John Sutter visits one of 75 Alaskan villages with no law enforcement
He says the near-lawlessness of rural Alaska contributes to its high rape rate
Alaska is estimated to have the highest rate of reported rape in the country
Sutter: "Apparently a person's value is determined by her geography"
Over the course of several years, Beth’s boyfriend shattered her elbow, shot at her, threatened to kill her, lit a pile of clothes on fire in her living room, and, she told me, beat her face into a swollen, purple pulp.
These are horrifying yet common occurrences here in the 200-person village of Nunam Iqua, Alaska, which means “End of the Land” in the Yupik Eskimo language.
Yet the violence is allowed to continue in part because Nunam Iqua is one of “at least 75 communities” in the state that has no local law enforcement presence, according to a 2013 report from the Indian Law and Order Commission.
“There would be someone to call for help” if there were police, said Beth, a 32-year-old who asked that I not use her real name because her abuser is still free. “Someone who could actually do something – right there, as soon as they get the call.”
Seems reasonable, huh?
Not in rural Alaska.
Here, state troopers often take hours or days to respond, usually by plane.
The flight takes 45 minutes, at minimum.
Alaska State Troopers will tell you they’re doing the best they can to police a state that’s four times the size of California and has very few roads.
The challenges are daunting, to be sure, and I don’t blame the hard-working law-enforcement officers. But the logistics can’t be an excuse for impunity.
Alaska is failing people who need help most.
High rates of violence
I traveled out here to the village at the edge of land – the kind of place where a Bond villain would hide out, or where WikiLeaks would stash a computer server – in December because the state has the nation’s highest rate of reported rape, according to FBI crime estimates. You voted for me to cover this topic as part of CNN’s Change the List project, which focuses on social justice in bottom-of-the-list places.
There are many reasons Alaska’s rates of violence against women are thought to be so high – from the long, dark winters to the culture of silence and the history of colonization. But the most tangible reason is this: Much of Alaska is basically lawless.
The scope of the tragedy in Nunam Iqua, a Yupik Eskimo village, is unthinkable: Nearly every woman has been a victim of domestic or gender-based violence, rape or other sex crimes, according to women I met in town; a corrections officer in Bethel, Alaska, the regional hub; the director of the women’s shelter in Emmonak, Alaska; and Nunam Iqua Mayor Edward Adams Sr., whose wife was slashed across the face by a family member, he said – and who has a bullet lodged behind his right ear.
“I don’t hear anymore” out of that ear, he said.
Statewide, 59% of women suffer from intimate partner or sexual violence.
Alaska’s governor, Sean Parnell, has tried to address this public safety emergency by asking the state legislature to further expand a program that puts Village Public Safety Officers, or VPSOs, in remote places like Nunam Iqua. Those officers carry Tasers and police batons, but no guns, at least for now. The program has expanded in recent years and is an important step toward ensuring that Alaska Native people and women have the same access to justice that other Americans enjoy. Parnell’s proposed 2015 budget calls for 15 VPSOs and one trooper to be added, at a cost of $3.4 million.
That’s a sound investment. Sexual assault cases are 3 1/2 times as likely to be prosecuted in villages where the officers are present, said Andre Rosay, director of the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center. “By the time troopers arrive there has been a little bit of a delay, and the Village Public Safety Officer is able to capture things more as they happened,” he told me. They also “act as a liaison between the victim and the criminal justice system,” he said, making it more likely victims will press charges.
Rates of serious injury from assaults are also 40% lower in villages with a VPSO, he said.
It remains to be seen which villages would be chosen to get a VPSO if the proposed budget is approved, said Sharon Leighow, the governor’s press secretary. Adding 15 officers isn’t enough, but I hope Nunam Iqua is among the villages considered.
Nunam Iqua’s beyond-remote location at the mouth of the Yukon River, near the Bering Sea, is a source of the village’s strange charm and also its problems. It’s so remote that pilots call the land between the village and the regional hub “The Twilight Zone.” Snowy tundra is pocked with frozen, amoeba-shaped lakes and jagged, twisting rivers. From the air, it looks like a cell under a microscope.
The village, where children walk across a frozen lake to school and where a few families still empty “honey buckets” of their waste into the dump, because they don’t have running water or sewage, is not connected to the outside world by road, meaning that it’s impossible to reach the village much of the year by land.
Alaska State Troopers, who are stationed in Bethel, more than 150 miles away, and Emmonak, 20 miles away, must travel by plane, snowmobile or boat.
Delays can be tragic.
