On Aug. 24, the state Department of Public Safety released a report on missing Indigenous people in Alaska, with statistics and names of those who have yet to be found. A week later, the nonprofit National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition did its own reporting on another pertinent issue — the government boarding schools across the U.S., including in Alaska, where American Indians and Alaska Native children were sent in an attempt to attempt to assimilate them into Western culture. The two reports are important steps forward to provide transparency on issues that have caused deep pain and harm within Alaska’s Native communities.
The Alaska Missing Indigenous Persons Report, according to the Department of Public Safety, is just the first in a series of quarterly reports that will provide an ongoing accounting of the issue, which has gained a substantial spotlight in recent years due to the tireless efforts of advocates within the Native community. The report is well worth a read, and underscores the reality that a surprising number of people in Alaska (437, from April-June of this year) go missing over the course of three months — and a disproportionate percentage (45.5%) are American Indian, Alaska Native or of unknown race. Fortunately, most have subsequently been found, though 25 of the 199 Indigenous people reported missing in those three months have not.
The report also named 279 Indigenous people who form the state’s current Missing Indigenous Persons list, some of whom were last seen more than 60 years ago. The names span tribes, communities and generations, a sobering reminder of just how long our state has been dealing with this issue, and also of how fresh the wounds remain for those still seeking answers and closure after the disappearance of a close friend or family member. The increased focus on missing Indigenous people by the Department of Public Safety under Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration has been commendable; we hope the department will continue to expand the sharing of information about Alaska’s missing. And while the report is a very good step forward on the issue, it should be followed by other steps that progress from an accounting of the issue to a full-focus initiative to mitigate and combat it.
The effort by both nonprofit groups and the federal government to catalog and make public information on boarding schools and their legacy is similarly welcome and long overdue. Here in Alaska, there were nearly two dozen such schools, run by religious organizations, where children were removed from their parents and in some cases suffered unjustifiable mistreatment. Outside Alaska, nearly 500 of the schools have so far been identified. In addition to the poor conditions and abuse suffered by Indigenous students, the schools’ explicit purpose — a process of forced assimilation — was tremendously harmful. As with the listing of missing Indigenous people, a thorough accounting of the schools and what happened there is essential for us to understand how that dark past echoes in the present, and to resolve not to allow any of it to be repeated.
There’s a saying in business: “What gets measured gets managed.” It’s a succinct way to express the truth that we can’t tackle problems until we understand their scope, and Alaska and the U.S. have made strides to do so on the issues of missing Indigenous people and the legacy of boarding schools. It’s incumbent on all of us to press our leaders to continue their focus on these issues, so that true progress can be made toward righting past harms and injustices.