The Oregon Commission for Women hosted a panel on Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Tuesday to raise awareness about the barriers in current efforts. The event comes a few weeks after Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples Awareness Day, and nearly two months after a Warm Springs man went missing.
The panel, made up of tribal members from around the state, focused on the systems currently in place to help find people and what can be done to improve them.
Cedar Wilkie Gillette with the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons program said a hurdle has been the data gathering itself.
“What is the scope of MMIP issues? How many cases? That’s something we’re still trying to answer,” she said.
Some speakers on the virtual panel, like Yakima Nation elder Patricia Whitefoot, had a personal connection to the topic.
“This issue has been a part of my life for many many years with my younger sister missing, but also other family members who have been murdered,” she said.
She mentioned that the sexualized stereotypes of Native women have had a hugely negative impact.
A current exhibit at the Museum at Warm Springs dives deeper into the issue.
Rep. Tawna Sanchez (District 43, North and Northeast Portland) said she knew about the issue firsthand due to her years working in the field of domestic violence and sexual assault.
“This is an issue that affects us in a different way because it’s so long standing, so historical and embedded sadly in our minds and in our hearts about how there’s such a lack of value of native women,” she said.
Finding answers is harder than people realize.
“I think one of the problems is that we don’t have adequate funding for local tribal law enforcement, for one,” said Denise Harvey, a representative from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.
Wilkie Gillette said one of the largest barriers in gathering data on the number of cases is racial misclassification, meaning when someone is misclassified as a race other than Native American.
“Particularly, NCIC (National Crime Information Center), or NLETS (National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System) do not even have a field for listing tribal affiliation,” she said.
Other barriers include the fear of reporting to law enforcement and a lack of communication between the levels of law enforcement throughout the state.
A February report from the U.S. Attorney’s office said there are 11 missing and eight murdered indigenous people connected to Oregon.
Two of the missing are from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
Another person, Lewis Selam, disappeared more than two months ago near Warm Springs. His brother, Willie Selam, told Central Oregon Daily News on Tuesday that the search has hit a roadblock.
“There has been quite some time of new snowfall out in the region near the site where his car was located,” Selam said. “Just made it really bad for even vehicles to travel into the area.”
Worry is still top of mind, but a new search group has formed in Warm Springs, connected with a national effort to help find missing and murdered Indigenous people.
“That uplifted our spirits a bit knowing we weren’t alone,” he said. “They were doing the best they could to locate sources, to assist us both with equipment, with possible access to drones or cameras, anything that may be able to aid us in looking for my brother.”
He said the family hopes to continue their search during the upcoming weekend if conditions continue to dry up.
On a state level, House Bill 2526 passed in 2019, directing Oregon State Police to improve investigations and direct more resources to cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women.
If there’s one thing advocates can agree on, it’s that the current systems still need changing.
“All families are asking for is resolution for their missing or murdered family member,” Whitefoot said.