In October 2005, for example, a 13-year-old girl in Nunam Iqua was raped “on a bed with an infant crying beside her and her 5-year-old brother and 7-year-old cousin watching” during the more than four hours it took troopers to arrive by air from Bethel, according to an Amnesty International Report titled “Maze of Injustice.”
“After raping the girl, the man fired a shotgun, reportedly missing her by inches,” the report says. When I asked about the rape in the village, a few people said they didn’t remember it. Perhaps that’s because of so many subsequent tragedies.
Or perhaps it’s because the emotional wounds are still too fresh.
Because response times are so long, some Nunam Iqua residents have stopped calling the authorities entirely, forced to handle urgent matters on their own.
Adams, the mayor with the bullet lodged behind his ear, is the first call for many. The 72-year-old is essentially a one-man dynasty in Nunam Iqua: He’s been mayor of the village since 1979 and president of the local tribal council since 1992.
The mayor isn’t as young as he used to be, though, so he increasingly relies on his 24-year-old son, Edward Adams Jr., to help police the town, unarmed.
They’re doing their best, but they’re no replacement for badge-wearing authorities. The younger Adams tried to help Beth, the woman who was being beaten by her boyfriend, but her assailant came at him with a gun, he said. So he did the only rational thing: He backed off. She suffered for years without help.
In the void, a local arms race has emerged.
“Some people do get trigger-happy, and I have to stay up and protect my family,” said Andy Stern, 35. “And to protect my family, I have to have a loaded gun ready.”
Basic services like medical care and fire service are largely missing. A medical professional only staffs a local clinic some days, because she must rotate to other villages. Paula Napoka, that health aid, said others have left the job because it’s dangerous. In 2010, health workers made headlines when they quit because of a “hostile environment” and refused to return without a trooper escort.
Residents told me they responded to a deadly house fire this summer by throwing buckets of water at the blaze and using hand-held fire extinguishers. A fire hose was available, they said, but by the time it was used the blaze was out of control.
I met Margaret Shelton, 67, who said she lost her son and grandson in the fire. She sits holed up in a back room of a house on stilts, knitting dozens of pairs of gloves and watching VHS tapes to mournfully pass her days. She thinks trained first-responders – even a Village Public Safety Officer – could have saved her family.
“I wish there was one here,” she said. “Too many drunks.”
Violence becomes normal
Talk to anyone long enough and a story of violence emerges. I met Roger Canoe, 65, a cheery guy who invites strangers to the wood-fired “steam room” behind his house and who took me ice fishing one afternoon. His son is a convicted sex offender, he told me, and other people he knows have suffered sex abuse.
He told me one of his several neighbors fires bullets into the air at night when he drinks. Possessing, selling and importing alcohol are illegal here in a “dry” village that, from what I heard, is wet as the sea. Locals make “home brew” alcohol in large plastic buckets, often consuming the whole vat in one sitting. Recipe: water, sugar and yeast. Let stand for 24 hours.
The situation is so bad that Canoe and his wife, Ursula, 52, are thinking of leaving.
If a public safety officer came, she said, they’d stay.
“I think, what if I go across (the lake) one of these days and they’re shooting?” she said. “What am I going to do? Probably just lay there on the ground.”
What’s scarier is that other residents seem to tolerate the violence. No one likes it, of course. But, in the same way the resident of a war-torn country might say they’ve got no choice but to go on living, people here are trying to adapt to this normal. They’ll tell you this is a lovely, “quiet” place. They’ll mention the bounties of fish the river provides and how unseasonably warm these 15-degree temperatures are for December. How the whole place turns emerald green in the summer.
“It’s safe here,” said Paul Raphael, 47. “I don’t worry about anything out here. It’s peaceful out here. Everybody gets along with everybody.”
Some of that can be chalked up to residents wanting to put a good face forward for an outsider with a notebook. But I also had the sense that the persistent, all-around-you violence has a numbing quality – that it becomes somewhat expected or tolerated. A largely unspoken evil that haunts this town, leaving dark bags under peoples’ eyes and dulling their sense of hope that things will change.
Those who already have survived violence sometimes watch as their abusers receive little or no punishment. I met a young person who suffered sexual abuse as a child and must see the offender in the village frequently.
Still others, I’m told, don’t turn in their abusers because, especially in a tiny and isolated indigenous society, they’re needed to hunt and fish – to ensure the survival of a place that lives communally, with the assistance of everyone.
These values change a society, though.
Places with high levels of social disorganization and high acceptance of violence also tend to have higher rape rates, said Murray Straus, co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire.
He uses a cold analogy to make his point: Think of rape as stealing sex.
