Columns 2008

Where is the male leadership?

I’ve told this story before but I think it bears repeating. A class on STDs had a discussion centered on the role of alcohol in child sexual assault. The instructor asked everyone in the class who’d ever been drunk to raise their hand.  Most hands went up. Then the instructor asked those who had sexually assaulted a child while drunk to keep their hands up. All went down.

Recent statistics show that fifty-seven percent of rapists were not using alcohol when they assaulted.  Sixty percent of the victims were sober during the incident. Sexual assault is about power. And what more horrible power can you exert over someone than to force yourself on them in the most violently intimate way possible?  Even worse, only two percent of these assaults occurred between strangers. Being safe at home is not an option for many in Alaska.

The statistics that came out last month came from the Alaska State Troopers.  Statistics for rape in urban areas such as Anchorage where local police respond were not included.  That means these statistics come from outside Alaska’s urban areas. It means that Native leaders throughout the state are cringing again as the reality of how ugly life in bush communities can get for the most vulnerable of their members. It means the good inherent in cultures that have existed for thousands of years is getting swept away in the tide of pain, anguish and destroyed lives that play out every year in small villages throughout this state.

I think it’s probably significant but not surprising that the people addressing these concerns in bush Alaska are almost all women. I think it is equally significant that the majority of people running these villages, and the village and regional corporations, are men. I find myself asking why these men who claim to be leaders of their regions and cultures aren’t doing much, much more to address these problems. Women and children are almost always the victims. Men are almost always the perpetrators. And so it seems to me that at some point these men have to stand up from their corporate desks and council tables and tackle this problem with their peers head on.

The men leading Native communities need to stop accepting abusers and rapists on their boards and councils. They need to go into the schools and the gyms and the village stores and take their young men by their ears and tell them how unacceptable their behavior is on a moral, human and cultural level. They need to make the abusers understand that they will no longer be accepted into leadership positions, they will no longer have the privilege of having their peers look the other way. Native male leadership needs to cleanse itself of those men who make a mockery of the very virtues they claim their cultures hold so dear. If they abuse they should be kicked off their boards and councils. If they abuse, they should no longer be considered eligible to occupy any position of leadership in their community.

Economic and social isolation is as much a problem in bush Alaska as alcohol.  The stress of a fuel bill that’s too high to pay, a job that’s beyond your reach, a wife making a bigger paycheck than you, more kids than your income supports…all these things lead to the feeling of powerlessness that is often only relieved by the unspeakably horrific acts of rape, domestic violence and sexual abuse of children.  Understanding the cause, however, is not a reason to excuse the behavior.

Women are doing all they can to support and protect their children and friends. But the voices full of pain and anguish coming from so many homes in the bush can only be fully addressed when all members of the community are fully engaged. And that means that the leaders of the profit and non-profit corporations, the village mayors and councilmen, the men who claim the mantle of leadership for their people must confront the men whose violence makes a mockery of their values.

Women alone cannot make this happen. And if these ills are not addressed, then the membership of the groups these men lead will continue to be decimated by suicide, murder, prison sentences and damaged lives that cannot ever again be made whole. If that happens, then who will be left for them to lead?