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Warm Springs tribal members share their stories of missing and murdered Native women with Oregon State Police

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Merle Kirk beaded a picture of her sister Mavis, who was killed when a car drove over her.Last May, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill directing the Oregon State Police "to study how to increase and improve criminal justice resources relating to missing and murdered Native American women in Oregon" and report back in the fall. The bill had widespread support in both houses. No one voted against it, and only two legislators didn't vote.

Tuesday, Jan. 28, a task group from OSP and several other agencies took that work to Warm Springs for the third in a listening tour of all of Oregon's Indian reservations, as well as four urban areas.

About 60 people came to tell their stories and hear from officials about what has become a transnational problem. When asked whether they knew someone who was missing or had been murdered, nearly every hand at the Agency Longhouse went up.

'Other people will never get closure'

"I think it's isolated," said Caroline Cruz before the meeting. "We don't talk about this ... There's a lot of cold cases."

Cruz, who is the health and human services manager for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, had a sister, Margaret Still, who was murdered in the 1980s when she was 24. She had gone to Yuba City, California, with her boyfriend. Both of their bodies were found, brutally beaten with a tire iron.

"She was murdered, and no one cared," Cruz said.

It had been 11 years, Cruz said, and her brother, Dan Martinez, considered going on the TV show Unsolved Mysteries. But then the killer confessed.

"We got our closure," Cruz said. "Other people will never get closure."

Still "was one of those long stories," Cruz said.

Her mother was an alcoholic, so an older sister adopted her. She had three daughters but lost them "to the system" because she couldn't raise them.

Then she left, and the family found out she'd been murdered.

"We don't talk about it," Cruz said. "That's the problem."

When asked why people don't talk about it, she said, "Because our people are gone, and we can't bring them back. And it's not polite to talk about the dead." That's because it holds them back from the next life or prolongs the family's grieving.

Stories in common

Cruz's story isn't unusual. Nor are those of the more than 15 people who spoke up at the meeting. Most expressed their gratitude that someone was finally listening.

A 2016 study by the National Institute of Justice found that 84.3% of Native American women will experience violence in their lifetime, compared with 71% of white women. And 39.8% of Native American women said they had experienced violence in the past year, compared with 23.3% of white women. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control says homicide is the third leading cause of death among Native American 24 years old and younger, and the fifth leading cause for those between 25 and 34.

The exact numbers of missing and murdered Native American women are hard to come by, and that's part of what the listening tour was about.

Gillian Fischer works as counsel for the Oregon House Committee on Judiciary. She helped work on House Bill 2625, which was introduced by Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland. Fischer facilitated the meeting, and before she opened the floor up for comments, she told a little of her own history. Earlier in her career, she worked as a domestic violence prosecutor in Klamath Falls.

"What I learned very quickly," she said, "was that Native women had much higher statistics of victimization" and sexual assault. So she learned early on about the missing and murdered indigenous women movement, or MMIW.

Oregon State Police Deputy Superintendent Terri Davie thanked everyone for coming. She said she hoped that the information the task group gathered would make a difference to the Legislature so "that this topic will not be the crisis that it is today."

"I know this is going to be hard, but it's necessary," said Mitch Sparks, executive director of the Legislative Commission on Indian Services. "These recommendations must last beyond these team members and this generation."

Fischer asked about the barriers to reporting missing women.

At the end of the meeting, Davie summarized what people had said.

"You travel, and sometimes you don't know they're missing," she said, echoing several people who said Native Americans often travel to other reservations and don't always check in regularly.

People don't know how the judicial system works, either. Sometimes they are afraid of retaliation, and family dynamics also come into play.

She said every culture struggles with not wanting to be a snitch. And if a person has power, people are afraid that it will be their word against the powerful person's.

Lack of investigations

Before the meeting, Shirley Allen said her son's family is from Montana, and she taught at Salish Community College about eight years ago. Then students would sometimes go missing, and nothing would be done.

