June 12, 2023

Shake Up in Portland's Tribal Relations Office

Laura John’s mission was to make Indigenous voices heard at City Hall. On Monday, Miranda Mishan, who has worked with John for two years, took over the role.

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Underscore News + ICT

Portland Tribal Relations Director Laura John announced Friday that she is stepping down. In her place is Miranda Mishan, who formerly served as the city’s tribal relations community liaison.

“My goal has been to ensure that all city officials and staff understand that Indigenous perspectives, knowledge, and voices must be considered when making decisions on how the work of the city is done and how those decisions impact all who live in the city, not just Native people whose ancestors have lived in the place we now call Portland for generations.” John wrote in an email to city staff on Friday, announcing her resignation.

The city’s tribal relations program is effectively downsizing for at least the next year. Formerly a three-person staff, it will now include only Mishan. And although Mishan will perform the same work that John did, her title will be tribal relations program manager, instead of John’s title: tribal relations director.

“It’s going to be a building year,” Mishan said on Monday.

Laura John (center), tribal relations director for the City of Portland, organized the “Red Dress Walk” in 2022 which was aimed at bringing awareness to missing and murdered Indigenous people. John joins participants as they walk across the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland on May 5, 2022. (Photo by Leah Nash/Underscore News)

‘The first time they had ever been welcomed’

John, a descendent of the Blackfeet and Seneca Nations, became the second person to lead Portland’s Tribal Relations Program in 2017, after the departure of attorney and founding Tribal Liaison Patricia Davis Gibson, a Comanche citizen with Seminole and Muscogee Creek descent.

John sought to bring conversations about tribal sovereignty and decolonization to every city bureau — an effort reflected in the accomplishments of the program over the years.

The program works with the 26 bureaus and six elected offices within in the City of Portland, along with seven of the tribal nations in the region: Cowlitz Indian Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Yakama Nation and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

The program also works to create and improve services for the nearly 90,000 Indigenous people living in the Portland metro area

Among other new city initiatives, John held three annual Tribal Nation Summits, which brought together city and tribal leaders and included training for city employees on tribal sovereignty.

“The majority of the tribes shared that it was the first time they had ever been welcomed to the City of Portland in such a respectful way,” John said in her email. “This led to a level of relationship-building with tribes that had never existed before between our city and this number of tribal nations."

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)

John added that the partnerships her office built will benefit the city and tribal governments for generations to come, “if the tribal relations program continues to be given the importance both required by treaty obligations and that the city has promised through council action.”

Over the six years since she launched the city’s tribal relations program, John also worked on efforts to address the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people, increasing housing and houseless services, better access to first foods, protecting salmon and lamprey, educating city employees on tribal sovereignty and treaty rights, and improving the city’s tribal consultation process.

“My most important thanks are offered to the Tribal nations that opened their doors to the City after we had closed our doors to them for so many decades,” John wrote.

A new leader

Mishan, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and a Muskogee Creek descendant, has worked for two years as the city’s tribal relations community liaison, brought on by John to further the work of the tribal relations program.

“I hope to deepen relationships with tribes and the urban Native community, not just on an individual level, but to begin to confront the legacy of distrust between the city and tribes,” Mishan told Underscore News. “I want our government-to-government relationship with tribes to be meaningful.”

Mishan has already been immersed in that work.

In May, she took the lead on organizing a week of events to honor Missing and Murdered Indigenous People.

In the atrium at Portland City Hall, Mishan curated a display to raise awareness about the disproportionate rates of violence Indigenous people face. Six red ribbon skirts, including one sized for a child, hung along the staircase. Jillene Joseph, executive director of the Native Wellness Institute, held a workshop where participants made the skirts to honor lost relatives. Alongside the skirts, Mishan hung signs with statistics to educate city employees and visitors to City Hall about the scope of the crisis.

After the MMIP Proclamation at City Council on May 3, 2023, Miranda Mishan, Chickasaw Nation and Muskogee Creek descendant, who until Friday served as tribal relations community liaison for the City of Portland, adjusts one of the six red ribbon skirts that symbolize missing and murdered Indigenous people. Mishan curated the temporary installation with statistics and wooden cutouts of Indigenous women dancing to serve as a visual reminder of the high rates of violence Indigenous people face. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News/Report for America)

Mishan also worked with Portland State University students, part of United Indigenous Students in Higher Education, to organize a salmon bake and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples day of Awareness on May 5th.

Mishan said she’s excited to continue the work John started.

“I’m very grateful to Laura and the work that she has done over the years, including expanding the program to bring me on board,” Mishan said. “She’s laid a strong foundation for the future of the program, and got the city to pay attention to tribal issues, which I respect wholeheartedly.”

Lead photo: Miranda Mishan, Chickasaw Nation and Muskogee Creek descendant, stands in City Hall on May 3, 2023, near six red ribbon skirts which symbolize missing and murdered Indigenous people. Mishan stepped into her new role as tribal relations program manager for the city on Monday. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News/Report for America)

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that Laura John was the first tribal liasion for the city of Portland. She was the second, after Patricia Davis Gibson. Underscore regrets the error.

About the author

Nika Bartoo-Smith

Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to provide platforms for the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Most recently, she worked as the health and social services reporter at The Columbian in Vancouver, Washington. Prior to working at The Columbian, Nika spent the summer of 2022, after graduating magna cum laude from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism, working as a Snowden Intern at The News-Review in Roseburg, Oregon. A descendant of the Osage and Oneida Nations, Nika was born and raised in Portland. Her favorite way to unwind is by trying a new recipe, curling up with a good book or taking a hike in one of the many green spaces around Portland.

Twitter: @BartooNika

Email: nbartoosmith@underscore.news

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