the evening with an honoring song and ceremony.
Back on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Merle Kirk says she and relatives will join any MMIW activities they come across.
“I just feel for the families, when they’re so hurt and so in shock they need help,” said Kirk, who plans to don a red shirt bearing her late sister’s likeness.
“I want to get that awareness out for all the families of missing and murdered. And I pray that all the victims that are missing will return home for closure for everybody. Our families’ members are never forgotten, always in our hearts and in our prayers.”
Support for this coverage comes from Underscore, a Portland, Oregon-based public service journalism organization.
Copyright 2021, KLCC.