Federal commission hears from Alaskans on high rate of missing and murdered Indigenous people

Three women holding Alaska Native regalia,
Violet Sensmeier, Michelle Emmert, and Charlene Agpik prepare to place kuspuks and ribbon skirts on empty chairs to represent the missing and murdered Alaska Native people during the Not Invisible Act commission’s public hearing in Anchorage on April 25, 2023. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

Indigenous people in Alaska are murdered and go missing at higher rates than almost anywhere in the country. 

Vivian Korthuis, chief executive of Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents, said more than 300 Alaska Natives are on the missing and murdered registry.

“To me, that’s the same size as a village. A whole village. And it’s shocking to know that there’s that many people we’re missing,” she said. “Something needs to be done.”

Korthuis is a member of a panel created by Congress to address the tragedy. The Not Invisible Act Commission met in Anchorage this week to hear testimony from victims and from advocates working to prevent violence.

a panel
Not Invisible Act commissioners listen to panelists. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

They identified a range of problems, including a lack of services for vulnerable people and too little law enforcement in rural Alaska. Systemic racism and trauma were recurring themes.

Several advocates told the commission that it’s hard to make federal programs work in rural Alaska, especially for small tribes. Dana Diehl, director of wellness and prevention at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, said federal grants aren’t easily tailored to community needs

“Oftentimes, the scope of our funding is very limited and narrow. But from an Alaska Native perspective, we see things more holistically, and you can’t separate things like mental health, physical health and spiritual health,” she said.

Alex Cleghorn, legal director at the Alaska Native Justice Center, said inconsistent funding makes it hard for villages to provide public safety.

“We have tribes in Alaska that are literally having bingo to be able to hire a tribal police officer,” he said.

a woman in a red kuspuk and a man in a bolo tie sit on a panel.
Dr. Charlene Aqpik and Alex Cleghorn speak to commissioners. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

The commission invited family members of missing and murdered Indigenous people to testify during afternoon sessions that were closed to the media.

By October, the panel is supposed to produce recommendations on how the federal government can better prevent and respond to violence against Native Americans and Alaska Natives. 

Korthuis, during a break in the proceedings, said her motivation to serve on the commission is to address the inequity in infrastructure and resources that leave rural Alaskans less safe than other Americans.

“That’s what this is all about – providing those basic protections that every person in the United States and every person (on the road system) in Alaska takes for granted,” she said.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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