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An Extended Conversation With Cedar Wilkie Gillette On MMIP Cases

The following is an extended, online-only interview between KLCC reporter Brian Bull, and Cedar Wilkie Gillette, Oregon's first appointed Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) Coordinator, for the U.S. Attorney's Office District of Oregon.  They talked over the phone shortly after the Oregon Dept. of Justice released its first Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Report in Feburary, 2021. 

Bull:  You’re part of a pilot project that’s being implemented in six states, which consists of Oregon, Alaska, Montana, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Michigan. Why these six in particular, and what’s the scope of these projects?

Gillette: These six states were chosen based our need for the tribal community action plan that we were going to actually test out our MMIP guides that we created nationally. And we created these guides for four different types of protocols:  One is community outreach.  Second is law enforcement response. Third is victim services. And fourth is public and media communications. And although the guides came from a national level, the coordinators of these pilot projects which include myself, are being tasked with working with a tribe – at least one – to look at these protocols and see what works for each tribe, culturally customizing them and adapting them to what will actually work when there’s a missing and murdered indigenous person case in their community.

Bull: You began in June, 2020, well after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Oregon.  How has the coronavirus affected your work?  What do you hope to initiate once the pandemic has largely subsided?

Gillette:  Yes, COVID-19 hampered most particularly my tribal outreach plan. I intended to go in person to very reservation in Orgon and introduce myself and start speaking about our MMIP issues here in Oregon. But unfortunately due to COVID 19, only able to visit the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs for a formal consultation last fall.  And I was able to meet with their law enforcement for first time. So this year, we still plan to do our annual formal consultations, but moving them to a virtual format.  And part of that consulation will be to discuss MMIP issues. And hopefully once the pandemic dies down, I’ll be able to visit more people in person.

Bull: Why is it important for you to have in-person visits as opposed to virtual meetings, Cedar?

Gillette:  Traditionally in Native American cultures that I know, it’s important to meet in person and greet each other and be able to talk face to face, because that is part of our cultural norm. And that’s kinda hampered if we have to do everything by online video or phone It kind of takes away from how we communicate with each other in a respectful way. Especially with MMIP issues which is important, and can be emotional and very personal to communities.

Bull: By the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s data, Cedar, how many missing and murdered Indigenous people are there in Oregon, currently? 

Gillette:  That is a complicated question but under our definition there is eleven missing and eight murdered, currently.

Bull:  Some of these cases go back a long ways, the earliest being within the year and the others going back to 80s and 90s.  What do you consider to be the biggest challenge about tacking some of these these older cases?

Gillette:  Probably law enforcement resources. And what these files actually look like, what information they currently have to help law enforcement gather more leads, or be able to talk to more people about these cases.  And as well as just about any federal Indian law issue is jurisdiction. Who has jurisdiction over these cases?  How are they communicating with families and the tribes that these people are from.

Bull:  There’s also the issue of people having trust in law enforcement as well.  Is that another issue that you’re looking to explore?

Gillette:  Yes, some of those issues were identified in the Oregon State Police Report from September 2020.  Some of the actions re: listening and understanding tour. We want to have a stronger relationship with OSP in addressing some of these concerns.

Bull: The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) Report just released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office District of Oregon notes there are challenges and gaps in getting a comprehensive scope of the issue.  What are some of those gaps that can make tracking cases difficult?

Gillette:  One is data, currently there’s no consistent or comprehensive platform for MMIP data, especially in Oregon. And the bulk of our current MMIP report is explaining the different data sources and how they are not in synch with each other.  And it’s my job to look at these data sources and determine what is accurate and why if cases are inaccurate in these databases, why that is or what I can do to help fix them.  That’s just one issue.

Another reason why there’s inconsistent data is that all these data sources have different definitions for what they deem to be MMIP data. And so we had to create our own definition so that we can be inclusive to the data that we were seeing. Like for instance, one main distinction of our definition from other sources, is that we include tribal affiliation to determine that the data should be used to determine the tribe’s location in addition to where the person went missing or murdered.

We have one case in Redding, California of a Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde member, Heather Cameron.  She went missing in California, but we still consider her part of our data in Oregon, because she is a tribal member from Oregon.  

Bull: I’ve met a number of lawmakers, activists and families in the past, who’ve talked of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons issue as being difficult to tackle on many levels.  There’s the remoteness of many reservations, fear that tribal police and outside law enforcement aren’t able to respond to calls, there’s still that mistrust of authority…what’s key to addressing these concerns, so that people feel there’s hope?

Gillette: I think that people from the tribal communities and whoever consider themselves as part of being an MMIP stakeholder, they deserve to be heard. And they deserve to be able to provide input towards real solutions. And when I mean to be heard, I meant that their opinions are taken into consideration, and when possible, lead into action. I think that tribal communities deserve to be the leaders of this work. And they know that their own lands, their culture, those pieces have been missing from the previous approach of handling MMIP cases.

And I believe that’s going to be the best pieces of this work, that we need to find out what those area, and see if we can make them workable for policy and how tribes want to tackle MMIP cases.

Bull: So if there’s someone out there and they have information or a tip on a missing and murdered indigenous persons case, Cedar, what’s the best way they can share that information?

Gillette:  They can contact the FBI Portland Field Office at 503-224-4181 or visiting Tips.FBI.gov.

Bull: Is there anything else you’d like to share while I have you on the phone?

Gillette: I want to acknowledge the nationwide grassroots efforts to make MMIP and MMIW a priority. Which because of their efforts, the Department of Justice announced the first MMIP initiative in November 2019 and created my position as the MMIP coordinator for the District of Oregon.  And I am humbled and privileged to do this work, and honor those who deserve justice.  

Bull: Well, Cedar, it’s been it’s been a pleasure talking to you, I really appreciated our time together.

Gillette:  Yes, thank you, Brian.

Copyright 2021, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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