Alaska Native women rally to search for missing Nome woman

Florence Okpealuk of Nome (courtesy of Nome Police Department, 2020).

Last week, law enforcement and local authorities began searching for a 33-year-old Nome woman they say was reported missing August 31. A community-wide organized search began Saturday, but Florence Okpealuk has still not been found.

Some women from Nome and nearby Teller don’t think that response was fast enough.

Florence Okpealuk was last seen on August 30, and Nome Police received a call the day after. Like many in the area, Billie Jean Miller of Nome was heartbroken to learn Okpealuk was missing. The women played basketball together as girls. Okpealuk, who is a few years older than Miller, became a trusted confidant off the court.

“I used to go to her for advice here and there, and she was always so kind and open with her space and her energy. Anytime something came up, she was always very positive. She was always a light and always a beacon every time we saw her,” said Miller.

Miller said a group of five women began messaging each other, brainstorming ways they could help. By Wednesday they were actively organizing their efforts.

“And that group message has grown. I can’t even count the number of women who have offered to help Flo and this is just a part of our sisterhood as Indigenous women.”

To cover more ground, the women’s group decided to search away from West Beach, where the Troopers, Coast Guard and Nome Search and Rescue looked. Dozens of women combed the beaches, the foot trails behind the grocery store, the suburb of Icy View and all the other nooks and crannies around town.

“We’ve had women checking abandoned cars around town and in and out of the junkyard. We’ve been searching abandoned houses. We’ve walked the tundra,” said Miller.

Miller says the search team isn’t limited to just foot searchers. It includes the women staying home to babysit and cook so others can search.

Carol Seppilu of Nome is also helping the search. She wonders if the community urgency would be different if it were a non-Native woman.“If it were a white woman who went missing, they would have already conducted a community-wide search,” said Seppilu.

Seppilu and Miller don’t think the search and investigation are happening fast enough. But Nome’s Deputy Police Chief Robert Pruckner insists police have been doing everything they can.

“The first searches that were done were on September 1. We began the process of investigating and starting the paperwork as soon as we were notified from the family that she was missing. NPD was part of the search process in coordinating with the search- and- rescue team,” said Puckner.

Some in the community have criticized Miller and Seppilu for downplaying the efforts of law enforcement and trained search-and-rescue teams. But Miller says local law enforcement’s efforts need to be shared more broadly with the community.

“The truth is we don’t know their efforts because we’re not being given information. We need for all of our women to feel safe and feel protected and know that if one of us goes missing we’re not going to wait until day six.”

Anyone with any information surrounding Okpealuk’s disappearance is encouraged to call the Nome Police at 443-5262.

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