Two years ago, Merle Kirk asked Oregon legislators for help.
During a House committee hearing in February 2019, she told the story of the women in her family who have disappeared or were murdered over the last 60 years.
Kirk told lawmakers that her sister, Mavis Kirk-Greeley, died in 2009 when her boyfriend deliberately hit her with his vehicle on the Warm Springs Reservation. He was never convicted of a crime. For Kirk, her sister’s death echoed the 1957 murder of her grandmother, Mavis Josephine McKay, on the Yakama Indian Reservation and adds more grief to the loss of yet another relative.
“My first cousin, Lisa Pearl Briseno, she’s been missing since 1997,” Kirk, who’s of Wasco, Warm Springs, Dine, and Yakama heritage, said in a recent interview. “That affects our whole family. I was raised with her, she stayed with my dad and mom until she graduated. And so, she’s like my sister. In Native ways, all our cousins are brother and sister.”
Months after she testified in Salem, Kirk again shared her family’s story at the first-ever listening session by Oregon officials working to address the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. A beadwork portrait Kirk made of her sister became a symbol of the movement in Oregon to draw attention to the murders and disappearances. The portrait graces T-shirts and pins at events drawing awareness to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, often shortened to MMIWG.
As Kirk told her story, state legislators and federal officials across the U.S. and Canada were finally paying attention to activists like her who were demanding an end to the impunity that results in disappearances and murders of Native women and girls.
In 2019, Oregon lawmakers declared Missing and Murdered Women a statewide emergency. HB 2625, signed by the governor in May of that year, directed Oregon State Police to study how to combat the unsolved killings and disappearances of Native Americans.
The COVID-19 pandemic slowed the state’s efforts. Last year, a series of statewide listening sessions with lawmakers, state agencies, law enforcement, and tribal communities in both rural and city environments was cut short, due to the state’s pandemic limitations on gatherings. Officials had planned 13 sessions, but only held five. While the state police released their report in September, the agency says it’s waiting on lawmakers to take additional action. Wednesday is a national day of awareness for MMIWG, now sometimes referred to as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons to include boys and men, and activists say there’s much work left to be done.
“I feel like that’s a long time,” Kirk said of the two years that have passed since her testimony before the legislature. “But I hope this’ll give them time to get programs and all the things that are needed for the families and for the victims. In that meantime, there’s a lot of families that have tried to report and not (been) taken seriously.”
Lack of trust
One of the findings in the OSP’s September report is that Native Americans are often reluctant to turn to the federal and state agencies tasked with investigating murders and disappearances, and don’t expect law enforcement to take action on their behalf. The report found that law enforcement agencies need to strengthen their relationships with Native American communities in the state. Other recommendations included partnering on open and cold case investigations with the Operation Lady Justice task force formed under the Trump Administration and educating law enforcement personnel on the history of Oregon’s Indigenous people and the complexities between state and tribal law.
An OSP spokesman said the agency is waiting on more direction from the legislature before acting. Rep. Tawna Sanchez, the primary sponsor of the 2019 legislation, said the state police report will inform future legislation, which she expects to be introduced next year. The Oregon bill has been a model for other states, said Sanchez, who’s of Shoshone-Bannock, Ute, and Carrizo descent.
State Rep. Tawna Sanchez during an MMIWG listening session at the University of Oregon in January 2020. Brian Bull/KLCC
“It’s not perfect,” she said. “There’s probably more we can do and learn.”
Homicide is the third leading cause of death of American Indian and Alaska Native women. And on some reservations, where a patchwork of overlapping federal, state, and tribal jurisdictions can result in confusion about who’s responsible for an investigation, the murder rate for women is 10 times that of the rest of the country.
A 2018 report by the Urban Indian Health Institute found that unsolved murders and disappearances of Native people is also a serious problem in major cities. But the institute found that tracking murders and disappearances is difficult. Misclassification of race by police departments and the lack of a centralized database creates barriers to understanding the scope of the problem and to investigating murders and disappearances.
