One night a few years ago, when Geneva was 13, a man she’d grown up with stumbled into the room she shared with her two sisters in Tanana, Alaska, a tiny village northwest of Fairbanks, and climbed on top of her. He was stumbling drunk and aggressive.
“He tried getting into my clothes,” she recalls. “He tried putting his hands under my shorts and inside my shirt.” She struggled and pushed, but he was years her senior and made of muscle; he pulled her on top of him. She kept pushing and yanking until she suddenly shot backwards and tumbled off the bed. “He was so blacked out, he was like still asleep; his eyes were closed,” she says. “I was watching his face, but his face didn’t move at all. His breathing was normal, but his hands…” She pauses, and the word hangs thickly in the air. “His hands felt like he was awake.”
Afterward, she ran into the living room and burst into tears, stuffing her face into a pillow so her parents wouldn’t hear. She didn’t tell them, then; she was scared and ashamed. “I guess I just felt like I was dirty. I guess that’s what victims feel like. They feel dirty and just want to clean everything off.”
The following summer, Geneva was fast asleep at her family’s fish camp downriver, while a group of adults drank and caroused in the next room. She awoke to someone tugging down her pants, reaching between her legs; she struggled and kicked, and he lumbered out of the room.
In fact, Geneva says, she’s been grabbed, chased, followed, and molested so much in her short life that she’s now made it a habit to lock the bedroom door at night and shove a chair under the knob so no one can come in; she’ll wait up, trembling, until everyone at a party is passed out cold before she can comfortably fall asleep. She’s learned to avoid being alone with friends’ dads, or with grandpas at village potlatches, or with boys at basketball games, who’ve repeatedly groped her breasts and buttocks. “It’s just random, like, you’ll think everything’s all normal and then you’ll feel something on your backside,” she says. “You just freeze.”
Geneva is a tall basketball player with bright eyes, rectangular black-framed glasses, and a wide, eager smile. She has no trouble listing accomplishments and affinities: She’s ambidextrous by choice, grew up doing all the rugged outdoor chores men do, raves gleefully over beloved local foods like fried moose heart and walrus in seal oil.
But for years, she felt scared, hypersensitive, and depressed. She never told her parents about the incident; she was too afraid of what would happen, and anyway, when she told one of her sisters, the only response she received was a dry laugh. “It happened to all of us,” her sister had said. “Just leave it alone.”
Growing up in Tanana, a town of 254, the prevalence of this kind of thing was common knowledge, but rarely discussed. Everyone knew the local elder who’d molested and raped his daughters and granddaughters for decades until he was arrested for touching another family’s girls; after four years in jail and another half dozen or so at a cabin downriver, he was back on the village tribal council. One of Geneva’s great aunts was molested and raped by an uncle for years; dozens of years later, the aunt’s grown daughter told her that the same uncle had molested her, too. Sometimes people pressed charges; most of the time, though, nothing happened. “These perverts travel from village to village, from potlatches to dances,” Geneva says. “And then they get drunk and you don’t know what they’re going to do.”
Then, last year, Geneva joined the Tanana 4-H club, a newly minted outlet for local youth of all ages to gather and play games and craft things like blueberry jam and beaver hats. It’s run by Cynthia Erickson, owner of Tanana’s general store and native of Ruby, a village 100 miles downriver. Erickson says she started the program because of suicide: Three years ago, there were six in Tanana. At first, she just wanted to give Tanana’s kids a place to do things with their hands, to go on field trips, to feel supported. But what began as a diversion quickly became a safe place for kids to share all kinds of traumas they were witnessing and experiencing: sexual and domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, death after brutal death. The discussions they’d have were rarely prearranged, Erickson says. Instead, the kids would launch the conversation by saying, “Did you hear what happened?”
Last fall, the group was asked to give a presentation at a statewide conference held by the First Alaskans Institute in Fairbanks. Instead of explaining how they’d come up with their anti-suicide pledge, the kids decided to share the reasons they’d needed one in the first place.
Geneva spoke about her own abuse and described in detail what has been horrifyingly typical for the people around her: A local woman who was gang raped until she could “barely walk.” A young boy who was sexually assaulted by an older man and later killed himself. Tribal elders who commanded respect, but whose behavior didn’t. “I’m still young and I’m already sick of it,” she said. “It’s happening in his house, in her house, even in your own bed.”