“If you have a society where there’s social disorganization, where people are lax in following the rules, don’t believe in them in some cases, then you’re going to have more cars stolen and more sex stolen,” he said. “If it’s a society where there is a lot of violence and violence is approved in order to set things right, then more people are going to use violence to get what they want, whether that’s a car or sex.”
Much of the violence here occurs within families, which actually makes Nunam Iqua harder to police. Locals gave conflicting reasons as to why the village doesn’t have a Village Public Safety Officer. Some said they town lacks appropriate housing (the school principal says he has space); others that the village lacks money. Regardless of resources, however, I met former VPSOs who had been policing the village but left the job – one after only a matter of days – because it was too stressful.
That’s partly because of the high crime rate, but also because, in a village where everyone knows everyone, and most people are related, it’s hard to intervene.
The village needs outside help, the mayor told me.
Decades ago, village elders would have played a more substantial role in keeping the peace. But the village isn’t connected to that history much these days, he said.
The logistics are tricky for outsiders, too.
The group that hires VPSOs in southwest Alaska could afford to pay an officer in Nunam Iqua, according to Capt. Steven Arlow, who manages the program for the state troopers from Anchorage. “They literally could hire six VPSOs today,” he told me by phone.
“It’s not because we don’t want to” have law enforcement in villages like Nunam Iqua, he said. “No one wants to take these jobs.”
He asked me if I, personally, would want to be in law enforcement in the remote village. What if I paid you $100,000 and built you a house out there somewhere, he said. And assume you have young children. Would you go?
I shrugged it off saying I wouldn’t want to be in law enforcement anywhere.
So how would you fix it? he asked me, seeming genuinely interested.
Maybe advertise the positions more broadly? I said. I met teachers in the village who are from the lower 48 and moved to Nunam Iqua because they wanted to help.
There have to be cops like that – in Alaska, Nebraska, somewhere.
“They get off the plane for a couple of days and they’re gone,” he said.
Perhaps the person who would stay is reading this.
On my last night in Nunam Iqua, I attended a series of short, holiday-themed plays in the school gym. Students sang a localized version of “12 Days of Christmas” (“… and a ptarmigan in a willow tree …”) and danced to “What Does the Fox Say?” (in honor of the school mascot). It was heartening to see nearly 100 community members under one roof – and, despite its problems, the village is home to many resilient and strong people, people who tell you they desperately want the violence to end.
I met a husband and wife who run a “safe house” in town, where victims of domestic violence and sexual assault can seek free shelter until they can fly to Bethel or Emmonak, where under-funded organizations take them in and help them find jobs. The couple, who didn’t want to be identified because their services and location are a secret, said they talk to their children about what these victims experience.
“We tell the boys not to do what you’ve seen,” the husband said.
During the performances, however, I couldn’t help but think of Beth, the woman who was beaten for so many years and who is safe now, she told me, only because a family member eventually got up the courage to call the state troopers this summer. A restraining order now keeps her abusive ex-boyfriend out of the village, she said.
I thought about the school principal, Russell Clark. His office is down the hall, and taped to his desk are five business cards from law enforcement officials – just in case, heaven forbid, violence permeates schools walls.
And, mostly, I thought of the bright-eyed girls in the play – the same girls I saw jumping into snowbanks, screaming with delight, just for the fun of it; the same girls who insisted on carrying camera tripods for the clumsy out-of-town journalists; and the same girls who begged me to say hi to Rihanna for them when I got home (because, obviously, I know Rihanna). They were the sweetest, kindest kids.
Remember the statewide statistics: Most of them will suffer some form of gender-based violence, abuse or threats in their lifetimes. And local statistics could be worse.
It’s just haunting.
After the skits ended, and parents exited the auditorium holding slices of cake and wrapping their kids in fur-lined jackets, a women’s basketball team held practice in the gym. Around 10:30 p.m., one of the players knocked on the door of the classroom where videographer Brandon Ancil and I had been staying.
Lock the doors, she told us. Someone on this side of town is drunk and shooting.
We both ran out into the school lobby to offer assistance – but, really, what assistance? We saw the players jump on their snowmobiles and ATVs, kicking up snow as they sped into the darkness that suffocates the village in the winter months.
Text me when you get home, one of them said.
Let me know you made it safe.
If they hadn’t, I couldn’t help but wonder, who would step in to help?
Me? My co-worker? The principal?
The next morning, Ancil and I saw a state trooper step off a small Cessna airplane, big enough for about four passengers with luggage.
Did you come because of the shots fired last night? Ancil asked him.
The trooper’s response was telling:
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.