Meet 3 Alaskan women on the front lines of the state’s MMIP justice movement

These three Alaska Native women are at the forefront of working to bring justice to the scores of missing and murdered Indigenous people in the state.
Published: May. 5, 2022 at 7:43 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The movement for justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons has been building over the past few years. In Alaska, women gathered at statewide conventions to remember and mourn the loss of their sisters, mothers, aunts, cousins.

One case that steeled the resolve for Alaska Native women and all Alaskans was the case of Ashley Johnson-Barr. In 2018, the 10-year-old went missing from a local playground, and was found dead, having been raped and strangled, eight days later. Johnson-Barr’s story was a disturbing reminder of Alaska’s statistics. Alaska Native people are victims of homicide and suspicious missing persons cases at a higher rate than they are represented in Alaska’s population.

“That was just really devastating. It was a big call to action that we need, we need more,” said Charlene Aqpik Apok, who wears many hats in the world of Indigenous justice. She is the executive director at Data for Indigenous Justice, and director of gender justice and healing at Native Movement, and is a tribally appointed member of the U.S. Attorney’s office’s MMIP taskforce.

Apok is one of many activists in Alaska pushing for awareness, collaboration, and funding to end the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous people — particularly women and girls.

A University of Alaska Anchorage Study of homicides in the state from 1976 to 2016 found that American Indian or Alaska Native people represent nearly 30% of the state’s victims. They represented just over 16% of the state’s population.

Ingrid Cumberlidge is the MMIP coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Alaska. She collaborates with tribes across the state, getting their input and working with them and tribal police agencies to address the problem.

“It has really focused on collecting those stories from our tribal communities, and getting an understanding of what the resources are and the things that we can do to support those communities,” she described in an interview. “... How can we work together? How can we collaborate together? How can we communicate together?”

The State of Alaska Department of Public Safety has recently hired retired Trooper Anne Sears as its Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons investigator. Sears has only been back on the job for about a month — after “Seven weeks of Saturdays,” as she described her brief retirement. She says she’ll be focusing on cold cases and new cases.

Two of those at top of her mind are Florence Okpealuk, a Nome woman who disappeared from a tent on the beach, and Angela Foxglove, a teen who went missing from Selawik in 2007.

“It was probably the one thing I would come back to work for,” Sears told Alaska’s News Source in an interview. “I kind of feel like everything that I did in law enforcement, growing up in Alaska, kind of led to this position.”

Sears was the first Alaska Native woman hired as an Alaska State Trooper. Though she began work as a trooper in 2001, she didn’t know for sure that she was the first until she was preparing to speak at an event for women law enforcement officers in 2019.

Sears was born in Nome, but grew up all across Alaska, as her father worked for the FAA. She spent the largest portion of time in Juneau, where at the age of 21 she began working as a clerk for the Juneau Police Department, and then trained to be an officer.

She spent her years as a trooper largely in rural Alaska — Galena, Nome, Kotzebue, with other stops in Fairbanks as an investigator, and Palmer. Having been on the new job just over a month, Sears says she’s still getting her feet under her.

“My focus is kind of all over the place right now, because it’s still new,” she said. “I’m looking at a handful of cases right now — cold cases. The most recent one being a year and a half old, the oldest one being almost 40 years old, kind of putting some new eyes on the case, the evidence, seeing if there’s anything I can tease out of that.”

Sears’s position is not wholly dedicated to cold cases, though her investigations on cold cases will be in addition to a new cold case investigator, after the department’s most recent investigator retired last month.

Related: Alaska’s cold case investigator retires after using mix of new science, old-school tactics to solve long-dormant cases

Sears says in addition to investigating cases, she hopes to open communication lines between Alaska State Troopers and rural communities, so the work doesn’t end with her.

“I also want to lay the groundwork for somebody else to take over this,” she said. “... One of my end goals is to go to the villages, go to the different tribes, and have them partner with the state troopers on working on missing and murdered Indigenous people ... It’s never going to be a stop gap; there’s never going to be a stop to it. But lowering the numbers.”

Cumberlidge is Aleut, and grew up in the community of Sand Point, off the Alaska Peninsula. She spent more than two decades there as a school teacher, principal and tribal court judge. She’s also Tlingit, with her mother’s family roots in Klawock, in Southeast Alaska.

“During that, you deal with a lot of families in need, children in need of aid, and just a lot of crisis going on related to the trauma that’s going on across Alaska,” she said, describing how her tribal court background led her to this role.

