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In 2020, Deilah Johnson (Inupiaq) held an event at a hospital in her hometown of Nome, Alaska, to gain support for a policy banning plastic bags. She was nervous — the event was sponsored, and there were people in atetendance who were in support of the policy and those who weren't. She slipped away to the bathroom to calm her nerves. There, she ran into one of her best friends, 33-year-old Florence Okpealuk (Inupiaq).

"She had the biggest smile on her face and she just gave me a hug," Johnson told Native News Online. "Even though I was nervous, it was the reassuring I always had when I was around her. I did the event, and it went great."

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Now, it's a memory Johnson holds dear. 

"I didn't see her after that," Johnson said. 

Okpealuk was reported missing on August 31, 2020.   

Today, her disappearance is being investigated on the fourth season of the Up and Vanished podcast, titled, In the Midnight Sun.

Eight months after Johnson —  who lives in Oregon but routinely flies to Nome for he job with her tribe in the Village of Solomon — last saw Okpealuk, her Facebook flooded with posts about her friend’s disappearance. She wasn't worried at first, she says, until massive search parties began combing Nome and the surrounding areas, to no avail. 

"I kept thinking, 'They'll find her. She probably got lost,'" she said. "But then I saw the search parties, and I thought, 'This is not happening.'"

Johnson, an avid listener of the Up and Vanished, a podcast that investigates missing persons cases, emailed the show's host, Payne Lindsey, to see if he would be interested in looking into Okpealuk's case. 

Lindsey, hailing from Georgia, started Up and Vanished in 2016 when he looked into the state's largest cold case. At the time, he had no experience as an investigator or podcaster, and he sold his grandmother's homemade cookies to finance the podcast. His commitment to uncovering new information and the breakneck pacing — Lindsey recorded and released episodes week by week —  shot the podcast to number one. A second season followed, and then a third, in which he investigated the disappearance of Ashley Heavy Runner (Blackfeet) from the Blackfeet Nation in Oklahoma. The show has more than 500 million downloads and frequently ranks among the most listened to across podcast platforms.

"When I saw that he covered a case on an Indigenous person, I started listening. I was listening all the time, always had my headphones in and I thought, ‘What the hell,’ and emailed him about Flo,” Johnson said. “But I wanted him to understand too that this is about systemic injustice, not just about my friend that went missing.”

Okpealuk’s case is one of thousands in the nationwide Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples (MMIP) crisis. 

​​According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native women living on reservations are murdered at a rate ten times higher than the national average. Advocates say layered jurisdiction, lack of collaboration between law enforcement bodies, and systemic apathy have led to thousands of unsolved cases in Indian Country. 

According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, Alaska is among the ten states with the highest number of MMIP.

In an interview with Native News Online, Lindsey said he hopes Up and Vanished can bring attention to Okpealuk’s disappearance — and the crisis as a whole.

“I hope that this resonates for people who may know nothing about this,” Lindsey said. “And I hope that those people speak up about it.” 

Okpealuk, one of six siblings from Wales, Alaska, a village about 100 miles northwest of Nome, moved to the city in 2013 when she was pregnant with her daughter. She worked at the Norton Sound Health Corporation. 

She was last seen leaving a tent on West Beach in Nome at approximately 4:00 p.m. on August 31, 2020. During the investigation into her disappearance, seaches were conducted by the Nome Police Department, FBI, Alaska State Troopers, the Nome Volunteer Fire Department Search and Rescue Team, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Only her shoes, sock and jacket were recovered by authorities and given to her family.

Johnson describes Okpealuk as a person who was very loved.

“I want people to understand that she mattered to so many people,” Johnson said. “I remember her kindness and her smile.”

Florence is 5’2” and 142 lbs., with black hair and black eyes. She has no scars, marks, or tattoos. It is unknown what she was last seen wearing and which direction she was headed in after she left the tent on that beach.

Up and Vanished: In the Midnight Sun is available now on all podcast listening platforms. 

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About The Author
Author: Elyse WildEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Elyse Wild is senior editor for Native News Online and Tribal Business News.