In Bristol Bay, family, friends and community members have not stopped thinking about Kelly Coopchiak. After the 25-year-old from Togiak went missing in October, search and rescue teams and the Alaska State Troopers spent two weeks looking for her. Eventually, Troopers stopped the active search for Coopchiak and stated they did not suspect foul play. People from her community criticized the Troopers’ actions on social media, calling for a closer investigation into her disappearance.
Coopchiak is one of dozens of missing people from the region. Nationwide, Indigenous people make up 3.5% of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), although they are only about 1% of the U.S. population, according to a 2023 Congressional Research Service report.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs indicates that case data has been missing from NamUs. A 2016 study by the National Crime Information Center found that of 5,712 reports of missing Indigenous women and girls, only 116 cases were logged in NamUs. Alaska ranks 4th nationwide in the number of missing and murdered Indigenous people cases by state, according to a 2018 Urban Indian Health Institute report.
Charlene Aqpik Apok is the executive director at Data for Indigenous Justice, a statewide organization that has documented missing and murdered Indigenous people for about five years.
“We know from our families and our communities that this has been happening for a really long time,” Apok said. “Our understanding is violence is not inherent from our Indigenous communities, and that is rooted in a history of [...] ongoing colonialism.”
Apok said victims’ families have often been the main – and sometimes the only – advocates for missing and murdered Alaska Native people, and that it can take years for families to know if anyone will be charged in these cases. That puts the burden of communication and advocacy on individuals, rather than an institution. Further, Apok said families must also contend with Troopers who mishandle investigations and meet relatives with skepticism when they provide context for a case.
Apok said that before 2018, no one institution had put together a complete statewide list of missing and murdered Indigenous person (MMIP) cases. That year, she said, families came forward to share their stories.
The testimonies helped inspire Data for Indigenous Justice. She said the data it has collected in the years since has helped to show the scope of these cases.
The Alaska Department of Public Safety followed suit and began to put more effort into tracking MMIP cases. In 2022, the department began assigning investigators to focus solely on cold cases for missing and murdered Indigenous people. There are now four.
This summer, the department published its first quarterly report with a categorized cause for each case. Most of the listed MMIP cases are marked as ‘environmental,’ defined as non-suspicious outdoor deaths or disappearances where human remains are not located.
But Apok said families still have to push to get updates on their case, and that needs to change.
“I think it should be really clear that law enforcement needs to be coordinating [with families],” she said. “Right now, the labor of that is falling on families who are grief-stricken and already trying to deal with their loved ones either being missing or murdered.”
Apok said Data for Indigenous Justice has called on law enforcement to give families regular updates on MMIP cases. She said the organization also wants to see better cultural training for law enforcement to improve communication in Native communities and for more tribal court funding.
Data for Indigenous Justice, Apok said, supports the push for federal-level change to how law enforcement reports these cases, including mandating that law enforcement enter the names of missing people into NamUs.
“It would need legislation and congressional support as it’s a federal initiative,” she said.
Apok recommends that in a missing-person event, families appoint one member as a single contact to keep track of all case information. She said that keeping a case open is important to its continued investigation. That means family or advocates need to frequently engage with law enforcement, with the opportunity to ask questions and have Troopers document all the information they provide.
In recent years, the federal government has also started to dedicate resources to address the number of missing and murdered Indigenous person cases. In 2021, the Department of Justice created a pilot program in Alaska to take on what it has called the “MMIP crisis.” It provided a framework through which participating communities could create response plans. The Curyung Tribe in Dillingham was one of three tribal communities that volunteered to participate.
Courtenay Carty, whose Yup’ik name is Paluqtaq, was the tribal administrator at the time and has served as a liaison between families, law enforcement, and the media for MMIP cases. She said the Curyung tribe was the first in Alaska to adopt a community action plan.
“Our tribe cares very much about working to understand the data and working with all of our community partners in order to begin addressing [the problem],” she said. “The plan was developed to be a living document to be revisited as necessary.”
Carty said the tribe, law enforcement, Dillingham Search and Rescue, KDLG Radio and regional organizations coordinated to build the local plan. It outlines how the community should respond in the wake of a missing or murdered person emergency. Ultimately, the hope is that it will prevent future MMIP cases by helping create a community with strong support systems.
Curyung’s community action plan also supports a holistic approach to healing, including culturally inclusive medical and behavioral health services. Carty said that the plan leaves the definition of culturally appropriate healing open so it can adapt to best suit a victim’s family.
“Whatever the culture is of the family to whom is being served by the plan and receiving response services, their cultural values need to be heard – not just respected, but incorporated into what that response looks like,” Carty said.
Curyung’s plan focuses on Dillingham, but Carty said that a community response plan needs to be created for all of Bristol Bay. She said organizations around Bristol Bay can fund a regional worker to serve as a point of contact in MMIP emergencies, and potentially partner with SAFE, a regional network of domestic abuse shelters, to provide support services to families.
In June 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a missing and murdered Indigenous people outreach program, which created five regional coordinators and six regional assistant U.S. attorney positions across the United States. A written statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Alaska said the role of the Alaska regional coordinator is to inform communities about available federal resources, assist with the development of community action plans and generate conversation about the procedures surrounding MMIP cases with relevant parties.
Carty said Alaska’s branch of the Department of Justice has facilitated regional talking circles in some areas, but as of November 2023, there has not been one in Bristol Bay. She said the region needs one.
Additionally, she said local law enforcement and other organizations within Dillingham need to better integrate into Curyung’s plan, so to address high turnover and the constant need for training.
“Now because of turnover at the tribe, and apparently…turnover at other agencies, this plan is sitting dusty on a shelf and our people are still missing,” she said.
Carty said that people can be uncomfortable talking to law enforcement, so a public event could build better relationships between law enforcement and community members.
“If we had more community dialogue, perhaps between our caretakers and peacekeepers and us people, that could improve things,” she said.
Carty added that the plan’s developers may need to regroup. “Maybe the team that developed this plan needs to call a meeting,” she said.
She also said she sees the opportunity for more preventative activities on violence against Indigenous people, like promoting events on healthy relationships.
It can be challenging not to become numb to the number of missing and murdered Indigenous people in Alaska, Data for Indigenous Justice’s director Apok said.
“We’re trying to deal with something huge and complex. We’ll also live facing it each and every day,” Apok said. “It is really hard for our families and our communities. And I know that we’re going to see it through. We are not going to not look for our people.”
If someone goes missing, law enforcement says you do not need to wait any amount of time to report them. Call 911 or the State Trooper line at 907-451-5100.
Find more information on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Tribal Community Response Plans, resources for training and educational material by contacting Alaska’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Coordinator Ingrid Cumberlidge at Ingrid.Cumberlidge@usdoj.gov or 907-306-0669.
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