Columns 2007

Shooting the messenger isn’t the answer

Last week I wrote a column about the abuse faced by Native women throughout this state at the hands of their own husbands and relatives.  The angry mail I received in response was quite amazing for a number of reasons.  One is the fact that some letter writers believe that since I am not Native, I apparently am not able to tell when a Native woman is being abused. The second, and perhaps more disturbing aspect of the mail, was how many women who wrote were so angry and full of what can only be called hate because I mentioned this subject and dared to suggest that bad things happen in their communities. All I could think was that if this was the way they treated me, with so much rage, imagine what they would do to someone in their village who dared to mention the abuse she was suffering.

Is it any wonder that the other half of the e-mails responses I received came from women who said they couldn’t sign their names and I could not tell anyone they wrote and I shouldn’t even mention their village because of the trouble it would cause them if people knew they were agreeing with me?

I went on Dan Fagan’s radio show shortly after the column appeared and Dan asked me why the other men in these bush communities tolerated this being done to their mothers and sisters and friends.  Why, he wanted to know, didn’t these men, who didn’t abuse, stand up to the abusers in a way the women couldn’t, and defend them from further harm?

I didn’t have an answer for Dan then and I don’t have an answer now. But I do have an even more disturbing question. Why is it that the other women in these communities, the ones who are not being abused, are so quiet? Why are they allowing the abuse to continue without crying out in anger? They aren’t blind. They see the bruises. They know who is being hit and who is being hurt. They see the children. They know which children have chronic circles under their eyes from being kept up all night at drunken parties, listening to dad hit mom, wondering if the next footsteps will be someone coming to their room to hurt them.  Why aren’t these women marching through their villages enraged at the violence being done to their relatives and friends?

I was once talking to a young mother whose daughter had been raped. The daughter was three at the time. When I asked the mother why she didn’t do more to protect her child, she told me that when her dad abused her and she complained to her mother, her mother beat her with a vacuum cleaner attachment. She grew up thinking you weren’t allowed to complain. It was wrong and you got hurt even more if you did. Is it any wonder that she was not able to protect her daughter?

The problems and abuses will not ever stop or even slightly abate if, instead of confronting the real problem, we continue to keep silent, sweep it under the rug and spend all our energy on killing the messenger.  Because killing the messenger does not make the message any less true. 

The fact that I am a non-Native woman talking about the abuse suffered by Native women does not make that abuse any less real or horrible. The fact that I am talking about it in Native communities in bush Alaska has nothing to do with racism and everything to do with the fact that I am responding to a report from Amnesty International about the rate of rape among Alaska Native and American Indian women. I wasn’t talking about rape in general. I was referring to the abuse I had personally witnessed and had to deal with for so many years.

No one culture has the lock on either horridness or greatness. Every culture produces plenty of both. And just as American culture can point to someone like Abraham Lincoln and just as quickly point to someone like Charlie Manson, so do Native cultures have every shade and hue of individuals in their midst, good, bad and indifferent.

So let’s get beyond shooting the messenger and take a hard look at the message. Alaska Native women are raped and abused at astronomical rates compared with the rest of society.  This is done to them not just by strangers, not just by non-Natives, but by the men who should be the ones they can turn to first for protection.

Every person in every village in this state who knows a beaten woman or a scared abused child, who says nothing and does nothing, is complicit in the continued ravages of violence in traditional societies.

Shooting the messenger won’t change the truth of the message.