Editor's note: This story is part of an investigative project in partnership with EO Media Group that shows how obstacles to prosecution of violent crimes against Indigenous people in Oregon prompted survivors to use their stories of trauma to empower others and inspired initiatives encouraging change, as well as how evolving policies are shaping the legal landscape. The series also offers an urban Indigenous perspective and examines efforts in Portland to combat violence against Native Americans. Read the entire series here.
When Laura John started working as the city of Portland’s first full-time tribal relations director, she heard a common complaint from Indigenous community members: police weren’t taking action on missing and murdered Indigenous persons (MMIP), one of the most alarming problems facing the urban Native community.
“I was getting phone calls from communities outside of Portland, some rural and some from reservations,” John said. “People were having trouble connecting with an officer or not getting transferred if they called dispatch about a missing person in Portland.”
John says that prompted a series of conversations with the Portland Police Bureau.
“Primarily what I heard back was people hadn’t even heard of this issue,” she said.
Since she started her job in 2018, John, a descendant of the Blackfeet and Seneca nations, has been working to change that. Now the leader of a three-person team, her work has spurred legislative efforts that funded the first tribal liaison for Oregon State Police, led to a policy requiring Portland police to enforce tribal court orders and launched an ongoing effort to overhaul the way Portland police collect racial categorization data.
Legal scholars like Mary Kathryn Nagle, a Cherokee citizen, say violence is a corollary to colonization. Nagle described a history of normalization and even celebration of incidents of violence against Native women, stretching from Christopher Columbus, who wrote about kidnapping and killing Indigenous women, to the well-documented rapes of Cherokee women by U.S. soldiers during the Trail of Tears, to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, when William Clark wrote in his journal about the beating of Sacagawea by Toussaint Charbonneau, the French Canadian trapper and expedition member who bought her when she was 12 to be his “wife.”
“American society has a culture that ignores, looks the other way or promotes the commodification and exotification of Native women and that leads to a higher rate of violence against Native women,” Nagle said at an event organized by John during Portland’s MMIP Awareness Week in May.
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According to the U.S. Department of Justice, most American Indians and Alaska Natives have experienced violence, and among those who have, more have experienced violence from non-Natives than from other Native Americans.
Murder is the third-leading cause of death for Indigenous people between the ages of 15 and 34. And although rates of violence are up to 10 times higher on reservations than the national average, about half of Indigenous murders between 2003 and 2018 happened in cities, where 71% of Native Americans live, according to a report last November by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Lack of attention on urban violence
Portland has the country’s ninth largest urban Native American population, spurred in part by federal relocation policies intended to dissolve reservation communities during the Termination Era of the 1950s. When Congress passed the Western Oregon Termination Act and the Klamath Termination Act in 1954, the federal government severed the responsibilities it had agreed to in exchange for millions of acres of Oregon forests, valleys and rivers. The government seized reservation lands and stopped providing the services it promised in treaties.
The Indian Relocation Act of 1956 paid for members of suddenly landless tribal communities to move to cities, where the government said jobs would be available. But promises of government support once people arrived in urban areas often went unfulfilled.
A 2021 report from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oregon found 11 missing Native people in the state and eight murdered Indigenous people in Oregon. That’s likely an undercount, because of persistent structural problems that prevent the collection of accurate data. The second annual report is expected to be released this summer.
Most of the attention focused on MMIP revolves around crimes of violence committed on reservations, where for decades most tribal courts couldn’t prosecute violent crimes committed by non-tribal members. A lack of response by state and federal authorities over such crimes created defacto havens for non-Native people to commit violence and get away with it.
Even a new MMIP working group established by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Oregon skews toward addressing violence on reservations and in rural areas, rather than in cities, according to spokesman Kevin Sonoff.
“Our MMIP work and strategy to date have not focused specifically on violence toward urban Native women and girls,” Sonoff said. “We are very aware of the issue and hope to make it part of our strategy moving forward, but, given our current resources, we are not there yet.”
But Indigenous people living in urban areas like Portland are also vulnerable to violence, according to a 2018 report by the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI).
“Though there are critical issues regarding jurisdiction of MMIWG (missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls) cases on reservation and village lands, lack of prosecution, lack of proper data collection, prejudice, and institutional racism are factors that also occur in urban areas,” the report found.
Those are the issues facing Laura John and others who are trying to address urban violence against Indigenous people. Portland police are just beginning discussions about more accurate data collection, and the bureau has no specific response to the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous people. Instead, MMIP cases are treated just like other murders and missing persons cases.
