Across the United States, Native Americans are disproportionately impacted by violence. Indigenous people are more than twice as likely to experience violent crimes compared to all other races, and more than 80% of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime.

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Those are disturbing statistics to consider, especially as Indigenous people make up only about 2% of the overall U.S. population. In Oregon, there are at least 19 unsolved cases of missing or murdered Indigenous people.

Cedar Wilkie Gillette is the District of Oregon's first appointed Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons or (MMIP) Coordinator.

Cedar Wilkie Gillette is the District of Oregon's first appointed Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons or (MMIP) Coordinator.

Courtesy of Cedar Wilkie Gillette

In late 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice launched the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative, a national strategy created to try and address the problem with tribal outreach and data research. Cedar Wilkie Gillette is one of the original 11 coordinators hired as part of the initiative and is the District of Oregon’s first appointed Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons or (MMIP) Coordinator.

OPB host Crystal Ligori spoke with Wilkie Gillette to find out more about Oregon’s participation in the program.

Crystal Ligori: You started as Oregon’s MMIP coordinator in June of 2020. Have you had roadblocks or issues while starting this position in a pandemic?

Cedar Wilkie Gillette: Definitely. Not being able to go to reservations in Oregon and meet people in person, I think that takes away from letting people know that I’m here and I’m trying to help with this issue. But one of the things that we have done to give an update to tribes and to the public was back in February of this year we issued our first MMIP Report providing just basic publicly available information; what they look like if that’s available, their tribal affiliation, the general location of where they were last seen or where they were murdered. That was important for us to at least show that this is what we have, it’s not a complete picture but this is our starting point, and we want tribes, we want people who know about these cases or know of other cases, to let us know. And that’s part of our data collection and we’re trying to intentionally have a more organized way in collecting that information and being respectful at the same time.

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Ligori: Just last month the Department of Justice chose 12 federally recognized tribes for a program that lets them access and share crime data. And two of those tribes are in Oregon. Do you think that’s going to have an impact on the work you’re able to do?

Wilkie Gillette: Yes, it basically removes a barrier that tribes don’t have to rely on a state law enforcement entity to enter into the National Crime Information Center, NCIC. And then the data that is in NCIC, would be more accurate or at least give a better picture, with tribes entering their information themselves. But national databases like NCIC and NamUS, they don’t collect the same information. They have different criteria to enter information. So when we look at them and we look at what we see locally, what are they not capturing that we’re still seeing? [For example], one of the things that we decided to do is count tribal members that went missing or murdered outside of Oregon. Some of the data bases only count where they were last seen and not where their tribe is located.

Ligori: So if an Oregon tribal member went missing in California or Idaho, it wouldn’t necessarily be counted under Oregon statistics?

Wilkie Gillette: Correct. So we’re taking the proactive stance to count those people and if there is a way for us to assist or at least have better communication about those cases, we are taking [on] that responsibility as well.

Ligori: Do we know how many MMIP cases there are in Oregon currently?

Wilkie Gillette: We are still working on the current number, but as of our last report it’s 11 missing and 8 murdered.

Ligori: Last month the case of Gabby Petito, a white woman who went missing and was eventually discovered murdered in Wyoming, made national headlines and I actually saw a lot of people sharing their frustration on the widespread media coverage because this epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women still seems largely ignored. Did that reverberate with you at all?

Wilkie Gillette: I would say yes because it is a known issue that MMIP cases either don’t get coverage at all or some of the coverage that they get highlights the wrong issues like victim blaming or associating negative things to the person’s past that doesn’t necessarily connect to why they went missing or murdered. And so it dehumanizes them in a way and that’s not the point of trying to get media coverage. The standard of media coverage for an active missing Indigenous persons case is to alert the public and help find them safe.


Hear the full conversation in the audio player above.

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