When Cumberlidge left her small community to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the 18-year-old’s eyes were opened to things she hadn’t expected to experience.

“I was coming from an island of about 7 by 11 miles, and about a thousand people, so I was coming from a really remote area, and I had lived a pretty sheltered life with my folks,” she explained.

Cumberlidge started the school year without a roommate, but the open space was soon filled with a young woman from a village who had been struggling somewhere else on campus. After a few weeks, the young woman left suddenly, and campus officials came looking for her, eventually informing Cumberlidge that her roommate had made it home safely after stopping in other communities.

Then came a second roommate, who lasted longer, but was already involved in risky behaviors. That roommate “disappeared into the city,” Cumberlidge described. By her third roommate, Cumberlidge was hesitant to become too close of friends, and that roommate disappeared several weeks later as well.

“By then, (campus officials) realized I’m 18, and they stopped having those conversations with me, so I really don’t know what happened to her,” she described.

“But just imagine, I mean, think about it,” Cumberlidge said. “You’re 18 years old and to be able to see that happening and how easy it was for a young woman to go missing. The impact of that was a lifelong impact.”

In her role, Cumberlidge leads the U.S. Attorney’s Office MMIP working group. The group has met with 170 of Alaska’s 229 tribes, most recently on MMIP Awareness Day in Kotzebue. She’s focused on meeting with communities and finding out which resource they have, and which they need, and how to collaborate and communicate with one another.

“We have heard stories across the state, and every single one of them is impactful because it involves families and community members, and I have to say my entire work group really mourns the loss of every murdered individual, and certainly they feel for every missing family member,” Cumberlidge said.

The group helps communities set up tribal community response plans, and offers help for victims services, and better collecting and reporting of data. Cumberlidge says national laws like Savannah’s Act and the Violence Against Women Act have increased opportunities and resources for Alaska’s tribal communities.

Even though she started this position during the pandemic, Cumberlidge says awareness and visibility of the MMIP movement has increased.

“Even in the last two years, when I first came into this position, you know, I’d say I’m the MMIP coordinator, and they’d say, what is that? You know, so the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Person movement has developed wings,” she said.

Apok, spurred to action in 2018, says the increase in visibility shows that advocacy is working.

“People say that, like, rallies don’t matter, marches don’t matter. But they do,” Apok said. “They draw a lot of attention, and they put a lot of visibility.”

Apok is combining her background as an Alaska Native woman with missing and murdered family members, and as a researcher, to use in her journey for justice.

“Even within my own immediate family, we have women whose deaths were deemed suicide when most of the family believes that they were murdered, and that it was a homicide,” she described.

Others have gone missing and declared dead. Samantha Koenig, a young Anchorage woman who was kidnapped from the coffee stand where she worked, and killed by serial killer Israel Keyes 10 years ago, is Apok’s younger cousin.

Her background in research moved her toward the lack of data for cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people, and to co-found the group Data for Indigenous Justice.

“We were lacking the tracking going on here in the state of Alaska. It wasn’t being tracked, there wasn’t a way to pull it in,” she said.

Data for Indigenous Justice has compiled a report, which found 153 cases of missing Indigenous people that were not tracked in law enforcement records. Jurisdictional issues between tribal governments and state and federal governments create multiple layers, and multiple gaps for cases to fall through, the report said.

“I track the data, and we know that the data isn’t just numbers,” Apok said. “It’s the stories of our families.”

Apok calls for law enforcement agencies to create action plans for missing and murdered Indigenous people, as tribal communities are, and said the biggest help to achieve justice for those missing and murdered people would be for non-competitive renewed tribal public safety funding — that means tribal public safety efforts funded without competing amongst themselves for grants each year.

That funding is needed “so that tribes here across the state can again self-determine and implement what tribal public safety looks like for each of our communities in a sustained manner,” she said.

Apok remembers rallies for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women at the Alaska Federation of Natives years ago, and how MMIW was a new term back then, and appreciates how far awareness has come.

“For a long time, many of our families were thinking that it was something that just happened to them, or it was a one-off,” she said. “... There’s lots of power in coming together, not just for visibility that creates transparency and accountability, but also for families to know that they’re not alone, and that’s been a huge healing place for our communities.”

Cumberlidge emphasizes that if a person goes missing — report them to local law enforcement or Alaska State Troopers right away.

“We’d rather that they make a mistake, and that person come back safe, then to not report and wait so long that the evidence starts to get a little bit cold,” she said.

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