According to STAR (Standing Together Against Rape), Alaska's rape rate is two-and-a-half times the national average, and the rate of child sexual assault in the state is nearly six times the national average. 

So what might reverse these stubborn statistics?

A group of about 60 people, mostly men, from across the state met in Juneau recently, looking to men for answers.

Last month's weekend conference was simply called Men’s Gathering. The group met in the library at the University of Alaska Southeast to do some soul-searching.  

The first round of meetings began with a prayer from Tlingit-Haida elder Della Cheney.

Cheney spoke of how spruce tree pitch that was traditionally applied to wounds helped to heal them from the inside out; she called on the men to begin their dialogue in the spirit of forgiveness, in order to begin the healing.

“Empathy and compassion for the one who hurt me, or the one I hurt, and my wound will heal from the inside out,” she said.

Many of the discussions focused on how men might heal themselves.

Damen Bell-Holter is a professional basketball player who grew up in Hydaberg and briefly played for the Boston Celtics. He says he had no positive male role models during his youth.

“Every single day I witnessed domestic violence; that is why I am here,” he told the group.

Bell-Holter recalled what teammates would say to each other during their teen years, even as he took part in basketball programs outside Alaska.  

“We were asking each other, what’s your body count? How many women have you slept with? And that’s cringy,” he said.

He said these attitudes came from older men.  

“Hydaberg is very well known for basketball, so I’d watch all these men who I aspired to be like abusing women and being womanizers,” he said.

Bell-Holter travels and puts on camps that mix basketball with conversation about what it means to be a man. He says that discussion needs to be carried on in every Alaska community.

Ati Nasiah, a Juneau woman who is the prevention director for AWARE (Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies), told the group that seeing the men come together made her feel emotional and touched a tender spot in her heart.

Nasiah believes the Men’s Gathering is unprecedented and would be a historic, welcome change if it launches a statewide men’s movement.

“I’ve had the journey of spending nights in the emergency room with women after they’ve been assaulted,” she said. “And much of that violence is a result of this toxic masculinity that hurts families, hurts men and hurts women.”

Dallas Goldtooth, a Native activist who now lives in Chicago, believes that what older men say to boys and to each other could have life and death consequences.

“My daughters' lives are on the line,” he said. “And the women in our community — their lives are on the line.”

Goldtooth told the gathering that men have to get out of what he calls the "man box" — a prescribed set of emotions or reactions that society considers acceptable for men to exhibit.

“Creator gave us a whole plethora, a whole entire rainbow of emotions, and yet because of the man box, because of what we define to be a man, we’re only allowed to choose a handful of those emotions to respond to a scenario,” he said.

Goldtooth says then men learn things like “I can’t cry in front of women, because that means I have to step outside the boundaries of what it means to be a man.”

It’s easy to be angry about violence against women, Goldtooth noted, but it's important to focus that anger to the right place.

“That’s a typical man thing. I want to punch something. I want to go kick somebody’s ass,” he said. “There’s somebody out there I need to go after to fix the problem, when — a lot of times — it's something inside.”

Goldtooth drew laughter from the crowd when he said, “We have to kick our own asses.”

At the gathering, the men pledged to return home and raise awareness about what men can do to help their communities become healthier.

“The spirit of violence, you have to outsmart it,” said Doug Modig, a longtime Native sobriety leader. “And you begin to create calmness and the ability to walk in the world, where you can, in fact, love everyone.”

There was widespread agreement in the group that men need to police themselves to be sure they are setting good examples for young men and boys, as well as spend more time guiding those young people on the path to manhood. But the important thing to do right now, they agreed, is to speak out against violence and bad behavior whenever they encounter it.

The men hope to hold another gathering in Anchorage later this year and each pledged to bring more men with them.

The Juneau Men’s Gathering from June 28-30, was sponsored by AWARE, ANDVSA (the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault), Goldbelt Heritage Foundation and the Sealaska Native corporation.

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