Alaska Native women rally to search for missing Nome woman

A dirt road leads into rolling mountains in a sunset
Sunset on the road from Teller to Nome. (Photo by Carol Seppilu, summer of 2020.)

Last week, law enforcement and local authorities began a search 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.

But 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 see the missing woman’s report. The women played basketball together as girls and 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.

A face shot of an Alaska Native woman wiith black small plastic glasses. She is smiling slightly.
Image at top: Florence Okpealuk of Nome, who Nome Police are searching for. Photo from Nome Police Department, used with permission (2020).

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 have 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.

And Miller says, the search team isn’t limited to just foot searchers. It includes the women who stay home to babysit and cook so that the others can walk too.

Carol Seppilu of Nome is also helping the search. She wonders whether 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.

Miller and Seppilu face some community criticism for “minimizing” 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.”   

Florence Okpealuk of Nome was not found during Saturday’s community-wide search, so the women’s group’s search efforts and the community’s continue.

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