Columns 2003

Remote villages offer no safe place for victims of domestic violence

The November 2, 2003 front page of the Anchorage Daily News featured a story on village justice.  It related the difficulties faced by small villages in coping with violence when they have no police and a trooper is stationed a plane ride away if the weather is good.  As always, the main violence encountered in these villages is alcohol fueled domestic abuse.

You would think that living near family would provide a buffer zone for abused women in small villages because they would always have somewhere to go. But the truth of the matter is that in most Native villages in this state, family doesn’t make a great deal of difference in the level of domestic violence women must endure.

When I was growing up, I had an aunt who was a victim of domestic violence. Her husband would get drunk and punch her out. She would go home to her mother when that happened.  Her mom would let her stay overnight till her husband sobered up and then send her right back to him. This was the school of thought that believed that once you made your bed, you had to lie in it. If she left her husband and the well-known secret of his abuse became public, it would disgrace the family.

This is often how domestic violence still plays out in Alaskan villages.  It’s not that the woman is isolated from her family. It’s that her family, in order to survive, has to get along with all the other families and so doesn’t want anyone saying publicly what everyone knows privately.  It would shame them and shame the family of the abuser to have the words spoken aloud that are only otherwise whispered by women as they sit together.  In small villages where everyone is related, where your life is centered around your relationships in the village, any breach in those relationships can be devastating.  Being ostracized in a village with no roads leading anywhere else means you are completely isolated and alone. For most village women, that is a fate much worse than the routine beatings they endure.

When I lived in Barrow, one of the things that used to drive me the craziest was watching abusive men suddenly turn into respected elders because somehow, somewhere between 40 and 60, they finally sobered up and stopped hitting their wives. Of course, by then the damage had been done. Not only had another woman lived a life of quiet despair and pain, but their children had grown up in a culture of violence and abuse. Anyone who doesn’t think that domestic violence creates generations of abusers is simply not paying attention.

I have never in my life met stronger women than the Inupiat women I know from the North Slope. Unfortunately, that strength is often used to survive years of abuse. Then they spend more years raising grandchildren who have been taken from parents raising them the only way they know how – with alcohol and violence.

I have watched them do this for thirty years now. They get hit, they get slammed down and then they get up and go on doing the best they can.

Those of us who encounter these women in the work we do repeat over and over, “You don’t have to live like this”. But often times they do because they live in a village that is their whole world. If they left that village, they would leave their lives, their families and their culture behind and be forced to live in a strange world where every house does not contain a neighbor, friend and relative. For many women from small villages, the thought of living like that is just too hard to comprehend.

So they stay in abusive relationships because they see no other door open that offers something better on the other side. They get hit and they take it and when he’s done hitting them, they make him breakfast. They live lives of quiet despair that will never change until the villages of Alaska agree that domestic violence is a crime against women and children that no family or village ties should excuse.

Until then, many women will simply chose to drink with their abuser because then, when they get hit, it doesn’t hurt so much.