Multnomah County honors missing and murdered indigenous women, girls and relatives with proclamation and bridge lighting

May 7, 2021

For the third consecutive year, Multnomah County’s Board of Commissioners has proclaimed the first week of May as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Relatives Week of Awareness. At a May 6 board meeting, presenters and board members discussed the importance of raising awareness about a national crisis that is coming to light after decades in the shadows.

County Chair Deborah Kafoury introduced the board item by first acknowledging the Native Americans who have long lived in the land that is now part of Multnomah County.

“Native American women are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average,” said the first presenter, Brianna Bragg, a program specialist senior for the County’s Health Department. Brianna, (Ihanktonwan, French and Norwegian), works with Native American and Alaska Native residents in Multnomah County. She said that despite generations of cultural genocide, “We are still here.”

Several speakers explained the roots of this tragedy and ways that community members, elected leaders and law enforcement are fighting it. “For many years, tribal nations were not able to prosecute non-natives,” County Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “So when Native women and girls were victimized by non-natives, the tribes had no jurisdiction to prosecute non-native perpetrators. 

“Data collection and collaboration across tribal and non-native jurisdictions has been sorely lacking,” Chair Kafoury continued. “Native American women, girls and two-spirit people experience the highest rates of domestic and sexual violence of any group. But their cases are undercounted at all levels of law enforcement.”

State Rep. Tawna Sanchez, the first state legislator of Native American descent from Portland, participated in the panel before commissioners voted on the proclamation.

State Representative Tawna Sanchez, who represents parts of North and Northeast Portland, said that recent national and state legislation is helping to raise awareness of the crisis and address it. Rep. Sanchez is the first state legislator of Native American descent (Shoshone-Bannock, Ute and Carrizo) to represent Portland. 

“It’s good that we’re talking about it and that it is no longer hidden,” she said. She sponsored a bill in 2019 that led to the Oregon State Police completing a report on missing and murdered Indigenous women, and recommending: 

  • Increased education and training for law enforcement.

  • Partnerships to resolve jurisdictional issues between tribal and non-native law enforcement. 

  • Outreach to raise awareness of the problem and improve data collection.

“Part of that outreach is having the difficult conversation about how Native American women have been seen as less important than others for a long time,” Rep. Sanchez said.

In 2020, Congress passed Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act to improve data collection, clarify the roles of law enforcement agencies and combat violent crimes against Native Americans. Secretary of the Interior Deborah Haaland, the first Native American woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet, last month created a Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to lead interagency work to pursue justice for missing and murdered indigenous people. 

“These are important and meaningful steps towards addressing this crisis that began with acknowledging the crisis and were pushed forward by the relentless advocacy of Native people,” Chair Kafoury said. 

The panel of presenters also included Jennifer Pirtle, a member of Oregon’s Siletz tribe who works as a community health worker for the Native Wellness Institute nonprofit in Gresham. She sang a ceremonial song in her tribal language to the beat of a traditional hand drum at the beginning of the presentation. Later, she read the proclamation before board members voted unanimously to approve it.

The Morrison Bridge is lit red to honor missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, May 2021

Chenoa Landry (Puyallup) is also a community health worker in the Native Wellness Initiative, who described the work of the Future Generations Collaborative. The program, which was co-created in 2011 by the Multnomah County Health Department and several community partners, promotes healthy pregnancies in the Native American community and cultural healing to promote good health. 

County commissioners joined people across the country in wearing red in honor of Indigenous women and girls who have been murdered or are missing. 

“We start by raising awareness, so that more people know,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran.

Chair Kafoury noted that her proposed budget includes funding for a tribal liaison position in the Government Relations office that would help the County coordinate with local tribes on issues like this one. She thanked the panelists, as well as her staff members Anna Marie Allen (Shoshone-Bannock), Nicole Buchanan (Sugpiaq/Alutiiq, Italian, and Norwegian) and David Kerry for their work on the proclamation. Their respective Native heritage allowed them to “work on this issue from a place of deep, deep understanding.” 

“We need to have more conversations like this to bring this out so more people understand the gravity and the seriousness of this and the prevalence of this situation.”