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Portland marks day of awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous people

A 2021 report found 11 missing and eight murdered Indigenous people in Oregon. The city organized a week of events to highlight the issue.

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Dancing, drumming, a canoe landing and a march marked the 2022 Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous People in Portland on Thursday.

According to a 2016 report from the National Institute of Justice, more than four out of five Indigenous people have experienced violence. Murder is the third leading cause of death for Indigenous women. And most of the violence is at the hands of non-Native people.

President Joe Biden declared May 5, 2022 as Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day.

“For far too long, justice for Indigenous communities has been elusive,” Biden’s proclamation says. “We must improve our investigations to resolve missing or murdered cases while supporting victims and their families. Our Nation’s failure to address this ongoing tragedy not only demeans the dignity of each Indigenous person who goes missing or is murdered — it undermines the humanity of us all.”

In Portland, Mayor Ted Wheeler made a similar proclamation.

The city’s tribal relations director, Laura John, organized Portland’s fifth annual week of awareness educate the public on the reasons why Native people face disproportionate levels of violence, and showcased voices that point the way toward solutions.

There was a talk from Mary Kathryn Nagle, an attorney, playwright and citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Nagle highlighted the importance of state and federal laws that give full faith and credit to tribal court orders such as restraining orders and stalking protection orders. Those laws are not always followed by non-tribal police — a problem that exposes Native people to the risk of violence when they travel away the reservation where the order was entered.

“Imagine if the federal government told the city of Portland, ‘You can’t exercise jurisdiction over people who travel here from Seattle because they can’t vote for who’s mayor here,’” Nagle said in an online discussion that John hosted on Monday.

Nagle said engaging with and supporting Indigenous stories, through plays, movies and TV shows, is one way to create the conditions necessary for Native justice.

“We live in a culture where whoever gets to tell their stories, those are the people who are going to be treated more humanely,” Nagle said. “Storytelling tells us who we are as people. It tells us our values and who we are today. And the message, when we are excluded from that, the message is we are less than human.”

On Wednesday, John hosted a discussion between State Rep. Tawna Sanchez, a Democrat from Portland, Matt Johnson, court director for the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla and Cedar Wilkie Gillette, the first Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Coordinator for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Oregon.

“Thinking about MMIP awareness day, what are we really talking about?” Wilkie Gillette, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, asked. “We’re highlighting the fact that Native Americans and Alaska Natives are humans and that our cases matter just as much as anyone else’s. And that they all deserve to come home.”

Johnson, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla, encouraged listeners to educate themselves about Indigenous people.

“Go to tribes’ websites, go to their social media and learn about what they are talking about,” Johnson said. “Visit reservations and Indian communities whenever you can. We have a saying out here that Pendleton is a long ways from Portland but Portland isn’t very far from Pendleton. We travel from over here to Portland all the time. So please come visit us here at Pendleton on the Umatilla reservation and all the other tribes as well, to get that first-hand experience and to learn about what it’s like.”

And on Thursday, John organized a community gathering along the Willamette River that included about 40 minutes of drumming, dancing and singing. There was a hip hop performance and spoken word artist and three canoes landed at Waterfront Park, having paddled there from Willamette Falls. At twilight, about 40 people marched across the Hawthorne Bridge, many of the wearing red dresses in honor of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People, the color meant to represent blood and anger.  

“This issue hits home for me on a regular basis, where I will see a missing person flyer for someone I know,” said John, Blackfeet and Seneca. “It may be someone I knew as a child or an elder who knew me when I was young. This hits home for many Native people in this country. We all know someone. And what that does to us, it’s a continuation of trauma and genocide of Native people. And we will all need to come together to address it.”

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