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The Challenges In Tackling Missing And Murdered Indigenous Persons Cases

MN Senate DFL

Justice officials acknowledge that Native Americans have been disproportionately affected by violence. Last month, the District of Oregon U.S. Attorney’s office released its first report on the issue. KLCC’s Brian Bull talked to Cedar Wilkie Gillette, who’s the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons  (MMIP) Coordinator for the agency.  Bull asked her how many cases are in Oregon, currently.

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

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

Credit United States Attorney Billy J. Williams / U.S. Attorney's Office District of Oregon
U.S. Attorney's Office District of Oregon
Oregon MMIP cases with photos: Top row, left to right: Lisa Pearl Briseno (missing); Heather Leann Cameron (missing); Jerome Clements Charles (missing); Leona Sharon Kinsey (missing); Sophia Rosenda Strong (murdered). Bottom Row, left to right: Roger Jacob LeMiex (missing); Zachary Silatqutaq Bashir Porter (missing); Tyrone Beau Robinson (missing); Tina Vel Spino (remains identified 2/8/21). Other cases are represented by a male or female avatar.

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.

Credit Provided by Cedar Wilkie Gillette.
Cedar Wilkie Gillette, MMIP Coordinator for the District of Oregon.

We have one case in Redding, California of a Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde member, Heathy 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: Well, Cedar, it’s been it’s been a pleasure talking to you, I really appreciated our time together.

Gillette:  Yes, thank you, Brian.

An extended version of this interviewcan be found here.

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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