Alaska Department of Public Safety publishes Missing Indigenous Persons report

Missing and murdered Indigenous people advocates call the quarterly report a step in the right direction

By: - August 24, 2023 5:59 am
(Alaska Department of Public Safety image)

(Alaska Department of Public Safety image)

According to a new state report, nearly 200 Alaska Native or American Indian people went missing between the beginning of April and the end of June in Alaska this year. Two dozen of them have not been found.

Violence against American Indian and Alaska Native people far exceeds the national average and Alaska has one of the highest rates of missing and murdered Indigenous people in the United States. The problem especially affects women and girls. In Alaska, calls for justice preceded Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s formation of a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Council in December 2021.

The Alaska Department of Public Safety had a seat on the council and officials learned that communities and nonprofit organizations wanted more access to data, said DPS spokesperson Austin McDaniel. The department began work this spring on the Missing Alaska Natives and American Indians report as a result.

“We took a hard look at listening to some of the pieces of data that these groups were looking for,” he said. “This is certainly the first effort by the Department of Public Safety, as well as the State Troopers to go through and produce a report that is this granular and detailed.”

McDaniel said the report is a public tool for policymakers and the community to better understand the scope of the issue in the state. So far, the Department of Public Safety is working through the Alaska State Troopers and with the Anchorage Police Department, but McDaniel said officials hope to expand their work by partnering with other police departments in the state.

The report, which DPS plans to publish quarterly, includes information from multiple law enforcement databases. McDaniel said one important piece is the circumstances of the missing individual. There are three categories: environmental, suspicious and non-suspicious. Environmental refers to people who go missing in the wilderness. Suspicious cases are those where law enforcement have reasonable belief that a crime is linked to the case, such as kidnapping, trafficking or murder. Non-suspicious cases are those where no crime is suspected.

Those are data points that Charlene Aqpik Apok, the executive director of the research nonprofit Data for Indigenous Justice, said she has been asking the state’s law enforcement to provide for years.

“It’s a step in the right direction. I think we have a long way to go in building trust in our community, especially on this issue,” she said. “Having improved data should also equate to improved services and improved relationships and improved response to the cases of missing folks here in Alaska.”

She said she’s happy to see the state publicly report new data fields because the numbers represent real experiences and people who are loved and missed by their families and communities.

Apok began tracking missing and murdered Indigenous people in 2018, she said, when the Alaska Federation of Natives wanted to read the names of loved ones at a rally and discovered that there was no list. She said families came forward with names and stories. Apok was then entrusted with the list. She formed Data for Indigenous Justice in 2020 and released a first Alaska-specific report the following year.

Apok said she hopes to see the state report more granular data about the race and ethnicity of missing people, since there are more than 200 tribes in the state. She said she would also like to see the person’s home city or village, since that can differ from where the report is made.

The state’s report is one of the key pieces of its response to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People movement, McDaniel said, but it isn’t the only piece. Since 2022, the Department of Public Safety has added four Missing and Murdered Indigenous People investigators to its staff. The agency has also updated its missing persons operations to include posting its data publicly to a federal database called NamUs within a month, “which was not a common practice for any agency in Alaska here until recently,” he said. “That was something that some of the community stakeholders were asking for.”

McDaniel said the agency is interested in feedback on the new report. He also stressed that Alaskans do not have to wait 24 hours to report a missing person. “The sooner that law enforcement knows that someone’s missing, the sooner we can begin activating resources to help find that person,” he said.


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Claire Stremple
Claire Stremple

Claire Stremple is a reporter based in Juneau, Alaska. She got her start in public radio, first at KHNS in Haines and then on the health and environment beat at KTOO in Juneau. Her focus for the Beacon is education and criminal and social justice.