Columns 2009

Stop letting abusers sit at the table where the power is

Sean Parnell is the kind of conservative who should make liberals take a second look. While many Alaskans were annoyed at what was viewed as his snub of President Obama during his stop over, it’s hard to stay mad at someone who seems to have his priorities so well ordered.

From being an almost ghostly gray presence during the reign of our gal Temporary Sal, he is emerging as someone who will probably never grace the cover of People Magazine but who will govern Alaska with competence and thoughtfulness. That’s more than most politicians seem to offer nowadays.

In his latest initiative, he is to trying to make a dent in what seems like the intractable problem of domestic violence and sexual abuse in Alaska. These are categories in which Alaska consistently leads all other states. Clearly they are not the categories in which we want that distinction.

So Governor Parnell has made it one of his priorities to deal with this problem and seems willing to at least attempt to put his money where his mouth is in getting state funding to support actions such as getting more VPSOs hired, trained and in place in small villages. He clearly understands that a domestic violence restraining order is a useless piece of paper if you live in a village with your abuser and no law enforcement closer than a plane ride away.

Unfortunately, as much as we would wish it otherwise, Alaska’s remote and isolated villages are the places with the highest rates of domestic violence, sexual abuse and child sexual assault in the state. At a time when many of these small villages are struggling to stay alive and keep their population in place, young women especially flee from them to escape the endless cycle of violence that they have been exposed to… and are often a victim of… from childhood. Those who can’t flee, stay and live lives of quiet despair while raising another generation of damaged adults. 

How bad can it be, you ask? Imagine your childhood memories being filled with scenes in which you have barricaded yourself in your bedroom with your younger siblings, dragging a bureau across the door, so your drunken father can’t get to you while he beats your mother. Imagine that for you this is just another typical Saturday night.

Imagine your childhood memories including the time your mother locked the doors and spent two days drunk and beating on you and your siblings until some neighbors broke in and rescued you. You were sent back to her in that house stained with your blood as soon as she woke up from her drunk.

Are these scenes exclusive to Native villages? Absolutely not. But statistics show that they are much more likely to happen over and over again in places where there is no protection for the victims. VPSOs alone cannot provide that protection so long as the village accepts abusers as community leaders. You cannot send a clearer message to a victim that he or she is not important than allowing their abuser a place at the table where power resides.

But what if every Alaska Native regional and village corporation, profit or non-profit, and every village government and regional municipality – whether traditional or organized under the state constitution – made it a part of their bylaws that no one with a record of domestic violence, sexual assault or child sexual abuse could hold office in their organization?

I was taught in Barrow that shunning was the traditional method of punishing a community member who had in some way transgressed community standards and rules. In today’s world, banning these individuals from holding any office of power in the community can be the equivalent of that traditional shunning.  Since rehabilitation is an often sought after goal, the bylaws could possibly allow that person to run again for a position after ten years with a clean record.

What a wonderful present that would be to the victims of this violence – a clear statement from the leaders of their communities that no one who commits violence will be accepted into a seat of power or leadership.

What better way to show respect for your culture, your women, your children, and your families?