Lyle James teaches Tlingit language and culture in Juneau schools, a passion that has been part of his own healing from childhood abuse. 

He believes that Alaska Native culture and tradition can also help communities heal — and he brought a group of men to a rocky beach on the shores of Auke Bay, just outside Juneau, to see why.

The men were part of a statewide conference which drew violence-prevention workers, counselors and others just interested in helping to build safer communities. 

They convened for what was simply called a “Men’s Gathering,” in which about four dozen people, mostly men, spent the last weekend of June talking about what men can do to help combat one of the highest domestic violence and sexual assault rates in the nation.

James led a panel which explored “toxic masculinity” — a limited and destructive concept of manhood in which physical strength, sex and violence are promoted as the norm.

As a follow-up, James brought the men to the beach to appreciate the beauty of masculinity — when men embrace the role of providers and protectors, unafraid to show emotion or even their vulnerability. The group butchered four seals together.

First, James asked the men to approach the task with reverence.

“Keep in mind that this was a living being. It gave its life to us,” said James, as he pointed to the seals he had carefully laid out on the beach. “So we don’t want to say anything that would disrespect this being.”

The men made easy work of carrying the heavy seals to the water to rinse the blood and then hoisted them on tables.  

Casey Ferguson, who is originally from the Southwest Alaska community of Chevak, explained to men unfamiliar with the process how every part of the seal was used. Even the flippers are wrapped in grass and fermented underground, a process he said sweetens the meat. 

“It’s an acquired taste, for sure." Ferguson said as he separated the flippers.

Della Cheney, a Juneau elder with family in Kake, a small village about a 100 miles south of Juneau, looked on from a distance. She was happy to watch the men work because she believes men are at their best when they feel productive and useful.

She says she’s concerned about the loss of status of men in rural Alaska, due to the lack of jobs.

“There’s no place for the unemployed man to take care of those children, except to love them,” Cheney said.

But instead, she says, some turn to anger and violence out of frustration.

“In our community recently, we’ve lost two of my granddaughters very violently,” Cheney said about her family in Kake. “There has to be some way in order for us to stop the killing, to stop the abuse.”

Cheney said men, in their traditional role as providers, put women and children first and considered it their responsibility to be mindful of what was going on in the community.

"If you see someone being beaten or someone being cursed at or being just mistreated, to say something, to pay attention, to listen,” she said. It's what the men working on the beach have pledged to do.

As they carved up the seals, they talked about how good it felt to work together, even those new to the experience, like James White, a Juneau middle school teacher. 

“What you see is love for the land and the animals and respect. And I think that’s really maybe what to me is more what masculinity is. It’s not what you see on the outside, ” White said. 

James told them it was good preparation to launch a men’s movement because the work will be extremely challenging and will require them to stretch their boundaries. 

Johan Echohawk Atkinson, who helps kids in Metlakatla connect to their Native culture, said every man in the group either knows someone who has experienced violence or has a close friend or relative who has been victimized.

While that unites them with a common purpose, Atkinson says the seal harvest has given them a chance to learn about each other and build trust — bonds that will be important as they work together to make a difference.

“Men from Nome, men from Chevak, Metlakatla, Juneau, all corners of Alaska — when they go home, every single village in the state is going to be influenced," Atkinson said. “This is historic. This is huge for men all over this state.”

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