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Decolonizing Data for Missing and Murdered Indigenous People: Part 2

This is the second installment of our series on MMIP. To read part 1, go here.

We know this is a problem, we just don’t have accurate numbers to show the problem.

Before my conversation with Aqpik, I didn’t understand how women can go missing from their families, communities, and lives and also go missing in data. In my mind data was all the same. It was a very defined process, with a specific outcome, that was designed to provide accurate information. However, after working in this field of advocacy, understanding policy, and research I quickly learned that was not the case.

Photo from 2021 MMIP Conference on Prince of Wales Island. Photo credit: Tiana Teter

When addressing systemic issues and social injustices towards Indigenous people we often hear, “We know this is a problem, we just don’t have accurate numbers to show the problem” or we hear, “These are the numbers we have, but we also know they are not accurate, and the numbers are much higher.”


This is where my interest in statistics and research started. As I expressed this to Aqpik, she stated “Data is a powerful language that we can use, to come together we acknowledge and work on things together. There are so many huge cultural differences, we acknowledge that, but data can be that shared language. Because that data is so lacking, we don’t have a full grasp of the issue of MMIP. And how are we supposed to work on solutions, or address these injustices without that?”


Through my conversation and time spent with Aqpik, I learned that our Indigenous relatives that go missing from their families and communities can also go missing from data in more ways than one.


Nearly Half of Alaska Native People Identify With More Than One Ethnicity Group

One way this happens is the correct race and ethnicity box on reports is not being checked by law enforcement. The standard four-box ethnicity options are White, Black, Asian and Indian and are still being used by law enforcement in Alaska today. Other times, there is an option for “other” if people have mixed heritage. However, that “other” category is never captured or reanalyzed.


The Data for Indigenous Justice (DIJ) report states, “Nearly half of American Indian and Alaska Native people identify with more than one race/ethnicity group. The collapsing of this data point is problematic in that Alaska Native/American Indian people become invisible in data sets - The ‘Other box’ is used in multiple scenarios. For example, if race and ethnicity are not asked at the incident, it may be listed as ‘Other’. When authors of the DIJ report spoke to law enforcement about when ‘Other’ is used in reporting, it was noted that in cases where officers believe they may be accused of racial profiling, they may not ask race and ethnicity, instead selecting ‘Other’. Another scenario is when people report multiple race/ethnicities, that data is often collapsed into the ‘Other’ box too."


. . .the impacts are great where there is already so much injustice.

So, we have Indigenous relatives that are placed in the “other” box, when they go missing and that data is never captured. Or, we have Indigenous relatives that become miscategorized in data. Aqpik states, “these are defaults of a western data system that often misses Indigenous folks, so we go missing in the data when unfortunately we go missing in real life.”


An example given by Aqpik, is an indigenous person who recently went missing or was murdered, and they were categorized as “white” by assumption, or by the default of a western data system. The impacts of this are huge. This means cases aren’t being investigated, we aren’t able to show who is missing and from where, and that we are being disproportionally impacted.


Aqpik states, “There’s so much to that one box. This is one example of many, of how we go missing in data through insufficient systems, and the impacts are great where there is already so much injustice."


Another example of where we see these misclassifications in data affecting MMIP is when cases are classified as a suicide, even when the family doesn’t agree and says it wasn’t a suicide. There might be parts of the case that were not considered, or written down at the right time, whatever the reason is, the families’ truths are not being taken into consideration or respected. In Alaska, we already have such high suicide rates among Alaska Native people, and when looking at this in another way we also see a pattern of law enforcement classifying murders as suicide over and over again. The data continues to be missed, and indigenous people continue to be disproportionally affected by western systems not meant to serve Indigenous populations.


This is where Data for Indigenous justice begins to differentiate from western data systems, and how they are actively decolonizing data. At Data for Indigenous Justice, when families come forward and share their stories, and say, “this was labeled as a suicide but we don’t think it was” DIJ has all the same public information in their database as law enforcement, but it is ‘corrected’ and labeled as a murder.


Honoring Our Families' Truths


Aqpik states, “That’s decolonizing data, first and foremost working on the premise of honoring our families ’truths, and that is not the same for western systems. We have a more accurate database that reflects our true experiences.”


From my experience as an indigenous researcher, working with Strategic Prevention Solutions (SPS), and learning about Data for Indigenous Justices’ decolonizing data efforts, I am seeing the benefits of decolonizing practices in the field of research. How it not only benefits indigenous communities, but communities in general. Older systems are not always the most effective and appropriate to use.


Organizations such as the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center, Strategic Prevention Solutions, and Data for Indigenous Justice all have one thing in common–they work with communities in a good way. Highlighting Indigenous voices, doing this work for them and with them, and not to them, creating space for community members at the table, and calling out systemic injustices that no longer serve community work.

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