In a first-of-its-kind effort to publicly release data on missing Alaska Native and American Indian people, a new state database reveals the circumstances surrounding the disappearances, Anchorage Daily News reports. The Missing Indigenous Persons Report, released last week, includes whether police believe the disappearance was related to criminal activity. Charlene Aqpik Apok, executive director of Data for Indigenous Justice, praised the Department of Public Safety for taking action after years of advocacy for better tracking of disappearances. Her organization independently created a database of missing and murdered Indigenous people in 2021. “This report was definitely a step in the right direction,” Apok said. Since the data only represents missing persons cases handled by the Anchorage Police Department or Alaska State Troopers, the data is not a complete accounting of missing Indigenous people. In the future, however, the department hopes to get other law enforcement agencies to contribute data for quarterly updates, said Austin McDaniel, a Department of Public Safety spokesperson.
Analysts with the Department of Public Safety and Anchorage Police Department reviewed 280 cases and classified each as “environmental,” “non-suspicious,” “suspicious” or “unknown,” McDaniel said. Environmental cases mean a person is believed to have died or disappeared in the wilderness as the result of a plane crash, boat sinking, or other outdoor accident but their remains were never found. Of the 280 total cases, 215 were ruled environmental, 30 not suspicious, 17 unknown, and 18 suspicious. According to Apok, the information on the circumstances of disappearances is useful and will present a clearer picture to law enforcement of the overall situation. She also said it is validating for families to see what they have long suspected about their loved ones' disappearance: “For a very long time we’ve been hearing from families, this is what happened and it hasn’t been recognized,” she said. “Going missing while going on a hike or hunting is very different than someone being abducted,” Apok said. “We really wanted to clarify those circumstances.”