Columns 2014

Alaska Native men must stand up for their women, children and culture

Last week I asked where Alaska Native men were when their sisters, mothers, daughters and classmates were being abused within their own community. I asked because I firmly believe this problem will never be resolved so long as we continue to view it as only a woman’s issue. I asked because if Native men are not part of the solution, they automatically become part of the problem. Those women and children who suffer violence and sexual assaults in their homes are often damaged twice – first by the abuser and then by a community that looks the other way.

This week I ask why the good men in those communities are often so reluctant to say or do anything to stop the violence.  What are they waiting for? What is holding them back from taking a stand and making it clear that they will not tolerate anyone who so distorts the values of their culture?

The answer seems to be that some of those cultural mores stand in the way of men taking action. Most Alaska Native cultures are communally based. Unlike Western civilization, which is based on the achievements of the individual, Alaska Native cultures do not encourage standing up and being noticed above others. Their survival in a harsh land was based on the critical need for everyone to cooperate and pull together. The person who stood out was someone viewed with suspicion and fear that he would not work well for the survival of the group.

So it seems that for many Alaska Native men the problem is twofold. Many worry that by standing up and standing out they will be violating long held cultural norms. Many also feel that their culture gives status to Elders to address these problems and they have a long way to go to reach that stage. So they say nothing while being internally conflicted over what they see happening. They don’t seem to realize that time is running out. They don’t have the luxury of waiting until they are old enough to be considered Elders. If today’s Elders are not stopping the carnage, then the young men must step in no matter what their age.

The reality is that Alaska Native cultures, which have withstood enormous pressures from an outside world wanting them to simply disappear, may ultimately succumb not to anything outsiders are doing but to their inability to confront those destroying the culture from within. For any culture to survive, it must have strong family bonds – whether those bonds are within a nuclear or extended family – that pass along the cultural heritage as a part of everyday life. But women and children who experience the ravages of sexual assault and domestic violence on a regular basis are unable to pass on any culture other than a culture of violence and fearful submission.

So here’s the question to those worried that by standing up against the men who perpetrate this violence they are somehow violating a cultural norm. What culture do you think you will have left if nothing is done? Will your culture become so perverted by multigenerational violence that the original values are completely lost?

If Alaska Native men are unwilling to confront the abusers, they risk losing their culture altogether.  This is already evident in many small villages where the best and the brightest leave and make a life for themselves in the cities. They do this both because that’s where economic opportunities are greater and because it is a place they can raise their families without daily reminders of the violence in far too many village homes. In the city, men do not have to explain to their children why their neighbor’s wife always seems to sport new bruises and black eyes after every weekend.

But this kind of village exodus means that those left behind to carry on traditional village life are too often the people who are perverting and distorting the culture. The good people in those villages are sometimes fighting a losing battle to pass on their true cultural traditions in the face of such horrifying violence.

By doing nothing, Alaska Native men are ceding the definition of what it means to be a man in their culture to those men who rape and abuse women and children. That has to change for their culture to survive.