One viewer questioned our title for this week’s program, “Alaska’s Invisible Epidemic.” Well she’s right, there’s nothing invisible or hidden about our state’s high rates of violence and sexual assault. 

The black eyes and the bruises around the throats of women, who turn up in shelters with missing teeth, are visible for all to see -- yet from our response, the struggles of these women and their children might as well be invisible -- part of the backdrop of rural life, where violence is often accepted as normal.  

For four days in May, the consequences of violence, in places where justice is out of reach, were front and center.

The U.S. Attorney General, at the invitation of Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, toured the state to see for himself why Alaska has one of the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in the nation – to understand what it means to live in a remote community, with little or no law enforcement – where the only means of escape is by airplane, boat or snow machine.  

Here are the highlights from this week’s show:

  • Status of rural justice: U.S. Attorney General William Barr meets with Native leaders in Anchorage at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. 
  • Enough is enough: Alaska Natives and violence. Rates are high in Alaska, but even higher for Native women and children – numbers that were part of the Tanana Chiefs Conference’s presentation to the attorney general during his trip to Galena.
  • Refuge on the tundra: A visit to the Tundra Women’s Coalition shelter in Bethel, which serves a region the size of the state of Oregon – where many families have come to accept violence as a normal part of life.
  • On the front lines: We follow the U.S. Attorney General on his tour of the Bethel women’s shelter and his boat trip on the Kuskokwim, downriver to Napaskiak, where leaders asked him to declare a state of emergency to address the alcohol-fueled violence in the region.
  • Featured guests: Two Napaskiak leaders reflect on the attorney general’s visit – Sharon Williams, a tribal administrator, and Earl Samuelson, a retired State Trooper pilot. A look at keeping peace in communities, where alcohol can spark violence at any moment. Click here to see an extended interview. 

William Barr’s staff called a trip of this nature unprecedented for an attorney general. It came at a time when there were big issues on the national front.

His visit to Alaska coincided with special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s press conference – a chance for him to avoid the swirl of partisan-charged politics that usually surround him.

In Alaska, Barr appeared to be happy to focus on a different set of problems.  And as he stood on a boardwalk in Napaskiak, he agreed with the tribal chief who asked him to declare an emergency, that a state of emergency does indeed exist and needs to be addressed.

While a U.S. Attorney General cannot wave a magic wand and suddenly transform a violent landscape, decades in the making, into a peaceful scene, the acknowledgement from someone of his political stature is something Alaska Natives have sought from their own state leaders for a long time – recognition that rural communities are in a state of crisis due to the lack of law enforcement and trauma passed across the generations.  

But recognition is still a long ways from results, and the big question: what will Barr do now, or will the visit quietly fade away? The bigger question: will state leaders seize the moment and do their part?   

During his travels in Alaska, the attorney general promised to work with Alaska’s congressional delegation bring more resources to bear – to help craft programs to address Alaska’s unique geographic and cultural circumstances, as well as assist tribal governments in their efforts to implement local solutions.

Barr said, while visiting the Tundra Women’s Coalition shelter in Bethel, “It’s hard for me to imagine… a more vulnerable population in the United States.”

 

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