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Decolonizing Data for Missing and Murdered Indigenous People: Part 1

Introduction from Wendi Siebold

 

Welcome to our first blog series! At SPS we are committed to the work we do with communities, and to growing our relationships and practices so that we can be allies and advocates for the use of data to improve community well-being. In this series, we are examining the use of data to address Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR). We will start with two blogs in which our Research Associate, Tiana Teter (Koyukon Athabascan), shares her personal story of learning about the use of data to address MMIR, and her personal journey as an Alaska Native woman to becoming interested in research. We will close the series with a third blog post in which SPS leadership will reflect on our role as a research firm to uphold and promote respectful and honorable data practices. Thank you for taking the time to hear Tiana’s story and work alongside SPS to “do data well.”

-          In wellness and justice, Wendi Siebold, President of SPS





My name is Tiana Teter and my native name is Yinzalth , given to me by my maternal grandmother. I was named after someone who was well known for taking care of others. I am Koyukon Athabascan from Huslia, Alaska and I am a part of the Caribou Clan. For the next few weeks, I will be sharing with you a blog series about decolonizing data, with the focus on our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives.


As an indigenous women raised in Fairbanks, Alaska by a single mother, I have always navigated living in two worlds, while also experiencing systemic social injustice and the effects of intergenerational trauma.


I have lived in one world surrounded by my family, elders, and community, eating traditional foods, learning about the spirituality of my culture, singing traditional songs that have been passed down for generations, and reflecting on my cultural values around community. 

The work itself and the stories we hear can be very heavy, but it can also be used for the betterment of people and communities.

The second world has been navigating professional western and academic spaces that focus on individuality and selfishness over community. For most of my educational journey, I have been one of maybe two indigenous students in the classroom. These settings forced me to find my voice. I had to get out of my comfort zone, and learn how to thrive in a system that was not created for me to be successful in. Finding my way into the world of research has been an uplifting and difficult journey. This can be a violent system to be in, one that is extractive and disheartening. The work itself and the stories we hear can be very heavy, but it can also be used for the betterment of people and communities. A lot of love goes into this work and is what leads this type of work. We’re not only focusing on the high rates of murdered and missing Indigenous people(MMIP), domestic violence, or sexual assault, but doing this work in a healing-centered way and focusing on solutions and healing.  My childhood lived experiences are my reason for pursuing a masters degree in social work, and what I have experienced thus far in my career is my reason for diving into this world of research and data.


Data for Indigenous Justice

“[we were] being responsive to our communities not having that information.”

For this blog series, I interviewed Aqpik Apok, Executive Director of Data for Indigenous Justice (DIJ). DIJ is a non-profit organization that works to steward Alaska’s MMIP. In this interview we discussed the role data plays in MMIP, the importance and reasoning of decolonizing data, and the patterns we begin to see when data is decolonized. Through my conversations with Aqpik, I quickly learned that many indigenous communities struggle with domestic violence, as well as missing and murdered people, and all communities are all experiencing a lack of data to address these issues and find adequate solutions. Data for Indigenous Justice started with the purpose of addressing this lack of data. In Aqpik’s words, “[we were] being responsive to our communities not having that information.”


In the absence of a system that helps address MMIP appropriately and adequately, Native communities, families and organizations have stepped up and taken action into their own hands. Alaska continues to experience some of the highest rates of MMIP in the United States.  The  Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center (AKNWRC), an organization made up of mostly Alaska Native employees and board members, has created an MMIW Toolkit that is used as a guide for developing a plan of action that includes awareness, prevention, and intervention strategies. In an effort to begin decolonizing, not only data, but this work. Their toolkit provides a way to respond in an organized manner that is created by Alaska Native voices for Alaska Native people when someone goes missing.


Communities in Action

Often times when someone goes missing, law enforcement only use government names on flyers and social media. However, many Indigenous people use family names and nicknames, and nicknames are often how other villages may recognize that individual.

When someone goes missing or is murdered, communities are quick to share information with surrounding villages--and those surrounding villages are quick to step in as first responders and to provide support. Communities in Alaska are proficient in utilizing social media, to spread valuable information such as nicknames and family names of a person when someone goes missing. Often times when someone goes missing, law enforcement only use government names on flyers and social media. However, many Indigenous people use family names and nicknames, and nicknames are often how other villages may recognize that individual. It’s often the local community that is organizing search efforts, their tribes are there to provide support, and the community comes together as one to wrap the family in comfort and care. They recognize our missing and murdered relatives as just that, family. They’re not just a number or a statistic. But a whole person, with a life. So, our planned efforts to take action to address MMIP are always handled with love. For these western systems to be successful in Indigenous communities, and for data to become more accessible and utilized they need to be sovereign responses that reflect the realities that Indigenous communities face.


During my conversations with Aqpik, we discussed the beginning of Data for Indigenous Justice and how their work started. In 2018, community member organizers were going to put together a rally at the Alaska Federation of Natives to call attention to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two Spirit(MMIWG2S) and create more visibility by raising awareness. When organizers wanted to read a list of loved ones in the state of Alaska who were missing or murdered, they went to pull that data and it was not there. Aqpik explained that “there was no list, and we weren’t able to pull it. So, the community came together and asked people to share those names. At that time 38 families came together to share their stories of their missing or murdered loved ones, and we wrote those names down. Just wrote them down by hand and that became the first database. That is data.” They were able to read the names of those loved ones at the rally. Afterwards the organizers gave the list of loved ones to Aqpik, to take care of, to steward, because of her background in research. Aqpik continued to take care of that list, adding on to it. As awareness grew around this issue of MMIWG2S across the state of Alaska and internationally, Aqpik said it was time to use the data for change. She says, “People do not come forward with these heartbreaking stories for us to not do something about it.” In 2020 Data for Indigenous Justice was formed to continue to steward data and that information. She says, “our mission is to equip people with information needed to create change. Self-determined change.” Today, Data for Indigenous Justice has one of the most comprehensive databases of MMIP for the state of Alaska.

 When you see MMIP marches or rallies, these are events usually planned by the family members of their missing and murdered relatives.

Please take a moment to recognize our families that have experienced missing and murdered

loved ones for so long, without organizations available to support them. This really has been

families carrying this work for decades. When you see MMIP marches or rallies, these are events usually planned by the family members of their missing and murdered relatives. Family members hold up posters of their missing loved ones at rallies, they share their stories to newspapers, in newsletters, at public events, and on social media. Communities also come together in ceremony to honor and hold up the families to allow them to grieve. One reason communities should be listened to and considered a powerful data source is communities come together to write names and collect lists of their MMIP, and they continue doing this until their loved one is found, or they receive justice. These families and communities are our main sources of data. They are the one’s “handling” these “cases” from beginning to end. Alaska Native people are also natural storytellers. Alaska Native peoples practice advocacy and share knowledge as cultural values. They know how to bring feelings, emotion, and urgency to these issues. You can’t create solutions if you don’t feel or understand the problem.


Learn more about the road to decolonizing data for missing and murdered indigenous people in the second installment of this series, which will be published Monday, February 26th. And if you want to learn more about the great work they're doing at DIJ you can follow them on Facebook or Instagram.

 


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