‘No more stolen relatives’: Nome marks MMIP Awareness Day
Nome recognized National Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day last week. A group convened on Friday afternoon to remember and demand justice for lost relatives whose deaths and disappearances remain unsolved.
In their speeches and in their march through town, the participants sent a clear message: The hurt from these cases has not diminished, though some are now decades old, and despite more attention to the crisis of Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons, MMIP for short, many Alaska Natives still feel they can’t rely on law enforcement and other institutions for help.
Simply quantifying the scale of the crisis is a challenge because of gaps in data collection, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates that approximately 4,200 MMIP cases are unsolved across the country. Nome and its surrounding villages have at least 24 cases, according to estimates from Kawerak. With such small, tight-knit communities, virtually everyone has a connection to someone who was lost.
‘We are all affected’
Arms shot up when Kirsten Timbers, president of the Village of Solomon, asked the group gathered at the Nome Rec Center to raise a hand if they lost relatives, friends and community members to the MMIP crisis. Several got on stage to share stories of their loved ones. Timbers began with a remembrance of her aunt Ruth Tootkaylok.
“She was like a sister to me and the coolest person,” Timbers said. “She introduced me to Madonna and Bon Jovi. She let me play with makeup and perfume. She wore a jean jacket and had holes in her acid wash jeans. She took me on bike rides, and we played with my dolls and cuddled at night.”
Tootkaylok moved to Anchorage, and Timbers recalled the night her family received a devastating phone call. Her aunt had been found dead, and her death was ruled a suicide by shotgun. Timbers recalled how her father argued with the police that this was impossible. They said they couldn’t investigate further because the scene was already cleared.
“My father was an attorney his entire career. My mother was a Native rights advocate. Both were powerless to the death of their sister,” Timbers said. “I was nine-years-old, and my life was forever changed. The bullet of injustice from our legal system struck me right through the heart. And because her death is [part of] a systematic problem that’s rooted in oppression and traumas from discriminatory laws, we are all affected.”
“Let it be known that if any of us go missing, we will be there in solidarity, to pressure our legal system, to search, to question, to pressure the media to accurately represent us and not allow alcohol or risky behaviors or whatever to minimize who we are as people,” Timbers said.
‘I couldn’t believe that nobody cared’
Etta Tall remembered her mother, Justina Kunayak, who went missing in November 1990, at age 45. Kunayak was passing through Nome after a doctor’s appointment in Anchorage. She never came back home to Little Diomede and was last seen on Front Street wearing a parka with a ruff. Tall said her family had no support to look for her mother. They went all over Nome showing pictures of her mother in her parka, but they had no help from Nome Police Department, she said.
“One day the police stopped me and my sister and asked us what we’re doing,” Tall said. “We said we’re looking for our mom. She never came home and it’s been a week.”
She said the police took her mom’s picture and said they would help, but when the FBI came, they didn’t find any photo in the NPD file.
“I couldn’t believe that nobody cared,” Tall said.
She told the audience how terrible it was to go back home without her mom being there and how her father would wake up crying. “It was so painful to go through,” she said. More than 30 years later, Tall still hopes for answers.
“I never lost hope that someday she will be found,” Tall said. “I pray someday that a person will confess or say something.”
‘They deserved to live’
Billi Jean Miller took the stage to honor her twin sister, Mingnuna Bobbi Jean Miller, who was killed by her boyfriend in 2018 at age 28.
“She was so intelligent and so beautiful and so culturally strong,” Miller said.
When her twin was found dead in a Palmer motel room, she was naked, heavily bruised and had no belongings with her.
“She went to the Palmer police and said that she wanted to go home, and she asked for help,” Miller said. “Instead, they called her crazy and turned her away because he knew she was on medication, and she died three days later.”
She said people like her sister have been failed by authorities for generations.
“My question to local, state and federal law enforcement is, what does accountability mean to you?” Miller said. “I would really like to know what accountability means. I think that’s such a broad word, and when you think of these people that are murdered, they matter. They were somebody’s person. They were so loved. They deserved to live.”
‘Where was our help?’
Miller also spoke about her cousin and friend, Florence Okpealuk, a 33-year-old mother who was last seen leaving a tent on West Beach in Nome in late August 2020. Miller went to high school with Okpealuk in Teller and they played basketball together. She remembered that they would have heart-to-heart talks after the games and Okpealuk would braid her hair. A community search began shortly after Okpealuk went missing, but Miller described a slow and dismissive response from the City of Nome and law enforcement.
“I remember on the second day that she went missing, I called the City of Nome, and I said, is there a strategized search effort for Florence Okpealuk? And I was laughed at,” Miller said. “Nome Volunteer Fire Department/Search and Rescue didn’t go out until day four because it was moose hunting season. Nome Police Department didn’t go out until day six.”
Miller said that she has feared for her own safety here in Nome. She described an upsetting phone call she said she had with an NPD officer amid the search effort on West Beach.
“The police officer had told us, we’re more likely to arrest you for harassing these men than we are to arrest them, why would I be out here helping your people when I have better things to do in town,” Miller said. “For me, that was a very scary thing to hear, because I’m a Native woman, and it told me that if I go missing, Nome Police Department is not going to value my life.”
Several of Okpealuk’s family members were present for Friday’s event in Nome. Her sister, Blaire Okpealuk, also spoke of the insufficient response from authorities.
“Where was our help? Where?” Okpealuk said. “If you knew Flo, she would take the shirt off her back for you. She loved you with her whole heart…She was important. She mattered…Our family wants to know what happened to her.”
