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Anchorage gathering urges policy changes, better public safety to protect Native women

The statistics tracking the number of Native women who have disappeared in the U.S. are tough.

And Alaska, with its small population, has the fourth largest number of missing or murdered Native women. Anchorage has the third highest number of all the cities surveyed in a report from the Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute.

A group gathered Saturday at the Alaska Native Heritage Center to begin an effort to heal. The gathering, which used drums, song, dance, counseling, prayers, smudge, and promises to go forward and fight for policy changes and better public safety to protect Native women.

Drumming dominated the afternoon. The drum named after the Elder Uncle Ray Smith was the largest, accommodating many drummers, but it was not the only one at the Alaska Native Heritage Center this weekend. There were traditional hand-held drums from Native cultures all over the state along with dancers and singers. At one point the drummers all joined forces, surrounding the group to form a drum heartbeat that turned the entire building into a throbbing instrument.

The gathering was organized by several Native non-profits. At the center of it was a list: five pages long with 191 names of Native women who have gone missing or been killed; it is nowhere near complete and is growing. One of the organizers was talking to her adoptive mother just a month ago when she found another missing Native woman: a member of her own family.

"Uppa’s sister came here (to Anchorage) in the 1950s. She had a hospital appointment or something like that. She came from the village of Tuluksak. Her name was Fonnie Wise, and no one ever heard from her again,” said the organizer.

At the same time that people gathered to remember the names of the missing, there was a search in Chevak for another missing Native woman: Sarah Nicolas.

“The crisis of murdered and missing indigenous women has been ongoing since colonization,” said Kelsey Ciungun Wallace with Native People’s Action, one of the sponsors of the event designed to help Native communities heal and move forward.

Speaking from the stage she said, “These girls and these women are more than just a statistic.”

She asked media not to record the ceremony naming the names of the women lost and missing. Several women read names of sisters, aunts, grandmothers, daughters, friends, and neighbors. Some cried as they read. There was a healer there, wiping away the pain and taking it into herself. She in turn was consoled, and the pain wiped from her body.

The list included several Jane Does, women whom authorities could not name that included a 14-year-old, a 13-year-old, and a seven-year-old. These were Native girls who were not yet women when they died without their names. For some cultures, the name holds the soul.

An Anchorage police officer also took the stage to talk about how to be safe and avoid becoming another name on the list of missing and murdered Native women.

“It drives my wife nuts,” said Officer Gabriel Brown. “If I go to a grocery store, I’m so bad that I will not stand with my back towards the aisle where someone can walk behind me.”

Brown, who has spent his entire career in Anchorage, says that there is hardly a day when there is not a report of a missing person; most are Native women.

“The situation surrounding it is staggering to even think about,” Brown said.

Brown says that most people reported as missing are found, but there are many unsolved open cases.

All those attending Saturday’s gathering agreed that protecting Native women requires a multi-faceted approach. It needs everything from better data for tracking of the problem to fundamental cultural changes and better social services, education, and improved public safety in both rural Alaska and its cities.

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