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Seeking Justice: ‘Our people, have been long standing up and demanding justice’

Published: Dec. 13, 2020 at 8:42 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska’s News Source produced a special report on missing and murdered Indigenous peoples in Alaska. We introduced you to families who have lost loved ones and hosted a panel discussion with experts to take up some of the challenges in addressing this critical issue.

Our guests included:

  • Alex Cleghorn, the legal and policy director at the Alaskan Native Justice Center
  • Charlene Aqpik Apok, who is Iñupiaq and the executive director for Data for Indigenous Justice
  • Bryan Schroder, the United States Attorney for the District of Alaska

The first part of the discussion focused on timing and why this topic has finally gotten more attention.

“It is because of ongoing advocacy and efforts of folks in the community, of Native Alaskan women, Native Alaskan people, who are consistently raising the issue up and not giving up,” Cleghorn said.

Apok, who is also one of three Indigenous women serving on the city’s Public Safety Advisory Commission, agreed.

“The communities, and our people, have been long standing up and demanding justice and ready to be heard and that’s really powerful,” Apok said. “The more that we speak to it, and we see that it isn’t just us, it isn’t just isolated incidents, we see that it’s happening across the board we see that’s it’s a systemic issue.”

Apok says that part of the problem is that federal, state and local agencies all track cases differently, and that creates discrepancies in the data — something Apok calls “data gaps.”

“When we have a data gap, that means that we have a gap in being able to advocate for resources when we aren’t able to name and spell out what we need, and what is happening, and what the impacts are. Data for Indigenous Justice has really tried to compile the data and the information that’s available so that communities and tribes can advocate and say, ‘this is what’s happening and we need something done about it.’”

The spotlight on missing and murdered Indigenous people reached a national audience when Attorney General William Barr visited the state and then launched a national strategy to combat the high numbers of missing and murdered Native Americans.

It was Schroder who announced that educator and Tribal Judge E. Ingrid Cumberlidge had been appointed as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Coordinator for Alaska.

The panel also took up the topic of law enforcement in Alaska. Both the Anchorage Police Department and Alaska State Troopers were invited to take part in the panel. Both declined.

In her role on the Anchorage Public Safety Advisory Commission, Apok said the group has a strong working relationship with APD.

“We’re building a lot of trust and transparency and we’ve established really good communication,” Apok said.

Schroder said from his perspective, the agencies work well together.

“Law enforcement people tend to work pretty closely in Alaska,” Schroder said. “We’re all we got up here, everybody counts on each other.”

One of the questions focused on racial and sensitivity training among law enforcement.

Schroder said APD was a great example.

“They do a lot of training on cultural issues and cultural sensitivity because they react to so many and deal with so many different cultures here in Anchorage. It can only make a police officer better,” Schroder said.

Apok added that she recently had the chance to observe the cultural training with APD and said they were providing feedback on some of the videos.

“We wanted to revisit and make sure that they didn’t reinforce stereotypes that are already prevalent in our communities and we know that oftentimes stereotypes — people think it’s just ideas about people but we know those turn into actions and behaviors and, unfortunately, violent behaviors,” Apok said.

Cleghorn said one problem is that officers sometimes assume someone is one specific ethnicity.

“I think you need to educate law enforcement about how to identify or ask questions about either the race or the citizenship of people who are harmed. I think that often it is easy to overlook Alaska Native people or in the Lower 48, Native American people and assume that they are either mixed or white or Chicano or Latino or just not ask the question and it happens all over in the reports,” Cleghorn said. “[...] So I think if the expectation isn’t set and the training isn’t provided, it’s not going to change.”

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