Rural Alaska

Kotzebue residents remember missing and murdered Indigenous people with walk

KOTZEBUE — Carrying red roses and wearing masks with red handprints, women and children walked along the Kotzebue Sound shore Sunday to remember relatives and friends who were murdered or have been missing.

The walk coincided with Missing or Murdered Indigenous People Awareness Day events nationwide. Shylena Lie, manager at Maniilaq Family Crisis Center, who organized the walk, said the event was intended to help Kotzebue residents support each other and process their pain.

Grace Norton joined the walk lifting a picture of her niece, Ashley Johnson-Barr, a 10-year-old who was murdered in Kotzebue in 2018. Her sister Mona Norton walked by her side.

“It’s a healing process,” Mona Norton said. “With my niece, I still have a lot of rage in my veins. So it’s good for me to come out.”

On Sunday, the procession of about 20 people gathered at the northern end of Shore Avenue and walked toward the Nullaġvik Hotel. Lie read the names of several missing or murdered people at the conclusion of the walk as participants stood in a circle. The organization is actively gathering data about other local cases.

“While our masks say, ‘No more stolen sisters,’ we also do not want more stolen brothers,” Lie said. “We have not forgotten about our family and friends.”

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Phyllis Norman, whose cousin was killed just a couple of houses away from where she lives, said she hopes events like this will help other women to speak up about the violence they go through and encourage residents to watch out for each other.

“We want justice and answers for everybody,” she said. “Hopefully it wakes people’s eyes up to, you know, that we care.”

Linda Mauer said, “Even though we are not related to that person, we feel the pain.”

Many of the women participating walked with their children.

“It’s important for them so they understand what’s going on in our community and throughout the world,” Norton said.

Participants held a moment of silence for their missing and murdered loved ones, and prayed. Lie also announced that Kotzebue’s Family Crisis Center recently received a grant from the federal Office for Victims of Crime to establish a new position — missing and murdered Indigenous persons coordinator — to work closely with the families in the region, as well as the state Department of Public Safety.

“I hope that it brings resources to the families that are currently having a hard time getting any information,” Lie said. “I am not saying we were to take on all the burden, but we hope to lighten it.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.