“Murders are grouped in with other murders and missing people are grouped in with other missing people,” said Portland Police Bureau (PPB) Equity and Inclusion Specialist Brody Sargent. “In some ways, the reason we’re looking from a data lens is because we are hoping to pick out how these cases are connected. But right now, these cases are just looked at through the individual details of the cases, not as a group.”
That’s not ideal, according to Brian Dubray, chief of police at the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians Police Department and part of the U.S. Attorney’s Oregon MMIP workgroup that is developing a set of best practices for police dealing with the issue.
“We know there’s a problem and we can statistically show that there’s a problem, but then it’s status quo for the response,” Dubray said. “There should be some type of specific reaction to it.”
John’s work could help. In addition to emphasizing the city’s responsibility to forge relationships with tribal governments, John has worked to create the capacity for effective communication between the city and its Indigenous population and pushed forward policies that will help stem the disproportionate violence experienced by Indigenous people.
The 2018 report by the UIHI is the most comprehensive to date on the violence that Indigenous people face in cities. It’s a snapshot of data from 71 U.S. cities. But Portland isn’t included. That’s because the Portland Police Bureau didn’t respond to a request for records from UIHI’s Abigail Echo-Hawk and Annita Luchesi when they were compiling data from cities around the country — at least initially.
That changed when John heard what happened. She talked to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and then-Chief of Police Danielle Outlaw. John got UIHI researchers the data they requested at no extra charge and worked with the records division to change the process for large requests in order to ensure nothing similar happened in the future. Outlaw wrote a letter to UIHI, apologizing for the delay.
It was too late for the data to make it into the report, but Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, who is director of the UIHI, said the incident shows that John’s work is having a meaningful impact on city government.
“This is why representation truly matters,” Echo-Hawk said. “When we see tribal members in the bureaucracy, we’re seeing true work moving forward. And it’s why we need Native people in every type of office, in every community from the grassroots organizations up to the county, state and federal government.”
Yakama elder Patricia Whitefoot is a prominent MMIP activist who has worked on the issue for decades through her roles with the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, the federal government, the Yakama Tribal Council and most recently as an appointed member of the Washington State Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force. Whitefoot says John’s work is a national model for other cities.
“That leadership role that Laura holds is critical,” Whitefoot said. “It’s unusual to have a tribal liaison at that level. It’s critical because we have so many tribes that are a part of the Portland community. But it’s not something you see across the United States. It sets a precedent for the work that can go on not only here but also nationally. And I credit that not only to the city of Portland, but also to the leadership of Northwest tribes.”
Full faith and credit
One of John’s first projects was to ensure that Portland police understand the legal requirement to treat tribal court orders, such as domestic violence protection orders, as fully legitimate. It’s been the law since 1994, under the Violence Against Women Act.
It’s also a basic recognition of the sovereign authority of tribal courts. But police haven’t reliably followed the law.
“It was kind of a gray area due to tribal police not necessarily being taken as seriously as they should be,” Sargent, the PPB’s equity and inclusion specialist, said.
In January 2020, then-U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams and Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum issued a directive saying police must observe tribal court orders. And last year, the Oregon State Legislature passed a law duplicating that requirement. Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court Martha Walters said in testimony on Senate Bill 183 that the state law was necessary because police weren’t following the federal version. Walters is also co-chair of the Tribal Court State Court Forum (TCSC).
“In 2018, members of the TCSC Forum identified the need to go beyond educational outreach and training efforts to address the failure to recognize and enforce tribal court judgments and orders, including tribal protection orders, because those failures delayed the administration of justice and put survivors in a precarious position,” Justice Walters said in a 2021 written statement to the Judiciary Committee.
At PPB, John led an effort to educate local officers on the law. The result is a 2019 memo issued by Outlaw, the former Portland chief of police, which officers were required to read and sign.
“This means that in the way you would handle a [protective order] issued in Florida but violated in Portland, you would also handle a [protective order] issued by a judicial official from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation,” the memo states.
John said in May that she was working to get the memo reissued, due to the high rate of officer turnover.
“We want to make sure all officers know about this,” John said.
But it will be hard to verify whether overlapping federal and state laws, plus directives from the chief of police, U.S. Attorney and state attorney general, will spur police action.
“The problem is, it’s easy to track actions taken, but pretty difficult to track arrests not taken,” said Marlon Marion, the PPB equity and inclusion manager. “It speaks to the difficulties of missing and murdered Indigenous women in general.”
Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, has collected data from police around the country. She said she’s not aware of any law enforcement agency that tracks whether officers are following through on federal requirements to treat tribal protective orders as fully legitimate.
“The only way at this point to know to measure it is through family stories,” Echo-Hawk said. “The question becomes, ‘Why is it so hard for us to track down how to measure this?’ And are we just asking them to keep their word? Because that has never worked for communities of color and law enforcement.”
Race and ethnicity data collection
Portland is in the midst of a city-wide effort to revamp its collection of race and ethnicity data. The city uses such data to assess community needs and the effectiveness of city programs. Danielle Brooks, equity manager for the city, said a new system is needed because some city bureaus don’t collect any race or ethnicity data, while others do so in an inconsistent manner.
“Data plays a significant role in not only identifying inequities and understanding them, but then being able to come up with any accountability measures in our work and look at our performance,” Brooks said.
Early on, Brooks said, Laura John recommended that the city add tribal affiliation, in addition to collecting data on race and ethnicity.
John also spurred the expansion of the effort to include the police bureau. Currently, police don’t ask people to identify their race or ethnicity. For both people arrested and those reporting crimes, officers record whatever they think the person’s race might be.
“Race or ethnicity is an assumption, because PPB currently does not ask for race data,” John said. “So we know that the data is unreliable.”
The problem isn’t limited to Portland.
“It has become a practice in law enforcement where they don’t ask and I believe that is grounded in white supremacy,” Echo-Hawk said. “White supremacy has a visual identification model where they are basing our race or ethnicity on skin color and associating skin color with a certain racial group.”
It also means that not all cases involving missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls get labeled as such. The UIHI report found 506 cases, across 71 cities, of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. But 153 of those cases were not listed in any law enforcement database. Revising data collection practices to ensure accuracy is the starting point for forming a specific response.
It’s a critical step that must be taken before efforts to address missing and murdered Indigenous people can truly begin, according to Sargent with the PPB.
“If you want to look at what percentage of a certain type of crime happens to Indigenous women, how do we know those numbers are accurate?” Sargent said. “Is the race listed on the records really accurate or is that how it appears to the officer?”
Sargent said his team is working with PPB data managers to clarify limitations imposed by bureau software and federal data reporting requirements. Sargent said his goal is to draft a proposed policy that he hopes to roll out next spring.
Advocates say it’s a process that should be happening across the country.
“The only place officer-identified race should be collected is in officer shootings,” Echo-Hawk said. “That’s where it’s actually helpful.”
Meanwhile, changes in the collection of race and ethnicity data have already been implemented in Washington’s King County, where Seattle is.
UIHI, which is based in Seattle, has finalized a process of collecting and analyzing race and ethnicity data for police and government agencies. The Analysis Plan for American Indian and Alaska Native Data was published last October, and the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is already using the plan’s guidelines, with additional details UIHI tailored for that office.
“It is no longer an excuse that we have identified a problem we don’t know how to fix,” Echo-Hawk said. “A small nonprofit and the determination of Native women has identified the solution and made this happen.”
And efforts to better document the homeless community in Seattle have shown the power of improved data-collection methods.
The Chief Seattle Club, Seattle Indian Health Board and UIHI disputed the results of a 2018 count that found the number of Native Americans experiencing homelessness in King County had dropped by half since the year before, from 6% to 3%. After working with Native-led groups to improve the accuracy of the survey, a 2020 count found an estimated 15% of the county’s homeless population is Native American.
Native leaders say more accurate numbers mean resources go where they are truly needed.
“We have the solutions that Portland is looking for, if they really want to make a difference,” Echo-Hawk said. “That’s always my question: is this token or a real effort?”
READ THE ENTIRE SERIES HERE
Resources are available for trauma survivors at the Strong Hearts Native Helpline and the National Sexual Assault Helpline.
* Lead photo: People participate in the “Red Dress Walk” across the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland on May 5, 2022, part of an event aimed at bringing awareness to missing and murdered Indigenous people. Laura John, tribal relations director for the City of Portland and organizer of the event, speaks into the megaphone to the right. Photo by Leah Nash/Underscore News
* The logo was designed by Jessica Joaquin, an enrolled member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, who has been a graphic artist for more than 20 years. She has won five Native American Journalists Association awards for layout design and podcasting, and has worked for the Gila River Indian Community and Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.