The Advocate Talks to Luhui Whitebear About Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Oregon’s first Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons report was released on Feb. 22, 2021. Oregon State Police found a total of 16 reports of MMIP; 13 are still missing, three were murdered.   

Luhui Whitebear, Oregon State University’s Native American Longhouse Eena Haws assistant director, said that these numbers are likely an undercount. “The number is definitely higher than that,” Whitebear said. “The problem is that there is not a clear, definitive [way of] knowing of how bad it is in Oregon right now.”   

This is true for the entirety of the United States, and though Indigenous people in general are targeted by predators, Indigenous women in particular are preyed upon. As of 2016, there were 5,712 known incidents of missing and murdered Native American and Alaskan Native women, but the number is likely much higher due to misreporting and underreporting.  

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women 

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Whitebear explained, “is a movement to help address the occurrence of murdered and missing Indigenous women in particular.”  

MMIW USA was started in Portland, Ore. and seeks to “bring our missing home and help the families of the murdered cope and support them through the process of grief.”  

According to Whitebear, legal infrastructure, jurisdictional boundaries, and federal laws have all contributed to the MMIW issue. Many reference MMIW as an epidemic, but Whitebear, in the footsteps of lawyer and University of Kansas professor Sarah Deer, prefers to call it a crisis.  

“I like to more describe it as an ongoing crisis that’s been going on for over 500 years,” she said, “because that’s really how long it’s been going on.”  

Violence against Indigenous women has occurred since the early days of colonization, when Europeans came over to the “New World,” stealing Native land and brutally killing and raping innocent Indigenous people along the way. This unjust viciousness continues across the U.S., and right here in Oregon.   

Oregon Victims  

Oregon Native American women like Lisa Pearl Briseno, Heather Leann (Haller) Cameron, Shaydin Jones-Hoisington, Leona Sharon Kinsey, Sennia Pacheco, and many more are missing. Some, like Briseno, have been missing for decades. Others, like Pacheco, only a couple months.   

Some have been murdered, like Rosena Sophia Strong, whose remains were found in an abandoned freezer on July 4, 2019. Strong was a mother of four, and her family is awaiting forensic tests so she can be taken home to be buried beside her mother. The cause of her death remains under investigation.  

It’s important to learn about the names and lives of MMIW, Whitebear said, because it’s easy to be overwhelmed by data. “A lot of times, people get lost in the numbers and statistics, and forget that these are people, and they have lives, or had lives, and they have families,” she said. “Remembering the humanity part of this crisis is really important.”  

Federal law enforcement refuses to investigate over 70% of these cases because they occur on  tribal lands, according to Whitebear. This creates a perception that Indigenous women are easy targets, not only on tribal lands, but also in urban areas.  

Because help from law enforcement is limited, grassroots organizations like MMIW USA help bring Indigenous women home to their families.  

“That is the focal point [of MMIW],” Whitebear said, “helping those families have closure or get their loved one back,”.  

Indigenous Women are Stereotyped and Invisibilized  

A lot of the lack of reporting and declining of cases, said Whitebear, is due to stereotypes. Many view these missing women as “party girls,” runaway teenagers, or adults who can make their own decisions and therefore don’t need to be searched for.  

“There’s this dismissal and almost victim-blaming happening when in fact people are being abducted and killed,” Whitebear said.  

In Oregon, House Bill 2625 was passed in 2019 to collect more accurate data of MMIP. The bill specifically allows for data sharing and collaboration between tribes and law enforcement. The groups can then work together to compile data, host listening sessions, and report to Gov. Kate Brown.   

Despite these efforts, the MMIP and MMIW crises have causes that have been ingrained into American society. As Deer explained to the Associated Press, Native women so often go missing or are murdered because they are “invisibilized” by society and are considered disposable. Because of deep-seated prejudices and stereotypes about Indigenous people and women, as Whitebear said before, they become “easy targets” for predators. She also noted that transgender and two-spirit individuals are often left out of the narrative because they are commonly misgendered in reports. This only further contributes to misreporting and underreporting.  

Aside from law enforcement declining cases, the media also contributes with a lack of attention to the MMIP/MMIW crisis. Generally, Whitebear said, the media doesn’t often report on Indigenous folks and the issues they face.  

“A lot of the time, Indigenous people are not even reported on,” she said. “…It would really help with the way that Indigenous people are invisbilized in society, if there was more reporting.”  

How to Help  

As the MMIP/MMIW crisis persists, there are ways to help. Educating oneself, informing others on the crisis, donating to grassroots organizations like MMIW USA and the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, and listening to the needs of those affected by the problem are all ways in which people can assist the movement.   

For now, the movement continues on – MMIW USA in particular is still strong and active, their slogan powerful and unforgettable: “Threaten our existence, expect our resistance.”  

By Cara Nixon