County brings attention to crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous relatives with proclamation, bridge lighting

May 15, 2024

Community members and presenters join the Board of County Commissioners for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives Week of Awareness proclamation on May 2.

Multnomah County’s Board of Commissioners proclaimed April 29 through May 5 as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives Week of Awareness.

At a Board meeting May 2, presenters and Commissioners discussed the importance of raising and building awareness around this national crisis. 

Chair Jessica Vega Pederson introduced the proclamation by welcoming the Portland All Nations Canoe Family, which serves urban Native communities and provides canoe programming to help youth, family and elders connect with cultural practices and community in the Pacific Northwest.  

In remembrance of ancestors, executive director Renea Perry joined others in singing  the “Women’s Warrior Song,” which was gifted over 30 years ago by Elder Martina Pierre.

Commissioners wore red to raise awareness — in solidarity — of murdered or missing Indigenous relatives. 

“This is a tragedy that impacts us all, that weakens our social fabric and limits what we’re capable of as a community,” said Chair Vega Pederson.

Multnomah County’s Morrison Bridge was also lit red May 2 through May 5. 

“Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives is a public health crisis,” said Brianna Bragg, a program specialist senior for the Health Department who works closely with Native American and Alaskan Native communities. 

Bragg (who is Ihanktonwan, Norwegian and French, and uses They/she pronouns), said the community continues to witness the murder of multiple relatives, with little to no systematic change regionally or nationally. Bragg pointed out the lack of data and reporting on missing and murdered Indigenous people. 

“The information we can find is incomplete at best and rarely mentions two-spirit people,” Bragg said. 

Bragg shared the following data points, noting they’re all likely undercounts: 

  • The U.S. Department of Justice found that 58% of Native women and 51% of Native men reported intimate partner violence in their lifetime. 
  • The National Vital Statistics System found that age-adjusted homicide rates for Native women were double the national average. 
  • The National Institute of Justice reported in 2016 that 84% of Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, with over half experiencing sexual violence.  

And even then, the Native community is left to organize the response to the results of this data, on their own, with little to no resources. Native community members rely on themselves to organize searches for loved ones, fundraise for the family members left behind, and build awareness of missing and murdered relatives. 

“In the face of state-sanctioned violence, however, we are still here. In the face of limited or removed resources, we are still here,” Bragg said. 

Bragg said that while the proclamation is necessary to start a conversation about the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people, “it can’t end there.” 

From left: Raven Harmon, Alix Sanchez (Senior manager of the Department of County Human Services’ Domestic and Sexual Violence Coordination Office), Kristen Bell (Future Generations Collaborative), Brianna Bragg (Program Specialist senior for the Health D
Kristen Bell with the Future Generations Collaborative (who is Northern Arapaho and uses she/her pronouns), spoke about the importance of talking about missing and murdered Indigenous relatives. Bell grew up in a small town, Cheyenne, Wyoming.

“I remember times of smelling grandma’s homemade meals on the stove, the taste of her homemade soup and the warmth of her home as a child,” she said. 

Her grandmother, Arlene Theresa Bell, was very important to her family. She was mother to four sons and four daughters, and grandmother to 27 and a great-grandmother, too. 

Bell recounted the day her grandmother went on a walk and never returned home. On the first night she went missing, local authorities informed the family she would not be considered a missing person unless she had been missing for more than a week. 

Bell’s family wasted no time and created flyers to hand out across many states. Bell said police made little to no effort to investigate.

“My grandfather would be sure that someone was always home in hopes that she would appear back home,” Bell said. 

A year later and many miles away, her grandmother was found deceased in a gravel pit along a highway in Colorado.

“We never got any answers or an ongoing investigation,” Bell said. Bell and her family believed her grandmother had been murdered, and they wanted justice. When they questioned local authorities, they didn’t receive any answers. 

“It is my hope that changes will be made,” said Bell, asking the Board of Commissioners to protect Indigenous relatives and future generations, and address the issue through more culturally appropriate programs, outreach events, services and resources for the family members of the victims and more collaboration with tribal, federal, state and local officials responding to missing and murdered Indigenous relatives cases. 

“I’d hope to not have to fear losing more family to such a tragedy, to have no fear of walking in my neighborhood, I’d hope to see more safety and prevention to keeping my family safe.” 

Alix Sanchez, senior manager of the Department of County Human Services’ Domestic and Sexual Violence Coordination Office (who is a member of the Little Shell Band of Chippewa and uses they/them pronouns), said sexual violence and sex trafficking are all factors shared in common by missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives. 

“Four out of five Native American and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime,” they said. “And we are twice as likely to experience rape and sexual assault as women in other communities.” 

Sanchez also said over 40% of trafficking survivors identify as Native American or Alaskan Native. 

“The disappearance and murder of Indigenous women and girls is not a new issue. The violence of colonization, removal and genocide of Indigenous people in the United States since our country’s inception set the stage for the experience of Indigenous people today.” 

Sanchez said a report by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition found two-thirds of trafficking survivors who were interviewed in the report had family members who were taken by boarding schools. 

“Disappearance has unfortunately become expected by our people,” Sanchez said.

Their final remarks urged for a call to action beyond the proclamation. 

“How do we change the system and the dynamics that have led to the prevalence of missing and murdered Indigenous relatives?” asked Sanchez. “How do we change the systemic injustice and invisibility of Indigenous people and more deeply invest in addressing the root causes of violence and homicide facing our Indigenous communities?” 

Raven Harmon (who is Athabascan, Yupik and Colville on her maternal side and Eastern Shoshone and Ute on her paternal side and uses she/her pronouns) read the proclamation in both English and Chinuk Wawa.

Board comment

Commissioner Lori Stegmann thanked the group for the proclamation and the performance from the Portland All Nations Canoe Family, and agreed with Bragg that “this is a public health crisis.”

“The fact that there is little to no data is appalling,” she said. “I'm glad to see that there are federal efforts” to track data of missing and murdered Indigenous people “but I would urge this Board to think about what we could do on a local basis.” 

“Thank you for the presentation but also for everybody being here this morning, sharing your truths and your story,” said Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards. “I’m heartbroken about your grandmother. Our elders and our grandparents and our families — we hold them deeply in our hearts… If we're to collectively change this trajectory, a call to action is what is going to result in a different future.”

“Violence begets violence, and the violence of our white ancestors continues to reverberate today,” said Commissioner Jesse Beason. “That our governments don’t believe Native people is nothing new. If they had, we wouldn’t have had to wait for the first Native Secretary of Interior before we created the right departments to actually seek justice and believe Native people when they say violence continues to befall them at disproportionate rates. 

“I appreciate the call to action, I also recognize that there is much work to do to turn that call into true action. So, thank you all for being here. Thank you for continuing to say the names of people who we have lost and who we cannot find and who deserve to rest.”

“All of you expressing the treatment of Indigenous peoples in this country from first contact to present day is horrific,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran. “And we have yet to address the tragedies caused by colonialism. That is our job.… As leaders in Multnomah County, we must not only continue to raise awareness, but implement the structural changes that can build a safer community for the Indigenous peoples of our region.”

“As painful as this is, it is so important to share stories and uplift that, and so I thank you for taking on that work,” said Chair Vega Pederson. “I really appreciate the calls to actions that you gave.… There’s so many ways this is impactful for our whole region, and really continuing that work is something that we need to do.”