With 23 death investigations since 2013, Alaska Native women face heightened threats of violence

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - It is Alaska's dark, open secret. Alaska Native women are far more likely to be sexually assaulted per capita than any other race in the state, and also face heightened threats from domestic and other violence.

[WATCH: AFN Report - Map of missing & murdered women unearths emotions]

As part of an ongoing series about violence against Alaska Native women, Channel 2 requested the names, places and dates of every Native woman killed in the state from the Department of Public Safety.

Digital records only go back to 2013. All other information is either on paper or microfiche. This week DPS emailed a list of 23 names of women who are either missing or murdered or had deaths that were under investigation since 2013. The violent deaths happened throughout the state, from Akiak and Hooper Bay to Wasilla. The most recent murder was 10-year-old Ashley Johnson-Barr in Kotzebue from this past September.

"We saw there does seem to be some increased violence in rural areas of the state as well as against Native women in general," Jonathon Taylor, a spokesperson for DPS, said. "And then, of course, the supplemental UCR (Uniform Crime Report) report that we released sort of reiterated those findings."

The murder rate in Alaska increased by 19.6 percent from 2016 to last year according to a state Uniform Crime Report.

According to that report, there were 62 homicides in 2017, up from 52 the year before; 59 in 2015; 40 in 2014 and 34 in 2013.

The UCR report says that of the 62 murdered in 2017, 31 were white, 21 Alaska Native, seven black and three of Asian descent. Most women — 56 percent — were killed by an intimate partner, and 59 percent of men were killed by an acquaintance.

The first murder on the DPS list was 13-year-old Mackenzie "Mack" Howard in Kake. The Washington Post reports the little girl "wore big red glasses and loved to dance. The native Tlingit girl had been beaten to death."

A 14-year-old boy from Kake was later charged in connection with her death.

Also on the list is the Amanda "Mandy" Kernak who died at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center. Her family says she had a heart condition and her death was investigated. Ultimately it was ruled that she wasn't murdered.

Her sister Jennifer Wassillie says she learned about her sister's death while she was four-wheeling with her children. An auntie called Wassillie to tell her what happened.

" 'Your sister is gone.' I said, 'What do you mean by that?' " Wassillie said, describing the phone call, "and she said, 'She passed away,' and I was like 'Is that true?' "

DPS says recently there has been more attention focused on violence against Alaska Native women.

"Identifying the problem is one thing but in order to change that problem it requires individuals and communities to come together and say, 'We don't think this behavior is acceptable and so we're going to change our behavior,' " Taylor said. "So it's often a question of how do we then change that behavior?"

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