Striving to make Indigenous women, girls feel safe in Alaska

Organizers of the Vigil and Heartbeat of the Drums for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls shown here left to right: Ruth Miller, Dena’ina Athabascan, Communications Organizer, Native Movement; Rochelle Adams, Athabascan, Indigenous Engagement Coordinator, Native Peoples Action; Kendra Kloster, Tlingit, Executive Director, Native Peoples Action; Charlene Akpik Apok, Inupiaq, Gender Justice and Healing Coordinator, Native Movement; Kelsey Wallace, Yup'ik, Communications Director, Native Peoples Action; and (not pictured), Emily Edenshaw, Executive Director, Alaska Native Heritage Center. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)

Joaqlin Estus

'We face total negligence… when it comes to prosecuting attackers or murderers of our women'

As the names of more than 200 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls were read, people listened in silence, many staring into space or at the carpeted floor of the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. A few quietly wiped away tears. Healers burned braids of sweet grass and bunches of sage, waving the smoke onto the half-dozen men reading the names.

Charlene Akpik Apok, Inupiaq, director of gender justice and healing for the nonprofit community advocacy and training organization Native Movement, was emcee of the Vigil and Heartbeat of the Drums for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. She told the audience of more than a hundred people she had asked men to read the names to remember and honor allies in the fight against the loss of Indigenous women.

One of the men, Torin Jacobs, Yup’ik, said he remembers when a neighbor in Bethel, 17-year-old Stella Evon, went missing in the 1990s. Her case remains unsolved. “When this happens it [hurts] all of us, whether we're men or a woman or not even Native, because we're talking about humans. It's just when it's closer to home, when it is part of your Native community, and whatever your community in general, it impacts you a lot more,” Jacobs said.

Ruth Miller, Dena’ina Athabascan, is a communications organizer for Native Movement. She said, “Here in Alaska and the United States and across the world, our Indigenous women are the demographic that suffers the most from gendered violence with the most disgusting, limited lack of political policy that addresses this issue with the lack of legal recourse.

“We face total negligence by police and federal forces when it comes to prosecuting attackers or murderers of our women,” Miller said. “So we are gathering here today as a healing process to say that we remember our stolen sisters and we will continue fighting, doing everything that we can to make sure that their legacy in our communities is remembered, to make sure that when I as an Indigenous woman walk down the street, I will not become another part of this deadly statistic.”

Instructors teach how to make earrings with a hand shape symbolizing missing and murdered women and girls being silenced. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)
Instructors teach how to make earrings with a hand shape symbolizing missing and murdered women and girls being silenced. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)
People joined the Yup'ik Acilquq Dance Group as it performed while the audience had lunch.
People joined the Yup'ik Acilquq Dance Group performing while the audience had lunch.(Photo by Joaqlin Estus)

Another organization co-hosting the event, Native Peoples Action, is a grassroots organization that reaches out to organizations, tribal organizations, communities and individuals to make systems changes to protect and uplift Indigenous people.

Native Peoples Action director Kendra Kloster, Tlingit, said being a mother strengthens her resolve to end the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

“I’m here because I don’t want my daughter growing going up in fear or to really look at these statistics and our stolen sisters and saying that she has a possibility of being one of being one of those women. No. We are actually going to remember our sisters. We're going to uplift them. We're going to bring them justice,” Kloster said.

“On top of that, we're going to make system changes so everyone's going to feel safe,” Kloster said. “So this is an important issue to me and to every Indigenous person because we don't want to have this same issues going forward. We want to be here to take care of that, and I want to make sure my daughter and every child is going to be feeling safe.”

The day’s vigil and healing ceremony started with a luncheon of moose, caribou and fish soups; Sailor Boy crackers, butter, jam and berries. After the reading of names, Southcentral Foundation counselors led five small-group healing circles. Teachers gave a class on how to use painting in healing. Another group learned how to make beaded earrings showing a hand, a symbol of the voices of women being silenced.

The groups reconvened for the Heartbeat of the Drums ceremony, in which a dozen people with hand drums lead the audience in the Women’s Warrior song by Martina Pierre of the Lilwat Nation of British Columbia, Canada.

Data is incomplete but a report by the Urban Indian Health Institute of the Seattle Health Board shows Alaska is fourth in the nation for the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Anchorage is third in the nation, disproportionately high considering its size. First on the list is Seattle, with 45 missing or murdered Indigenous women or girls, and a population of 725,000. Albuquerque is second with 37 missing or murdered Indigenous women or girls with a population of 559,000. Anchorage has 31 missing or murdered Indigenous women or girls, and a population of 294,000.

Still, Jacobs echoed the hopes of many when he ended his comments on the day’s events on an optimistic note, “The work's not done, but one day we won't have this as an issue.”

Shown here, some of the drummers who led the audience in singing the Women's Warrier song by Martina Pierre of the Lilwat Nation of British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)
Shown here, some of the drummers who led the audience in singing the Women's Warrier song by Martina Pierre of the Lilwat Nation of British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)

Data on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls lacking

When asked the number of names that were read, Apok, said, “More than 200. But the list is incomplete.”

And, indeed, after conducting a survey and research of 71 urban cities to find out more about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the Urban Urban Indian Health Institute, a division of the Seattle Indian Health Board concluded:

The lack of good data and the resulting lack of understanding about the violence perpetrated against urban American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls is appalling and adds to the historical and ongoing trauma American Indian and Alaska Native people have experienced for generations. But the resilience of American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls has sustained our communities for generation after generation. As the life bearers of our communities, they have been integral to holding strong our culture and traditional practices. Bringing to light the stories of these women through data is an integral part of moving toward meaningful change that ends this epidemic of violence. UIHI is taking huge steps to decolonize data by reclaiming the Indigenous values of data collection, analysis, and research, for Indigenous people, by Indigenous people. Our lives depend on it.

The emcee noted that the Women’s Warrior song used in the Heartbeat of the Drums ceremony has been widely used at other gatherings honoring MMIWG:

Here’s a link to the National Urban Indian Health Institute’s report “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls: A Snapshot of Data from 71 Urban Cities in the United States”

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent based in Anchorage, Alaska. Follow her on Twitter: @estus_m. Email her at: jestus@indiancountrytoday.com.

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