Seeking Justice: Issue of missing, murdered Indigenous peoples only worsened by lack of data, advocates say
Increased awareness brings more questions and more intense quest for answers
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The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples in Alaska — urban and rural alike — is a multi-layered and complicated one, especially when you consider what’s often behind it.
“You can’t deal with just one of these issues and think you’re going to solve the problem,” said L. Diane Casto of the State of Alaska Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. “You have to deal with the whole host of issues that are out there in order to begin digging down through the layers and layers of issues that lead to this kind of behavior.”
Recent data and testimony of community members across the state show an alarming prevalence of violence in Alaska and among Alaska Native men, women and children. For example, the State of Alaska Department of Public Safety’s recent Felony Level Sex Offenses report, comprising data from 2019 and released this November, shows Alaska Native women make up 50.4% of all reported victims. Cases resulting in death are often linked to sexual violence and human trafficking, both of which tend to be under-reported.
“There’s too much acceptance of this,” Casto said. “We say we don’t accept it, but so many cases go unreported. So many cases get minimized. So many cases get, ‘Well, it happened, we move on.’ But we need to — as individuals, as communities, as the state — to say, ‘No, this is not an acceptable human behavior.’”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation Anchorage Division and Alaska State Troopers declined comment for this story, pointing Alaska’s News Source instead to advocacy agencies.
Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center Senior Policy Specialist Debra O’Gara said that, despite violence not being part of Alaska Native tradition, there exists an ingrained acceptance of it, as both inter- and intraracial brutality have become pervasive over the last few centuries.
“The saddest story I think I’ve heard over the years is mothers, and grandmothers, and aunties having to teach their children how to respond to what to do when — not if but when — they are abused or mistreated,” she said, “or somebody raises a hand to them because it’s become so prevalent.
“Someday, we won’t have that be part of our teaching, part of our growing up,” she added. “We’re not there yet. But someday, we will be.”
Casto and O’Gara both pointed out that violence against Native Alaskan men, women and children goes back generations, but that more advocacy and attention has brought it to the forefront.
“It’s not a new issue,” O’Gara said. “It has been happening for over 200 years. But it needs to get corrected. And certainly, it has gotten worse, as we proceed through, but it’s not something that’s traditional. It’s not something that’s part of our culture or our way of life.”
To start, she said, knowing what the problem is, who’s perpetrating it and having law enforcement and investigators — as well as community members — communicate with each other is among the things that need to happen.
Missing puzzle pieces
Missing statistics and the lack of a comprehensive database of state and federal information specific to missing and murdered Indigenous peoples, however, have proven challenging in communicating to outsiders just how pervasive the problem is.
“There is a lot about this topic that we don’t know,” said Troy Payne, an associate professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center who also serves as Justice Information Center associate director. “There is a lot about this topic that lacks an Alaska-specific context. So when the national conversation about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, or homicide generally, when that national conversation is ongoing, oftentimes Alaska is either thrown in with the national data without much regard for anything Alaska-specific, or it’s excluded entirely.”
Of the few reports available, some combine the data for missing and murdered into one. For example, the Urban Indian Health Institute says that in 2016, Alaska saw 52 incidents of missing and murdered Indigenous women specifically.
That was one of the highest case counts in the country, despite it not being a per-capita ranking. The top five comprised New Mexico, with 78 reported cases; the state of Washington, with 71; Arizona with 54; Alaska in fourth nationally, with 52; and Montana, rounding out the top five, with 41.
An even smaller number of agencies choose to separate the two types of reports, reporting on either the missing or the murdered one at a time.
“Because we’re dealing with two; we’ve got two issues here: Missing, and then somebody being killed. Murder,” O’Gara said.
A UAA Justice Information Center study specific to homicides in Alaska over the past 40 years, from 1976 to 2016, shows that of all reported victims, more than a third were American Indian or Alaska Native. Of all suspects, more than 20% were of the same descent.
“Alaska Natives tend to be over-represented,” Payne said. “So whether we’re looking at offending or victimization, Alaska Natives tend to be present more frequently than we would anticipate by just looking at their general population numbers.”
Statistics on missing persons cases can be even more confusing, particularly when there isn’t always foul play involved.
As of Dec. 3, 2020, there were 1,289 people listed in the State of Alaska Department of Public Safety’s Missing Persons Clearinghouse. The cases included span from 1954 to the current date, and all of the individuals listed are considered currently missing, but just more than 3% are believed to be missing involuntarily or as the result of abductions or kidnappings. Of the involuntarily missing cases, nine were categorized as being of Alaska Native or American Indian descent.
“Often, when it comes to missing persons and homicide, we just — we have questions that are left unanswered,” Payne said. “It’s very unsatisfying. It’s not like an episode of television where at the end of 42 minutes, everybody has all the answers; we know exactly who did it, how, for what reason.
“A lot of the time,” he said, “we don’t know whether anything happened at all.”
In addition to generally poor record-keeping specific to missing and murdered Indigenous people, racial misclassification and sometimes adverse relationships between local and tribal governments, as well as outside law enforcement, cases across Alaska are considered by most to be far under-reported.
“What we do know is, the data out there is incomplete,” said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, “and we need to improve on the integrity of the data that currently exists.”
A path forward
While American Indian and Alaska Natives are especially likely to need services, they’re also less likely to have access to them, particularly in far-flung communities off the road system.
“My hope is that some of those barriers and challenges to communication and action — because you have to have communication first and then action — some of those challenges can be resolved, or at least talked about and recognized,” O’Gara said. “And we need as many people as we can stepping up to say, ‘This is not acceptable, and we need it to stop.’”
Some solutions are in the works at the local, state and national levels. CDVSA, for example, funds 35 different community-based nonprofit agencies, with the majority of that funding going toward victim services; hosts other programs such as sex offender treatment and battery intervention; and, along with federal contributions, has injected about $21 million to various community grant programs.
Among other offerings, ANWRC works with each of Alaska’s 229 tribes and has partnered with groups such as the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, Indian Law Resource Center, Yup’ik Women’s Coalition and Healing Hearts Native Coalition to provide services across the state.
At the federal level, among the resolutions — or moves in pursuit of them — is the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative, launched in November 2019, several months after Attorney General William Barr made visits with the community in several rural Alaska communities.
MMIPI, announced by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, has three prongs: establishing local coordinators; creating specialized FBI investigative and rapid deployment teams; and working toward comprehensive data analysis. Its designated task force, known as Operation Lady Justice, has a list of tasks to be completed by and reported to the presidential administration in November 2021.
“I don’t think anybody can be hardened to the reality of these situations that our people are facing,” O’Gara said. “There is no way. But I also am not despaired: I think the solution is there. I think, as tragic and heart-wrenching as the stories are, we are a people of survivors. Our communities have persevered through a lot, the last 300 years, and we’re still here. Our communities are still here. Our way of life is still here.
“So I am both saddened,” she said, “but also strengthened by that willingness to not give up, and to continue to fight in the face of tragedy.”
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