Timbers put a question to the audience: “Do you feel safer in Nome now than you did before Flo went missing? Do you feel that Nome Police Department is taking a different approach in ensuring that our community members, our Indigenous brothers and sisters are more safe than they were?”
No one raised a hand.
“That’s really hard, because I think you know that the responsibility lies squarely on our shoulders to make a difference and to hold systems accountable,” Timbers said.
When Sigvanna (Meghan) Topkok addressed the group, she praised the vulnerability and strength of those who shared their stories.
“We have to keep those memories alive, we have to keep their faces in our spaces, we have to remember their names,” Topkok said. “They’re our loved ones, and at the end of the day, we don’t get to go home and forget about it. We get to go home and see the empty seats or dinner table where they should be sitting with us and their children, their mothers, their fathers, their siblings. And it’s so hard to see how much hurt we have in our region that we have in our communities.”
Finding ways forward
These painful stories were shared in front of an audience that included several state and federal officials, such as Alaska’s Lieutenant Governor Nancy Dahlstrom, Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney E. Bryan Wilson, Ingrid Cumberlidge, the MMIP coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Alaska, Alaska Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jim Cockrell and Lonny Piscoya, the former Alaska State Trooper and now head of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative for the state’s Department of Public Safety.
“I think speaking the truth, and just being very open and honest about what’s happening is the only way that we’re going to resolve some of these problems,” Dahlstrom told the audience. “I want you to know that the governor and I are committed to working with all the Alaska Native tribes to do what we can to continue to stop these horrible crimes.”
In his remarks, Wilson said the U.S. Department of Justice hopes to address both past and future pain in these types of cases. He said his office would also be working to evaluate unsolved cases for investigators to prioritize. Addressing past pain also requires compiling accurate data on old cases, which is proving to be a difficult and frustrating process, he said.
While Indigenous people in the U.S. experience violence at disproportionately high rates, gaps in the collection of data on MMIP is another form of inequality. For example, the National Crime Information Center found that, as of 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, but the U.S. Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database had only logged 116 of those cases, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Regarding future cases, Wilson mentioned that Savanna’s Act, which was passed in 2020, is intended to improve tribal access to certain federal crime information databases. It also requires standardized guidelines for law enforcement to mount a coordinated response to MMIP cases. Those guidelines were published in August 2022.
“I think there’s a tremendous amount of cooperation already in the state, and I think that’s really going to help us going forward,” Wilson said.
He also noted that the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA) of 2022 has expanded the power of tribes in Alaska to create their own criminal justice system.
Topkok, who is a staff attorney for Kawerak, told the group that she was proud that at least four tribes in the region have utilized their tribal courts to issue domestic violence protective orders.
“One thing that I feel very strongly about is, our communities know how to take care of each other,” Topkok said. “We’ve done it for thousands of years. We’ve always looked after our people. We’ve always looked after our families. And tribal courts, I think, are a way that we can try to bring justice and try to bring protection to those in our communities who are the most vulnerable.”
In addition to ramping up its tribal court capacity, Kawerak has also expanded its VPSO recruitment efforts and built new public safety buildings in villages, said the organization’s President Melanie Bahnke. Kawerak has expanded services to children who have been sexually or physically abused through the Child Advocacy Center. Bahnke said there is more work to do but she did not want to condemn government agencies for what happened previously.
“I think we’ve made that statement through our board resolutions at work,” Bahnke said. “We’ve held systems accountable when they have fallen short. And at this point in time, I view Kawerak as a partner with our state and federal agencies and local law enforcement. So going forward, we will continue to work towards fully functioning tribal courts with an emphasis on healing and restorative justice.”
Looking ahead to future challenges, Bahnke said that the community needs to be “proactive and diligent” in the face of large construction projects, like the planned expansion of the Port of Nome. She noted that MMIP numbers tend to increase during large development projects.
“I think events like this where we acknowledge the truth of what has happened—and prepare ourselves so that we are diligent as we see projects on the horizon— help us know that we’re not alone in this,” Bahnke said.
Marching and music
Shortly after 6 p.m. that evening, a larger group, including many young women and girls, met at City Hall for a march through Nome wearing red and carrying signs with messages like “Native Lives Matter.” Some had a red handprint painted over their faces. An ambulance escort led the way as they walked up Bering Street and turned down Greg Kruschek Ave. Chants of “No more stolen sisters!” and “No more stolen relatives!” got louder as the group approached the Public Safety Building. In front of the building, they formed a circle and observed a moment of silence. They regrouped at the Rec Center for a potluck and a performance by Anchorage-based singer-songwriter Witty Youngman.
Deilah Johnson, of the Village of Solomon, who helped coordinate the event, said the organizers asked Youngman to join, not only because of her talents but because she has a song about the MMIP crisis, too. “We understand that song and dance can also be healing,” Johnson said.
Youngman, who was raised in Arizona, is a member of the Fort Peck Dakota tribe and a King Island Inupiat descendant. She performed several original songs, including “Forget-Her-Not,” which she released on MMIP Awareness Day in 2022. She said the song was inspired by a friend who survived an abusive relationship with a public figure.
“They had been told that nobody was going to believe them, that they were better off dead, that nobody was going to miss them,” Youngman told the Nugget before her performance. She said she hopes her song can touch people who might be going through something similar and who might be affected by the MMIP crisis.
“If this song gives them any little bit of comfort, just knowing that they’re not alone, I hope it helps in that little way toward healing,” Youngman said.