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A Healing Journey for Alaska Natives: Responding to Survivors of Violence

This video provides an overview of the multiple challenges victims face when pursuing safety and justice in Alaska, including geographic, climate, and jurisdictional realities. Traditional values, local customs, cultural practices, and trauma-informed care help victims to heal and serve to promote the well-being of communities.

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ELSIE BOUDREAU, YUP’IK, PRESIDENT, ARCTIC WINDS, HEALING WINDS: Alaska's beautiful. It'll always be my home. One of the things that makes Alaska beautiful is the diversity of Alaska Native people and their rich spiritual connection to the land, to each other. There's so many strengths that the Native people have. My Yup'ik name is Apugen, and I'm named after my maternal grandmother. When I introduce myself with Apugen, it's almost like I feel her spirit. The sense of interconnectedness is a strength, and so I believe that can bring healing to lots of different people. From the time I was 10 years old up until I was 19, I was sexually abused by a family friend. But it wasn't until my daughter turned 10 that I looked at her and was like, she looks so innocent. You know? I grieved for my own innocence. I started my process of healing, and the first step in healing is being able to name what happened. And so being able to say, "Yes, I am a survivor. I am a victim of sexual abuse," like, that, it...it had to, like, sink into my being. Right? A sense of spirituality is one thing that helped me in my own process of healing. I believe we, as Native people, are moving on a healing journey. We have to heal collectively. And that's a beautiful part of being Alaska Native.

SHIRLEY MOSES, INUPIAQ ESKIMO, BERING STRAITS REGION: As indigenous people, we didn't have a word for violence or domestic assault, sexual assault. Our ancestors didn't put up with it. People were either sent away or traditionally shunned upon.

SGT. ERIC OLSEN, VILLAGE OF AFOGNAK, ALASKA STATE TROOPER – KODIAK: When the whaling ships came here, alcohol was brought in, and the Alaska Natives were not used to that, that was not part of their heritage or custom. When alcohol was introduced, it started destroying the Native values and family unities—things that they were not used to being violated.

ELSIE BOUDREAU: There are villages in Alaska where generations of people have been sexually abused by clergy, and people are just now starting to talk about that.

SHIRLEY MOSES: In the 1960s, early '70s, we had the pipeline. And during that time we saw a huge change in the makeup of our villages. We had people leaving subsistence way of life and taking on jobs that are nontraditional. That's when we saw a big change in the high rates of domestic violence, sexual assault.

TERRA ABBOTT, NOME ESKIMO COMMUNITY, RN, ACUTE CARE UNIT, NORTON SOUND HEALTH CORPORATION: In the last so many years, it's really dawned on people that we do have the highest rates of sexual assault, domestic violence, suicide, all these issues, and what's going on?

LENORA “LYNN” HOOTCH, NATIVE VILLAGE OF EMMONAK, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, YUP’IK WOMEN’S COALITION: When we started defining domestic violence and translating domestic violence in our Native language, you look in the room and you see...you see our elders, tears going rolling down their eyes, and not saying anything.

DIANE BENSON, TLINGIT, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, ALASKA NATIVE STUDIES, UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA – FAIRBANKS: Silence was the biggest issue, not even being able to talk about domestic violence, which is still very touchy.

MICHELLE, SIBERIAN YUP’IK/INUPIAQ: When the sexual assault occurred, I was battling an addiction—alcoholism. One night, I stopped by one of the biggest party houses here in town. Somehow I lost the whole night, but I woke up at home and I was so bloody. When I looked, there was blood tracks from the door all the way up to the bed. We went to the ER and they said that they found traces of a date rape drug in my system.

SGT. ERIC OLSEN: When you live in a small village, everybody knows who you are and what you do on a daily basis. When an individual is assaulted, they are often very reluctant to report it.

SHIRLEY MOSES: We have women that have been sexually assaulted, they haven't talked to anyone and they're self-medicating using drugs, alcohol, or whatever they can get a hold of. We might get them into treatment, and a month into treatment they start opening up about the reason they're using substance.

ASHLEY STICKMAN, NATIVE VILLAGE OF KOTZEBUE, MANAGER, MANIILAQ FAMILY CRISIS CENTER: You usually have to get permission to talk about what's happening in your community, or permission to speak on behalf of your family. And some families didn't want to have that type of situation announced. So a lot of it was not talked about.

JACK, YUP’IK: I was sexually abused when I was 5, 6 years old, and I was not believed. I was slapped, hair pulled, been whipped not to tell lies about this man. I was not believed. This was a good man I was trying to report.

ASHLEY STICKMAN: Although this could have happened years ago when they were little, it could have happened recently, that person is hurting inside. They need help, not only from their immediate family but from their communities as well.

