The first unit comprised entirely of investigators and law enforcement officials dedicated to working cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people in Anchorage, Alaska got to work this week in what advocates are calling a monumental step in shining a light on oft-overlooked cases. The office, which is the sixth in the nation of its kind, will also develop missing person response guidelines, and was opened by Operation Lady Justice, the task force established to address missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Earlier this week, state, federal, and tribal leaders gathered at the Alaska Native Heritage Center to commemorate the opening. During the ceremony held to open the office, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Katuk Sweeney, spoke with authority. "I'm just going to put it in very simple terms: Justice for victims and resolution and closure for families," she said.
Sweeney spoke about "justice to Native American violent crimes and their victims."
"I think as an Alaskan Native woman, it's extremely humbling to be able to work on an initiative that has impacted our community at levels beyond I would say the national level," she said.
According to the FBI's National Crime Information Center, there are more than 1,500 unsolved cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women. Alaska has about 300 cases.
"That number leads the nation," Sweeney said.
Alaska is also among the states with the highest violence rates against women, according to the Anchorage Daily News.
Aaron Leggett, the president and chair of the Native Village of Eklutha, called the opening of the office a "monumental moment" as a way of working toward decreasing the rates of missing and murdered indigenous people, reported by KTUU News.
"I think that what we're doing here today is an important step towards reconciliation and healing to identify the marginalization that many indigenous people have faced over the last 250 years as a part of our nation," Leggett said at the ceremony.
In November 2019, President Donald Trump signed the executive order to establish cold cases offices around the country, as part of Operation Lady Justice. The goal of the task force is to decrease the rates of murdered and missing Indigenous people.
In July, the first cold case office opened in Bloomington, Minnesota. There are currently six cold case offices, located in Rapid City, South Dakota; Billings, Montana. and Albuquerque, New Mexico The seventh office is scheduled to open in Nashville, Tennessee next month.
At a news conference announcing the opening, Greg Razo, vice-chair of the Alaska Native Justice Center, said that historically the federal justice presence in Alaska has been intermittent and inconsistent, and Alaska has failed to meet the challenge of public safety, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
"Opening the office is a great first step," Razo said. "And we stand ready to partner with all of you as we work to reverse the disproportionately that has put so many of our Alaska Native people, families, and children at risk."
Emily Edenshaw, a Yup'ik woman and executive director of the Alaska Native Heritage Center, said "sobering statistics" about violence against indigenous women specifically are likely under-reported.
"More than a statistic, these are our mothers, these are our daughters. These are our granddaughters; our grandmothers, sisters, relatives, and friends," Edenshaw said. "This is hard work, but this is our heart work."
The office will be staffed with law enforcement officers and special agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services.