The presentation was met with a standing ovation, and it took the kids nearly two hours to make it from the stage to the back of the conference center, thanks to all the members of the audience who stopped to hug them, weep, pile up cash donations on a scarf on the stage, and tell them how proud they were. In some cases, audience members felt inspired to come out about their own abuse. One grandmother told Erickson she’d been raped and abused for so many years, and she’d held it in for so long, that that was the reason that she’d been so harsh to her children. After the presentation, she called her children and apologized to them.The impact that Geneva and her peers made at the conference seemed to launch a new era of transparency in Alaska about domestic and sexual violence; the media splash that followed drew a groundswell of support both for the 4-H youth and for recent state efforts to both document and prevent these crimes. But a few months later, when Erickson asked the kids if they thought their presentation had made a difference in Tanana, they all shrugged and made “zero” signs with their hands. Their stories had rocked the small community, too, but the fresh feeling “didn’t really stick,” Geneva admits. “It went back like the old way.”
In its short history as a state, Alaska has earned an unnerving epithet: It is the rape capital of the U.S. At nearly 80 rapes per 100,000, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report, Alaska’s rape rate is almost three times the national average; for child sexual assault, it’s nearly six times. And, according to the 2010 Alaska Victimization Survey, the most comprehensive data to date, 59 percent of Alaskan women have been victims of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, or both.
But those numbers, say researchers, just skim the surface. Since sex crimes are generally underreported, and may be particularly underreported in Alaska for cultural reasons. “Those numbers are conservative,” says Ann Rausch, a program coordinator at Alaska’s Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. “They’re still staggering.”
The causes of the violence are complex and entrenched. Government officials, law enforcement personnel, and victim advocates note the state’s surfeit of risk factors, from an abundance of male-dominated industries, like oil drilling and the military, to the state’s vast geography, with many communities that have no roads and little law enforcement. “There are so many factors that tip the scale for Alaska,” says Linda Chamberlain, executive director of the Alaska Family Violence Prevention Project. Not the least among them: the lack strong law enforcement presence, or support services of any kind, in remote towns like Tanana. “It’s easier for perpetrators to isolate their victims and not get caught. And for people not to get help.”
Some believe that this fact both attracts and encourages criminals. The suspect for a recent rape in southwest hub community of Dillingham, for instance, was a white man who’d just arrived from somewhere in the Lower 48 to take a job at the Wells Fargo in town. “Because it happens in rural Alaska,” one victim advocate cautions, “doesn’t mean it’s only rural Alaskans who are a part of it.”
It happens at alarming rates in urban Alaska, too. In 2010, Anchorage and Fairbanks had the highest rape rates of all cities in the U.S. Some bars in Anchorage and Fairbanks are known for a prevalence of date rape drugs; others, in Fairbanks, are known for shunning members of the military after too many brutally violent nights. (The U.S. armed forces have their own issues with sexual assault: Investigations across the United States reveal victimhood percentages almost as high as Alaska’s; in late 2013, the Alaska National Guard also launched an investigation of widespread sexual assault allegations within its ranks). John Vandervalk, a sex crime detective in the Anchorage Police Department, claims that the city’s numbers are high partly because of attrition from villages where there are few or no services to address these kinds of crimes. But while rates of victimization are much higher among Alaska Natives—a survey from 2006 that analyzed law enforcement data in Anchorage found Alaska Native women 9.7 times more likely than other Alaskan women to be victims of sexual assault—anyone who works in Alaska’s cities consistently confirms, like Vandervalk, that “this is not an Alaska Native problem. It’s a problem that affects all demographics.”
Lawmakers aren’t blind to the issue. In 2009, Alaska governor Sean Parnell launched Alaska Men Choose Respect, a statewide prevention initiative that combines pervasive public service announcements and annual rallies with a slew of other incentives, including increased sentencing for sex offenses and mini-grants for violence prevention projects.
But some argue that focusing on a centralized criminal justice system and government-led initiatives can only go so far. In a state where hundreds of roadless communities are scattered across hundreds of thousands of miles, and where the storied rates of violence against women can hit 100 percent in some villages, silence is the norm, and violence is almost expected. (Says detective Vandervalk, “You’ll get a Native girl who says, ‘My mom always tells me to wear two pairs of jeans at night to slow him down.’”)
Sara Bernard is a freelance writer and radio reporter based in Seattle.
Rape Culture in the Alaskan Wilderness Sara Bernard SEPTEMBER 11, 2014 Tweet