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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Walk the path of a domestic violence victim.
Members of a U.S. Department of Justice task force tried to do just that earlier this week as they traversed the rural Alaskan countryside by land, air and sea.
“There’s no boat ramp, and the boat got stuck in the low tide. We had to jump in the mud to get to shore,” said Valerie Davidson, a member of the group convened to study the impact on American Indian and Alaska Native children when they are exposed to violence. “We’re all able-bodied and have resources. Can you imagine if you were a woman fleeing an unhealthy relationship, with kids in tow, in the middle of the night?”
Task force members and DOJ staff visited the rural Alaska villages of Bethel, Napaskiak and Emmonak before heading to Anchorage for a two-day public hearing that started Wednesday, the last of four held on reservations across the U.S. during the last year.
The task force will make recommendations to Attorney General Eric Holder by late October.
Access to domestic violence shelters in rural communities is just one of many barriers Alaska Native victims face, according to a number of panelists who testified during the Anchorage hearing, which drew doctors, judges, educators, tribal chiefs, law enforcement officers and administrators of Alaska Native programs.
The realities of landscape
Alaska, home to 229 of the United States’ 566 federally recognized tribes, faces unique challenges, experts testified.
“The realities of geography and jurisdiction make this a place like no other,” said Associate Attorney General Tony West, describing the safety and welfare of Alaska Native people as “precarious at best.”
“The ones who are at greatest risk and who suffer the most are their children,” West said, citing the high rates of suicide, homicide, alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence.
The Alaska frontier is home to 3,000 rivers, more than 3 million lakes, 100,000 glaciers and 17 of the U.S.’s 20 highest peaks. It’s inhabited by thousands of Alaska Natives residing in small villages spread across a state the size of Montana, Texas and California combined.
The average population of an Alaskan village is 300. Two-thirds cannot be accessed by roads, and some have no running water, no electricity, no law enforcement.
“Alaska Native families want what every other American family wants,” Davidson said. “We want them to be healthy. We want them to be happy and live in a safe community.”
Alaska Native women account for less than 20 percent of the state’s population but make up nearly half its reported rape victims. Alaska Natives are two and a half times as likely to die by homicide as Alaskans whose skin is white.
As recently as 2011, Native children accounted for more than half of maltreatment reports substantiated by Alaska’s child protective services and more than 60 percent of children removed from their homes.
Several of those who testified at this week’s hearing said the tribes need sovereign authority in their communities, more law enforcement, funding for prevention programs and communities focused on raising kids with culturally relevant counseling and support.
Richard Peterson, president of the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes, said the heartbreak of violence hit home for him when he watched a close friend fall into a depression and turn to alcohol and drugs. “He was a young father, and I watched him become a complete stranger and then violent,” he said.
At one point, he rushed to his friend’s house to intervene. “I watched him strike his wife in the face,” Peterson said, fighting back tears. “I was the only one who could stand up to him when he tried to shoot his wife and kids. The abuse is real. I can’t put into words what it means to watch someone dissolve to that level.”
Elizabeth Medicine Crow, executive director of the First Alaskans Institute, said the answer the task force seeks is in front of them.
“We have to get out of the way of the people who have the solution,” she said. “It’s our people. It’s our culture. The way the government can help us is restore us. Our tribal governments need to be empowered at full capacity.”
P.J. Simon, who is a chief in the Allakaket Tribe, said he mentors the youth in his village and encourages them to work hard to overcome the poverty they face through education.
"I tell the kids, 'become something,'" he said, during the public testimony time of Wednesday's hearing. "I tell them not to worry about the dirty shirt on their back. They can be something."
David Voluck, a Central Council tribal judge, said tribal courts are often the first responders in Alaskan communities.
“Eighty communities in Alaska don’t even have police,” he said. “Some of the cases I hear are heart-wrenching and embarrassing.”
The effects of violence on children are lifelong, he said. “Just hearing violence in the other room morphs the development of the young brain,” he said. “Our experiences in this life do leave traces on the DNA we leave to our children. It’s multigenerational trauma and violence.”
Voluck said he’s still hopeful. “Just like trauma can be passed, so can love and joy,” he said.
Davidson, a Yup’ik who grew up in Bethel and Aniak, said the incredible number of people who came forward to speak during the last year is a step in the right direction.
“We’re at a point where people in the communities know we have to talk about these things to end them,” she said. “Silence allows it to perpetuate. While the stats aren’t good — they aren’t favorable, they don’t reflect well on us — we’ll never change it unless we own the problem.”
The task force is still accepting written testimony. It can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org.