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Native advocates celebrate passage of bill to address Alaska's MMIP crisis

A group sings on the steps of the Alaska Capitol in Juneau for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day on May 5, 2022.
Photo by Paige Sparks/KTOO
A group sings on the steps of the Alaska Capitol in Juneau for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day on May 5, 2022.

One of the bills that crossed the finish line in the final hours of the legislature is what advocates for Missing and Murdered Indigenous People call a major milestone.

The bill was launched by Sen. Donny Olson, an Inupiaq and a Democrat from Golovin, but it was Rep. C.J. McCormick who shepherded the bill in the House.

“I want to be sure that I convey this epidemic is impacting every region of the state. Urban. Rural. And in between,” said McCormick, a Democrat from Bethel, who told lawmakers Senate Bill 151will help address the crisis of missing and murdered Alaska Natives.

McCormick told lawmakers that the issue is personal to him and more than a list of unsolved cases.

“There’s individuals that I went to school with. Unfortunately, my staffer who helped work on this bill, has family members that are part of these lists as well,” McCormick said. “I’m sure that members of this body, who even have family members, that are part of this list.”

Alaska has the fourth highest rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the nation, and Anchorage is third highest among cities. The bill aims to reduce these numbers by requiring the Department of Public Safety to:

· Hire two permanent MMIP investigators to focus on unsolved cases.

· Offer police training that includes cultural education.

· Conduct a one-time needs assessment to identify ways to provide more resources for identifying and reporting MMIP cases within the state criminal justice system. DPS must include tribes and other Alaska Native organizations in the process.

· Report MMIP cases to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NAM-US) database, if a person has not been located within 60 days of the initial report.

· Work with a new nine-member commission to review unresolved MMIP cases statewide.

Charlene Apok, director of Data for Indigenous Justice.
Photo courtesy of Alaska Public Media.
Charlene Apok, director of Data for Indigenous Justice.

“For advocates and families, this is a huge moment for us,” says Charlene Apok, director of Data for Indigenous Justice.

Apok says it took years of effort to achieve these policies, and the passage of the bill is astounding, when you consider that only a few years ago, it was a struggle for advocates to get state leaders to meet with them to discuss the MMIP crisis.

But today, Apok says there’s a broad-based coalition of state lawmakers and other officials who helped to champion the bill.

She says she’s even more pleased to see that Alaska Natives gained their support by tapping into their traditional values to build relationships and using the power of storytelling to get their message across.

“And as we carried those stories, collected the data, and said it, over and over and over again, and then we have our collective voices, that’s the power of that,” Apok said, “a collective truth that cannot be denied.”

Apok says with strong relationships in place, the bill’s provisions will have a better chance of success, but there’s still a lot of work ahead to bring about lasting change.

The bill did not pass unanimously. Rep. David Eastman, a Wasilla Republican, cast the lone no vote. He questioned the need for cultural training and said he’s concerned the bill might place additional burdens on police.

Rhonda McBride has a long history of working in both television and radio in Alaska, going back to 1988, when she was news director at KYUK, the public radio and TV stations in Bethel, which broadcast in both the English and Yup’ik languages.