A member of her son's family is now missing in Montana, and another was murdered.

"There was no genuine effort to investigate it, I guess," Allen said.

One of the problems was that the coroner listed the cause of death as exposure or hypothermia, when in fact there was foul play, she said.

Cruz said something similar. "Someone gets murdered and they say they're going to investigate. The excuse is, 'Well, we've got a lot of cases.'"

Allen was glad to see young people at the meeting. She said when she was young, she had two best friends, and they had a rule that they always stayed together. That served her well when she went to Arizona State University. She wants young women to protect themselves.

Davie summarized more comments, including that cases are often labeled suicide or victims are seen as drug addicts or mentally ill, or they are blamed for lifestyle choices. People also said they were afraid that if they reported crime, their children would be taken by Child Protective Services, and non-Native people would end up raising them.

The things she heard included: "Nothing's going to happen. No one's listening. No one's caring."

Living with grief

The Kirk family knows that feeling.

"I have a sister who died in 2009," Annie Kirk said before the meeting. The family says Mavis Kirk died when her boyfriend drove over her. They believe he did so intentionally.

"That case has never been solved," she said.

Annie and her father were wearing red shirts that said "MMIW" with a picture of Mavis, which was beaded by Annie's sister Merle Kirk.

"We're still grieving over it," Annie said, adding that not a day goes by that they do not think about it.

Annie's mother on her grandmother's side was murdered in Yakima, and she has a first cousin who has been missing since 1997. Annie never got to meet her grandmother because she died when her mother was just 3 years old. She has a niece who never got to meet Mavis, so the cycle continues.

The justice system

"What you are sharing is what we are hearing in every jurisdiction so far," Davie said.

There are jurisdictional concerns. Different agencies are responsible, depending on the type of crime. Tribal police don't have authority over non-Native people on the Warm Springs Reservation, so people know they can commit crimes there with less chance for accountability because the FBI has to investigate, Davie said. And investigations, "sometimes they're not adequate," she added.

If officers aren't tribal members, that causes angst as well, she said.

"Criminal justice throughout the nation needs to figure out how to collect the data," Davie said, adding that agencies need to share data and learn from it.

And tribal members need relationships with police "before the bad stuff happens."

The court system is also a barrier, Davie said, reiterating what people reported during the meeting.

Reliving the loss is painful, a suspect can show no remorse, and sentences aren't always appropriate to the crime, she said. Sometimes a group of people committed a crime, but only one is held accountable.

Davie said families and victims need advocates and liaisons from the beginning.

"That, in turn, will build trust; it will help us communicate … It gives power back to the victim and the victim's family."

And the community needs education on "self-safety," she said.

When a loved one is missing in the city, getting someone to do something is even more difficult. Separation of powers between Tribal Court and Tribal Council, as well as politics within the community, can also complicate people's willingness to report crimes and their belief that justice will be done, people said.

Police need to understand the community's culture and its history, as well as confidentiality, Davie said, again echoing what she had heard during the meeting.

In addition, tribal members said they need to speak up about abuse and teach young people to do the same.

"And lastly," Davie said, "we need to figure out how to heal."

"We are listening," she said, and she encouraged people to tell her anything she had missed or that they wanted to share confidentially.

Warm springs turnout highest so far

Sparks, who is from the Pine Ridge Reservation himself, calls this work the most important he has done in state government.

He said the turnout in Warm Springs was far larger than any the group had seen before.

The candid way people told their stories and the courage they had was common in all the meetings, Sparks said, and so were the problems.

"I think that this one was a really good event because there was, when you talk about getting input and ideas from different generations, there was a wide range … of people who had courage to stand up and talk," he said. And there were a variety of points of view.

"I know that everybody in the task group was really thankful for the Warm Springs community," he said. "It was a really good event. We felt welcomed and that we really appreciated everybody speaking up. It was very good."

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