JENNIFER MEYER, RN, SANE-A, SART-A, CLINICAL NURSE MANAGER, FORENSIC NURSING SERVICES OF PROVIDENCE: For as much trauma Alaska Native people have faced and continue to deal with, they're incredibly resilient, and I do have faith that they can change the trajectory of where violence in Alaska continues to go.

DIANE BENSON: Given how diverse our communities are, there's no one answer, because we are so different. I am Tlingit. We are not the same as Yup'ik people, or Yup'ik the same as Athabascan people. Being that we are so different culturally, our needs and our approaches are going to be different.

JENNIFER MEYER: There are so many different barriers for reporting. It can be the really obvious things like the person is in a position of authority and to make a report against them is going to impact village life, or perhaps the offender is the main subsistence person in their village, so they might not get a whale if that person's in jail.

SGT. ERIC OLSEN: And when you have those factors in which prohibit you or cause you not to want to report it, it only exacerbates the situation. It gives power to the suspect to assault that victim even more. And in the cycle of violence, you know, it creates those types of offenses to where it just gets worse and worse, and homicides occur out in our regions.

RACHEL GERNAT, FORMER ASSISTANT DISTRICT ATTORNEY, STATE OF ALASKA – PALMER: When someone is in a domestic violence situation, the first thought by people that don't work in this arena is, "Well, they could just leave." You have to even be here just to understand how isolated these communities are. How do you leave when you live 200 air miles from the nearest hub, which is hundreds of air miles from a major city? How do you leave when the ticket can be hundreds of dollars just to get you out? How do you do that? You are talking about people in geographically isolated areas with little services.

LYNN HOOTCH: Our village is located where there's no roads connected to other villages. So the river is our highway.

SGT. MICHAEL HENRY, MAT-SU MAJOR CRIMES UNIT, ALASKA STATE TROOPERS: In some villages, there is literally no local law enforcement presence. In those communities, I think it's very difficult for victims, because even though they have the ability to call for help from the Troopers, they're an airplane ride away in most cases.

ASHLEY STICKMAN: The trooper has to fly into their community with the trooper plane to pick clients up. And if it's wintertime, it's weather permitting, if they can get into the villages to help and respond to these incidents of domestic violence and sexual assault.

SGT. MICHAEL HENRY: And so I think that they feel very vulnerable in those communities.

LYNN HOOTCH: When I first started working as a director at the Emmonak Women's Shelter, I was the only Native director among the 21 shelter program directors. So we would meet, and they would give me curriculums and materials to bring home and use them in my village, you know, to do workshops and to do trainings. And I'd look at the curriculums— how am I going to make this work in my village? What am I supposed to do?

WOMAN: Thanks.

LYNN HOOTCH: We don't have an attorney or a State Trooper, but we have our elders, and we have the ICWA Coordinator, we have Village Public Safety Officers, so using our resources, I would try to form something that they say we should have in the village. We know from the grassroots of how we live...

DIANE BENSON: There are extraordinary women that you'll see all over Alaska, quietly working. They give even if they have no funds. They help protect regardless. Their traditional values are so in place and the need to protect is so much in the forefront that they'll do this work.

LYNN HOOTCH: I've been doing this work for 30-plus years, you know, and I would really like to see more programs that are culturally relevant in the villages, because that's the only way we'll begin to heal.

MICHELLE: I found that talking about it, especially with a counselor, brings a lot of healing. It does make a difference when you have somebody there that will hear you and listen to you and comfort you. That really helped a lot.

WOMAN: We are going to go ahead and do a danger assessment to see if we can fly you into Kotzebue from Selawik.

JENNIFER MEYER: People who do not receive trauma-informed care at the beginning go on to have a lot more chronic health issues and chronic mental health issues. For each person who comes forward at the outset, those people have a better chance of healing more completely and going on to have a healthier outcome.

ELSIE BOUDREAU: We as Native people do not have to be the number one statistic out there as far as sexual assault or domestic violence. We can live peaceful lives. And domestic violence and sexual assault and child sexual abuse are not peaceful.

DIANE BENSON: We have a lot of very difficult, complex issues, whether it's in corrections, courts, jurisdictional problems, providing safety to children, elders. We need to build a more just system.

JENNIFER MEYER: There's been a lot more talking over the last few years. As we talk more, we identify more victims and survivors who need services.

SGT. ERIC OLSEN: We have to address the problem, not just by putting people in jail. We need treatment for the offenders. We have to think of the village, the people, as a whole, and how we take care of the problem.

TERRA ABBOTT: I believe all of us as Native people have to come together to conquer this issue, to conquer a problem that's been residing for generations.

SHIRLEY MOSES: We've always wanted to partner with whoever is responding—state, tribes, you know, the city governments, villages. If we're going to really address issues, we need to do the collaboration. And I think that time has come where we need to do that now.

Date Created: June 8, 2020