Two UP tribes involved in new project look at missing, murdered Native Americans

Linday M. McCoy
Capital News Service

Lansing — The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians is asking for the public’s help in gaining information for its recently created database to track and resolve cases of missing and murdered tribal members.

Michigan’s Sault Tribe and Bay Mills Indian Community are among tribes in six states chosen to participate in a national pilot project addressing the missing and murdered Indigenous people crisis. 

The rates of murder, rape and violent crime among Native Americans and Alaskan Natives are all higher than the national average. The crimes disproportionately impact Indigenous women, who are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than women of any other ethnicity.

The project’s goal is to help tribal communities create and implement a response plan that follows FBI guidelines on how victim services, law enforcement agencies and media can better respond to a report of a missing Native person, said Joel Postma, Michigan’s program coordinator in the U.S. Department of Justice.

The other states in the project are Oklahoma, Montana, Minnesota, Alaska and Oregon.

“These U.S. attorneys’ offices from different districts collaborated and said, ‘Let’s get people checkerboarded throughout the country to work with the federal, state and local tribal agencies to develop some protocols and procedures to respond to a report of a missing or murdered American Indian or Alaskan Native case,” he said.

Postma, who is from Chippewa County in the Upper Peninsula where Sault Ste. Marie is the county seat, said his close relationship with the Bay Mills Chippewa Indian Community and Sault Tribe inspired him to nominate both for the pilot project. 

“They had a larger and smaller tribal population in overall numbers and also were right on the international border,” said Postma. “It had to do with their location and, on my part, having a good working relationship with the tribes.”

Postma said he’s working with other tribes across the state to establish the same kind of community response plan.

A collaborative effort is necessary to resolve and end the crisis, said Jami Moran, the director of the Sault Tribe’s Advocacy Resource Center, which oversees the database project. 

“Our voices are stronger when we’re unified to push these cases,” she said.

Moran said the database was the first to be established for the tribe and other nearby communities and is an effort to get the federal government to include tribal citizenship as an ethnicity option in databases of missing and murdered people. 

“It was almost embarrassing that we didn’t know our own tribe’s statistics,” said Moran. “It’s one thing to demand the federal government to update their database, but we didn’t know ourselves.”

When the database was established last August, Jessica Gillotte, the center’s community educator, published a request in the tribe’s newspaper and on social media asking members to submit information on missing or murdered Sault Tribe members in both solved and unsolved cases.

Since then, there have been four confirmed missing person cases and 11 murder cases reported.

“Two of those that were missing have since been recovered and are now residing back at their homes,” Gillotte said.

One active missing person case in the database is the disappearance of Yvonne Renee Scott, a tribal member and mother of two who has been missing since 2004 from Kent County. 

Gillotte said many people think the tribe is looking into only new and current cases, but it wants any information, no matter how old.

“I’ve had someone reach out who had something happen to a family member in 1970,” she said. “They’re still trying to find information.”

Michigan ranks 7th in the country for missing persons, with 556 cases, according to data from the World Population Review. 

Six of those cases involve people identified as “American Indian /Alaskan Native” and 13 are classified as “multiple, other or uncertain.”

However, that could be an undercount, due to many missing and/or murdered Indigenous people cases going unreported for various reasons.

Moran said, “What are we doing collectively not only as tribes, but as a state, to sort through this and identify them by tribal citizenship?”

One open case dating back to 1997 is that of an unidentified baby who was found dead within the tribe’s service area in Mackinac County, which has the highest rate of Native American residents in the state, said Moran. 

“There is a one-in-five chance that baby is one of ours,” she said. 

The baby, now known as Baby Garnet, was abandoned in a latrine at Garnet Lake Park Campground in Naubinway.

Moran said she hopes the pilot project, new database and community response plan bring awareness to such cases and the importance of solving them and easing the crisis. 

In 2016, the National Crime Information Center reported over 5,000 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and children. However, that number is vastly undercounted, experts say.

“Right now, nobody knows how many Native American people are missing across the United States,” said Moran. “That to me is outrageous.” 

Last year, when an adolescent went missing in the tribe’s service area, tribal law enforcement officers worked with the agency handling the case using the new response plan guidelines. 

“That adolescent was found in another state” with human traffickers known to the FBI, Moran said. “Had our law enforcement agency not reached out, I don’t know whether that child would have been found as quickly.”

Moran said she hopes to see similar plans nationwide as the project has proven effective for the Sault Tribe. 

“We know our plan works, and I am glad we have it.”