Unangax̂ victims of crime honored in candlelight vigil
Since 1959, the year Alaska became a state, at least 64 Unangax̂ people have been murdered, according to new research. And for the first time, those victims have been remembered in a ceremony organized by the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, a federally recognized tribal organization of the Unangax̂ people.
During APIA’s candlelight vigil at Hostetler Park in Anchorage last October, purple ribbons and candles were passed around to remember Unangax̂ victims of crime and to bring awareness to the missing and murdered victims.
The vigil was dedicated to one specific victim: Olga Julia Nielsen, a nine-year-old Unangax̂ girl from Belkofski who was murdered nearly 50 years ago. Her sisters Arlene Gundersen and Marlene Mack attended the gathering and said they were grateful for the opportunity to recognize Nielsen’s death and celebrate her life.
“Gone are the days we used to share, but in my heart, you are always there,” Gundersen read aloud at the vigil. “The gates of memories will never close. I miss you more than anybody knows. Love and miss you every day, until we meet again. Always and forever. My sister Olga.”
Gundersen said she chose this poem to honor her sister who died in the Eastern Aleutian village of Belkofski in 1973, when a man stabbed her at school.
“We never really talked about what happened,” Gundersen said. “We just talk about how she was and where she would be if she was with us today. But talking about what happened, I think it’s a part of the healing process.”
About half of the 64 homicides took place within the Aleutian Islands region, according to a group of researchers who began compiling data about 20 years ago on Indigenous people from the region who have been murdered or who have gone missing. Others were killed elsewhere in Alaska or in the Lower 48. Their ages range from one to 57 years old.
Nine of the 64 victims are still missing. And for the Unangax̂ homicides occurring outside of the region, about 50% of them occurred in Anchorage.
Michael Livingston is the healthy relationships coordinator at APIA and one of the three researchers working on this project. He didn’t know Nielsen himself, but he lived in neighboring Cold Bay at the time of her death and heard about what happened as a teenager.
“The tragic event shocked everyone up and down the [Alaska] Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands, the Pribilof Islands and the Shumagin Islands,” Livingston said. “The tragedy has haunted me for years, and I’ve wanted to do something for the family for decades. But in my community, it became a taboo topic. And nobody was supposed to talk about it.”
All these years later, Livingston helped organize the vigil in Nielsen’s honor, and said he’s grateful for the chance to do so.
“We are trying to raise awareness,” Livingston said. “Because we believe that if people are aware of the tragedies, we can take action to try to make sure that this pattern doesn’t continue — the pattern of missing people from our region, the pattern of one Unangax̂ homicide per year, dating back to 1959.”
Before joining APIA, Livingston served as a police officer in the region for almost three decades, investigating homicides. He said he started tracking missing and murdered Unangax̂ people informally, at first. But as he recognized the gaps in the data, he began collaborating with other researchers looking into missing and murdered Indigenous persons: Marti Murray and Carol Larsen Smith.
Livingston said it’s critical to know about the victims in order to honor them. He also said it’s important to remember that these tragedies are part of a larger history, rooted in racist beliefs that go back hundreds of years. That includes a history in which Unangax̂ people were killed and forcibly relocated under Russian colonization; a history in which people from Attu — the westernmost island on the Aleutian Chain — were taken as prisoners of war by the Japanese Imperial Navy; and a history of internment during World War II under American colonization.
“I think, in general, under harsh colonization, the Unangax̂ people have become silent when bad things happen,” Livingston said. “And we need to overcome that silence and learn how to speak up and to voice our feelings. An Aleut basket weaver from Unalaska, Anfesia Shapsnikoff, said, ‘If you know something that can improve things in our community, don’t be afraid to speak up. Stand up and speak up.’ And so, we need to get a little bit better at standing up and speaking up to honor our victims of crime.”
Livingston said he’s happy over a dozen people came to the candlelight vigil to remember Olga Nielsen, support her family and to acknowledge other missing and murdered Unangax̂ people.
He said APIA plans to make the vigil an annual event, not just in Anchorage but in other communities in the Aleutian-Pribilof Islands region. He also said the organization is considering creating a statue of Nielsen to help keep her memory alive.