Alaska Native leaders call for action on the state and federal levels during Anchorage hearing

Not Invisible Act Commission met for one of seven hearings held across the country

By: - April 27, 2023 5:00 am

Audience members listen during the Not Invisible Act Commission hearing on Tuesday. Commission members discussed legislative changes they would like to see in order to lessen the violence against Indigenous communities. (Photo by Sophia Carlisle/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska Native leaders advocated for greater action to combat the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people in an emotional hearing on Tuesday. The Anchorage hearing, one of seven across the country, was held by a subcommittee of the Not Invisible Act Commission, which aims to address the problem of violent crime on Native lands and against Native peoples through collaboration between federal agencies and law enforcement, tribes and other organizations and people. 

Issues of violent crime affecting Indigenous communities have been pervasive for many decades. The Not Invisible Act, which was signed into law in 2020, aims to finally seek solutions to years-long injustices against Native communities in this country. 

The solution to the question of how, exactly, violent crime will be stopped is complicated. But for Lenora Hootch, the answer is simple: 

“We want protection.”

Hootch is the executive director for the Yup’ik Women’s Coalition, and like most of the commissioners in the hearing, brought a unique perspective regarding violence in Native communities to attention. 

The discussion amongst commission members centered mostly around the high rates of violence experienced by Indigenous peoples and the causes and potential solutions to that violence. And while the beginnings of such problems are complex, some agreed that the violence plaguing many communities could be traced back to colonization.

“Some of the violence, poverty, addiction, broken families — that’s not our natural way of being as Native peoples,” said Bryan Newland, the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs. He echoed the sentiment of another commission member, Dr. Charlene Aqpik, who underscored the importance of acknowledging colonialism and its lasting legacy. She said that the root cause of such violence couldn’t be ignored. 

“We’re gathered in a hotel called Captain Cook,” with images of settlers who murdered Indigenous peoples on the walls, she said, glancing around the conference room that featured a giant painting of an American ship. “That’s a problem.”

Aqpik and other speakers proposed a few different recommendations they felt would strengthen protections for Indigenous people. Those recommendations included better data systems of those missing and murdered, easier access to non-competitive funding opportunities for tribes and greater law enforcement presence in smaller, more rural villages in Alaska. 

When it comes to data, Aqpik said, systems in Alaska are lacking. Aqpik is the executive director of Data for Indigenous Justice, which is a nonprofit that released the first Alaska-specific report on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. She pointed out that Alaska does not require recording missing persons in NamUs, the national database for missing and unidentified persons. Aqpik said that this, among other aspects of data collection for missing and murdered Indigenous people, needs to change. 

“It’s a powerful way though that we can create change and have communication in the interagency cooperation that we want, by using data as a language for speaking to one another,” she said.

Aqpik also discussed the importance of establishing a data code that can be used both in Alaska and in the Lower 48 to create more unified terminology surrounding the issue of reporting missing and murdered Indigenous people in data that is accessible to everyone. 

The subject of language as it relates to the problem of violence against Indigenous people came up again during the panel, not just regarding data collection. 

Hootch discussed the need for accessible grant applications for tribes in rural areas. She said that grant applications are frequently filled with complicated language that makes them difficult to understand. She also mentioned that some tribes in Alaska’s more remote areas could not fill out grant applications due to a lack of internet access and lack of training on how to navigate the government’s application systems. 

These problems create another barrier to accessibility, especially when compounded by the fact that most federal grants are competitive, according to Alex Cleghorn. 

Cleghorn is the senior legal and policy director at the Alaska Native Justice Center and advocated strongly for the use of non-competitive grant funding for tribes. 

He said that competitive grant funding aimed at rural communities can stifle efforts to increase public safety and law enforcement efforts. 

We have tribes in Alaska that are literally having bingo to be able to hire a tribal police officer. And without that consistent funding, the community doesn’t know from one year to the next what is going to be available,” he said. 

The issue of law enforcement was also discussed at length, as some panelists advocated for the increased presence of law enforcement in some tribal communities. President Joel Jackson of the Organized Village of Kake said that law enforcement is lacking in rural Native communities, particularly when it comes to response after a tragedy. He gave one example of a woman who was killed after a celebration of life ceremony. Her body was protected by community members until law enforcement could arrive. Jackson said it took around 16 hours for the Alaska State Troopers to respond to the incident. 

“I thought that was very disrespectful to leave that young lady laying out there,” he said. 

While some villages in rural Alaska have village public safety officers, they are different from other types of law enforcement in their ability to take action in the event of a crime. Jackson said that many VPSOs are not Alaska Native and do not have a complex understanding of the culture and communities that they work in. He expressed support for the expansion of law enforcement efforts that might increase the number of Alaska Native officers operating in their own communities with the authority of police officers. 

Because the larger issue, he said, was respect. To a room so silent listeners could hear a pin drop, Jackson said that law enforcement needs to care as much about the murdered women in rural communities as it does when a moose is hunted illegally out of season. 

“We are people as well as everyone else. I think they tend to forget who we are,” he said. “We are the people.”

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly described Cleghorn’s position on non-competitive grants.


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