KTVA: Cold Case Office in Alaska will investigate cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people

Anchorage is now home to one of seven cold case offices opening across the country that will be dedicated to investigating hundreds of cases of missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native people.

While the work has already begun, Alaska's congressional delegation, tribal leaders and public safety officials in Alaska gathered for a ceremony to formally announce the cold case office which will tackle the organization and prioritization of cold cases, assign and investigate those cases, prepare reports and develop missing person response guidelines and protocols.

Standing up the cold case offices is an initiative of the Operation Lady Justice, a task force on missing and murdered Indigenous people established under an executive order by President Donald Trump.

The office is funded by a line item in legislative appropriations that represents, for the first time ever, real dollars directed toward the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, according to Sen. Lisa Murkowski. The fiscal year 2020 budget provided $6.5 million for cold case investigations, equipment and training.

"Our institutions have brought us to a place where native people experience rates of homicide and have gone missing at alarming and unacceptable, awfully unacceptable rates," Murkowski said. "So we are here today to start building institutions that will help right the wrongs that so many native family members have shared with us over the years."

The state of Alaska ranks first in the nation with the highest rate of females murdered by males, and four in five American Indian and Alaska Native adults experience some form of violence in their lifetimes.

A report from UAA found that Alaska Native people make up 30 percent of all homicide victims from the last 40 years in Alaska, while Alaska Natives make up just 16 percent of the population.

"The opening of the Operation Lady Justice Anchorage office is not only a sign that we have moved beyond awareness to action, but it is a real and tangible step toward turning the tide on the backlog of cold cases in Alaska," Murkowski said.

The event, punctuated with Alaska Native song performances and the presentation of ceremonial keys to be displayed at the White House and in the Alaska Governor's Office, was attended by all three members of Alaska's congressional delegation.

"I came here 63 years ago, we didn't have this problem," Congressman Don Young declared, during his brief remarks. "That's something we have to think about. What have we done, what are we doing and how we can prevent it. I like the idea of finding those we lost, but I don't like the idea of losing those that we love."

While the statistics of missing and murdered Indigenous people often make the news, they are not news to Indigenous people, said Tami Truett Jerue, Executive Director of the Alaska Native Women's Resource Center.

"Unfortunately, violence is an oftentimes daily event in Indigenous peoples' lives," Jerue said. "And it's, the violence and rape and murder and trafficking has a significant part of our native experience. And since the first contact with European and Russian explorers and traders, unfortunately, that's a fact. It doesn't have to be a continued reality, but it's a fact. We know too many stories and experiences of Alaska Native women and girls that have faced victimization just because they're Indigenous. Too many of our relatives have suffered abuse and death because the government system that fails in their legal trust and moral responsibility to assist Indigenous nations in safeguarding the lives of women and children."

The cold case office in Alaska is a step toward a better reality, and one Tara Katuk Sweeney, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, said is the result of tireless efforts and collaboration by local, state and federal partners.

"This is hard work," Sweeney said, "but this is our heart work."

By:  Danielle Rivera
Source: KTVA

Related Issues: Alaska Natives & Rural Alaska