Arctic Sounder: Alaska ranks fourth for missing and murdered indigenous women

As Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) noted on the Senate floor last year, Canada has invested more than $42 million in investigating the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls from its so-called Highway of Tears in British Columbia.

"How much have we invested here?" she asked during a press conference on Nov. 14.

"About zero," she said, looking around the room. "About zero is what we're told. We have more than a duty to act on this."

Murkowski recently co-sponsored legislation calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to improve the way it handles data on missing and murdered indigenous women. Called Savanna's Act, it's named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, of Fargo and the Spirit Lake Nation, who was killed in 2017 at the age of 22.

"We need to be doing more. We need to not only work with law enforcement at all levels to ensure that we have accurate data, we've also got to resource this. We have to put the money toward it," said Murkowski.

Coinciding with her move in the legislature, the Washington-based Urban Indian Health Institute released a report outlining gaps in data and data reporting from 71 cities across the country on these missing and murdered women.

The report delves into the difficulties of filing Freedom of Information Act Requests to gather data, along with the associated costs, which can make data collection prohibitive for underfunded news outlets, non-profits and other groups. It also gives an overview of news coverage of the issue, which it concludes has had serious gaps and been riddled with issues of language and framing.

It also presents statistics that paint a stark picture of Murkowski's home state, which she says, is unfortunately not a surprise.

"One of the frustrations we have come to realize when it comes to so many of our Native peoples, is we simply don't have a grasp of the extent of the problem that we're dealing with. And when we're talking about missing and murdered indigenous women, part of the problem is just knowing how big it is," she said.

Based on the numbers collected by the institute for this study — which they openly acknowledge likely under-represent the actual number of cases — Alaska ranks fourth-highest in the country with a reported total of 52 cases (likely higher).

It's just behind Arizona (54), Washington (71) and New Mexico (78).

Anchorage is third highest for cities with a reported total of 31 cases. It's behind Albuquerque (37) and Seattle (45).

"It's a compelling report," Murkowski said, speaking to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. "I think it will just be the opener in understanding what we're dealing with."

Following a FOIA request to the Barrow Police Department, the report's authors listed one case of a missing or murdered Native woman or girl from the North Slope's hub community. That girl was Nancy Brower, who was raped and murdered in 2002 at the age of 15. Members of the local community have disputed that number, with some believing at least one old cold case from the region belongs on that list, though it hasn't been deemed a homicide.

The report outlines the issues with deciding which cases should be counted. For example, Seattle's police department classified people by different racial descriptors from the 1960s through the 1980s, leading to confusion about abbreviations used in later reports, which were not clearly explained when questioned by the institute, they noted. There were also issues with confusion over tribal association and a number of cases around the country which simply weren't logged as belonging in this category.

The report cites 2016 stats from the National Crime Information Center which reports that in that year, there were 5,712 reports of missing Alaska Native and American Indian women. However, the federal missing persons database from the U.S. Department of Justice only lists 116, which is just a fraction of the center's total.

Despite the discrepancy there, the numbers are still sobering.

According to the report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have ranked murder as the third most prevalent cause of death for Native women in the country.

"We have a great deal of work to do," Murkowski said.

Speaking to the committee, and before to the press, Murkowski wore a lavender blazer and a purple-patterned shirt. Her voice cracked as she reminded listeners that these numbers are more than numbers — they represent people. She wore purple to remember Ashley Johnson-Barr, the 10-year-old girl from Kotzebue who was raped and murdered in September.

"The entire community was involved in her search," Murkowski said. "You don't ever forget these stories. You don't ever forget these beautiful 10-year old children ... or Savanna."

By:  Shady Grove Oliver
Source: Arctic Sounder