Columns 2007

It’s no secret why Alaska Native women are treated so badly

Here’s one of those things you just never really forget.  I was enjoying a social evening with friends some years back in Barrow. One of the people sitting around the table was a police officer. He told us a story, a story that obviously disturbed him. I think he hoped someone around the table could explain it so wouldn’t seem so bad.

Here’s the story.  A husband and wife were picked up by the police for public intoxication and placed in separate cells for their own protection until they sobered up. This was hardly the first night they’d spent in the drunk tank.  All their children had already been removed from them and adopted out. They had no permanent home since they could never stay sober long enough to get a job. They were often found sleeping around heaters in the lobbies of the new public buildings going up in Barrow at the time. Both had been raised in drunken, violent homes so their lifestyle choice was no surprise.

The cop sitting at the table said that the husband kept calling out to his wife who had already passed out in her cell.  Let’s call the wife Sally. This is what her husband kept calling out to her. “Sally! Sally! I want to make rape with you.”

So when I hear the horrible statistics about rape and Alaska Native women, I can’t pretend to be even slightly surprised. Neither, I would guess, is anyone who has ever worked in Alaska in the field of human services or ever lived and worked in Bush Alaska.  It’s a harsh world out there and the harshness doesn’t necessarily stop outside the door of your home.

Being a woman in a community where there is no protection except that afforded by basic human decency is scary because basic human decency, when soaked in alcohol, tends to disappear pretty quickly. And if you live in a village where your life is dependent on your family and social network, you are not apt to make a lot of waves about something like a rape. If you do, you are as likely to be shunned as the perpetrator. In fact, if the perpetrator is an important hunter or leader in the community, you may find yourself shamed for bringing it up. Your life can become so unbearable that killing yourself, leaving the village or drowning yourself in drinking and drugs are your only options.

Given a choice between being isolated and vulnerable in an environment in which a tightly woven communal society is the only way to survive or moving out into a scary, foreign urban world, many women chose to stay put and endure the beatings and rapes that may ensue. They figure that at least they will emerge from it, most of the time, alive. In the city, the news seems to imply you’re apt to be found dead.

Sending more police into these communities isn’t really the answer because once the police leave, that woman is left to face the consequences of the courage she showed in making a complaint.

Here’s another story I’ll never forget. A very young girl was brought into the Barrow clinic with a sexually transmitted disease. She was afraid to say the name of her abuser. But everyone knew who it was. He was a “respected elder” who has been abusing girls his entire life. He might have even started with his sisters. He sexually abused his daughters and was now doing his granddaughters.

This young girl had an older sister, now an adult, who brought her in for treatment. We took the older sister aside and asked her if she would speak to the police, if she would tell them what her sister was afraid to tell us. We asked her to tell the police what happened to her so the abuser could be stopped and her sister would not have to suffer anymore. Her answer? “I lived through it and grew up and got out. So will she. If I say something, my family will be mad at me.”

To speak about the abuse would have meant being shunned and isolated from her family.  Better not to speak. Better to just endure. Better to drown your pain on a Friday night but know that on Saturday you’ll be able to go have dinner with your family because they won’t be mad at you. Better to be a drunk than be shamed because you spoke of what was done to you as a child, as a young girl, as a woman, by men you were told you needed to respect. Better to endure than be forced to leave your village and live in a town like Anchorage where being a Native women seems to be the equivalent of a death sentence.

If Alaska Native women are treated as less than nothing by the criminal justice system, perhaps it partly stems from the fact that so many Alaska Native men treat them that way while their villages and cultures turn a blind eye to the mayhem, unwilling to face something so shameful.

If their own culture does not treasure them, is it really any wonder why society at large doesn’t either?