A patchwork of data
Briseno, Kirk’s cousin, is one of 11 missing Native Americans listed in the first official Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons report issued by the Oregon U.S. Attorney’s Office in February. Just as it was being finalized, human remains found on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation were identified as Tina Vel Spino, a 58-year old who’d disappeared in August of 2020. Because the exact cause of death has yet to be determined, Vel Spino is still classified as “missing.”
There are also eight Native people listed as “murdered.”
The report is the work of Cedar Wilkie Gillette, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon’s first designated MMIP Coordinator and a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. Gillette, who began her job in June 2020, is one of 11 coordinators across the country. Among her first job is compiling a mix of local and national data into a centralized way of tracking murders and disappearances.
“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,” says Gillette. “And they are largely inconsistent at the moment. They’re not made to work together.”
For example, the Oregon State Police say there are 13 unsolved cases of missing Native Americans and three unsolved murders in the state, while the National Crime Information Center says there are nine and three, respectively. And the University of North Texas’ National Missing and Unidentified Persons System database says there are eight missing Indigenous people in Oregon, but does not track murdered data.
Police agencies have also recorded murdered and missing Native Americans as members of other racial and ethnic groups, preventing them from being included in MMIP data. That happened in the case of Heather Cameron, a Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde member who has been missing in August of 2012. Not only was she misclassified as white in initial reports, but her last known location outside Redding, Calif., 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.”
Gillette is now working with spreadsheets and websites to create a unified database that her agency can use to better track MMIP cases. And she’s also working on a pilot project with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to develop a community response plan to MMIP cases, so the tribal government knows what resources are available and how to resolve the cases as quickly as possible. She hopes to have the plan developed in the latter half of this year. Meanwhile, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation announced the country’s first tribal community response plan in April.
‘Our Great Hope’
One recent event that’s inspired activists and officials is Deb Haaland’s ascension from New Mexico Congresswoman to the first Native American Secretary of the Interior. She’s already announced the creation of an MMIP unit under the Bureau of Indian Affairs, with a $6 million budget — six times more than the DOJ’s Operation Lady Justice.
“I have 100 percent faith in her,” says Deborah Maytubee Shipman, founder of MMIW USA. “She’s our great hope.”
Shipman, a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, founded her organization in 2015, after two friends were murdered in Gallup, New Mexico. The Portland-based group helps track missing women and girls all across the country, and it offers self-defense programs as well as support for families of victims.
Shipman says given the vast distances and stretched resources of many tribal police departments, it’s not uncommon for victims to feel isolated and helpless.
“Because even if law enforcement gets to you, they’re going to leave so you’re left there with that abuser,” she said. “That’s where we need to have more control over punishing these people.”
Merle Kirk says she’d like to see mental health support provided to the families of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, including a toll-free phone number for counseling. She also wants the media to highlight MMIW cases, with available facts and suspects, akin to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Taken” documentary series. She says in neighboring Idaho, an MMIW billboard in Lewiston highlights the issue, and she adds that implementing a “check in” social media app or program could help families and friends track Native youth better.
On Wednesday, Native American theater group illiloo and the Indigenous Womxn’s Wellness Group of the University of Oregon will hold a night of poetry and remembrance in the Springfield-Eugene area. After participants hang red garments on trees along the Willamette River, there will be an honoring song and ceremony. Red dresses have become a symbol of MMIWG awareness, and each garment hung Wednesday represents a missing or murdered Indigenous woman.
Merle Kirk says she and other community members will wear red — including shirts with the beaded emblem of her sister — at gatherings on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
“I just send out love, prayers, and hope and healing for all the families of the missing and murdered,” says Kirk. “And I pray that all the victims that are missing will return home for closure for everybody. You’re not alone, our families’ members are never forgotten. Always in our hearts and in our prayers.”
Underscore is a nonprofit collaborative reporting team in Portland focused on investigative reporting and Indian Country coverage. We are supported by foundations, corporate sponsors and donor contributions. Follow Underscore on Facebook and Twitter.