Under any circumstances it would have been a memorable picture. It caught in an instant a bright young lady with a wonderful smile participating in the ancient customs of her people. It caught a fleeting moment in time when everything seemed possible and the future held no limits. In a tragic instant, it became a portrait of what might have been.
I'm probably not the only person who saw that picture of Kake teenager Mackenzie Howard, surrounded by flowers in a boat just hours before her death, and felt profound sadness. I'm probably not the only person who looked at it and hoped against hope that neither alcohol nor sexual assault would be part of what killed her, even though it was almost inevitable that one, if not both, would be. I know I'm not the only person who looked at that picture and prayed to whatever god there is that she did not suffer.
Bush Alaska has a horrible statistical record when it comes to crimes like domestic violence and sexual assault. Alcohol and drug addictions numbers are off the charts too, even when compared to urban areas of this state. The Bush certainly doesn't have a lock on those crimes. But Bush villages are so small, isolated and vulnerable that the statistics take on a larger than life feel.
The pain that comes with the crimes that are so prevalent in the Bush would cause most of us to crumble. But the people of Bush Alaska don't crumble easily. They have a strength that can only be called amazing. They have a faith and belief so bedrock and solid that even a death this unimaginable, while shaking them to their foundations, does not break them.
As this story unfolds and we find out the details of the homicide, it will only get uglier. There can be no nice way out. It is almost inevitable that the family will know the killer. After all, people gathered for the funeral of a respected elder are bound to be the primary suspects. It's not like some stranger could have committed this crime and then drove off in a car.
When such a horrendous crime happens in such a small community, the pain reverberates with overwhelming power because there are no strangers in these villages. There are only friends and relatives, schoolmates and hunting buddies, people who have known each other since infancy. If one of them committed this atrocity, that means the community not only loses this beautiful young lady, but also loses another community member, a person who had once been trusted, a person who had once been part of the extended family that is the village community in Bush Alaska.
In many ways, the murder will not hurt the village as much as finding out that the perpetrator was someone from within their world, not an evil outsider come to harm them. Once that basic trust has been so shredded, it is hard to reconstruct. It is hard to once again walk the village at night without fear. It is hard to believe that you could knock on any door and find warmth and safety. Without that, village life becomes so much harder.
The people of Kake will survive this tragedy. They will survive the arrest of whoever committed this crime. They will find a way to heal the fabric of their lives because this is what they do and what they have done as a group for as far back as their common memory can extend. But it will never really be the same because at every gathering, every potluck, every dance, there will be an empty place where a pretty girl in pink and red once sat, viewing the world in front of her as limitless. That hole will never truly be filled - not by finding the murderer, not by his or her punishment, not by time.
Villagers do not forget those who have gone before. They keep the memories alive and in doing so, they keep their humanity alive against all odds. The perpetrator may have taken a young promising life from the village of Kake, but he or she did not take the life of the village. That life, that spirit, will go on as it always has. And Mackenzie Howard will always be a part of it.
Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow. Web site, www.elisepatkotak.com.
By ELISE PATKOTAK