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Rural Alaska

Sexual assault gets urgent attention at AFN convention

Delegates applaud during keynote address by Lt. Gov. Valerie Davidson during the AFN Convention in the Dena’ina Center on Thursday. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Calls to combat high rates of sexual assault are front and center at the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention that began Thursday in the wake of two brutal attacks against Alaska Native females that generated widespread outrage.

Those cases are just recent events in a longstanding problem, said Nicole Borromeo, AFN general counsel.

Alaska Federation of Natives general counsel Nicole Borromeo at the AFN Convention in the Dena’ina Center on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. (Bill Roth / ADN)

"There's going to be a call for action for real change," she said Wednesday.

The state's largest Native organization will consider three resolutions addressing sexual assault during its annual three-day convention at the Dena'ina Center in Anchorage, one of the largest gatherings of indigenous people in the U.S.

One proposal calls for an independent investigation into the Alaska justice system for what the proposal says is "disparate" treatment of Alaska Native offenders and women who are victims.

"We're not singling out any particular department or division. But it's looking at how we are treating victims and offenders and what we need to do better as a whole state,"Borromeo said.

Underscoring the problem in recent weeks are:

• The rape and slaying of 10-year-old Ashley Johnson-Barr in Kotzebue, prompting statewide grief and community marches in solidarity. Peter Wilson, 41, has been charged with kidnapping, sex abuse and murder in that case.

• A controversial plea deal for former air-traffic controller Justin Schneider, 34, approved last month, that resulted in no immediate jail time. Schneider choked a Native woman who accepted a ride with him, then masturbated onto her after she passed out. Protesters called for the ouster of Anchorage Superior Court Judge Michael Corey, who approved the deal.

• The stories of two Native women, Clarice "Bun" Hardy and Deidre Levi. They've questioned the city of Nome's willingness to investigate their rapes.

Jahna Lindemuth, Alaska attorney general, said she supports the call for an independent investigation.

According to the resolution before AFN, the Alaska Judicial Council, which screens judicial applicants and conducts studies to improve the justice system, would handle the review. The study would include the state's Department of Public Safety, the criminal law division and courts, and police departments statewide.

Lindemuth sees it being conducted in consultation with the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center.

"We (the Walker administration) welcome that point of view," Lindemuth said. "If something is a problem, we certainly want to know about it and we want to address it."

Lindemuth said the resolution takes an unusual approach in calling for a look at disparities that might exist in treatment of victims, not just offenders, who have been studied multiple times.

The resolution submitted by the Alaska Native Justice Center says there is no data on "investigation, charging, bail, plea bargain and sentencing decisions where the offender is non-Native and the victim is Native."

AFN resolutions are nonbinding.

Dozens more will be considered during the convention on a range of topics. They serve as a call to action for the group representing more than 140,000 Natives.

Other resolutions include support for fighting opioids, meth and other drugs in Native communities, and will be voted on Saturday by thousands of delegates.

Debbie Atuk, 48 and on the board of directors of the Bering Straits Native Corp., wrote one resolution calling for Alaska Natives to lead the state in breaking the silence around child sexual abuse.

Debbie Atuk survived abduction and sexual assault in Anchorage when she was 10 years old. (Bill Roth / ADN)

More than half the victims of sex abuse in Alaska are Alaska Natives, though they represent about 20 percent of the population, the Department of Public Safety reported in 2017.

Atuk said she was driven by the death of 10-year-old Johnson-Barr to tell her own story of being a victim of sexual assault, in hopes it encourages more people to come forward.

She was first sexually assaulted at age 7 in Nome, at the hands of a babysitter. It happened a second time, at age 10, in Anchorage's Mountain View neighborhood, when she and a friend were assaulted by a young man who knew her friend's family. He gestured as if he had a gun, forced them inside a janitorial closet, and threatened them if they talked.

They left "crying, choking and spitting" after what amounted to forced oral sex, and possibly worse for her friend.

They had difficulty at the time describing to adults what had happened, terrified of saying too much. Police never solved the crime.

"We felt like we were responsible for our lives and our families' lives," Atuk said.

The resolution she introduced, now sponsored by several Native groups including the NANA Regional Corp., seeks increased training for investigators.

It calls for more support for victims and families, for their safety, mental health resources to deal with the trauma, and education for communities so they don't alienate victims who speak out.

Atuk felt ashamed and isolated, and often physically sick, after children in school learned about what happened. She felt as if she'd "self-destruct" in high school.

"It took me 30 years to process this" and go on to lead a successful life, she said, graduating with business-related degrees from Dartmouth College and the University of Chicago.

"Kids need to learn that if something bad happens to them, it doesn't make them a bad person," she said. "People need to be taught that ostracizing the victim perpetuates the violence."

Since sharing her story on KTUU last week, teachers and former classmates who remembered Atuk thanked her for coming forward. That let Atuk know she's done the right thing, helping her continue to heal.

Gov. Bill Walker, speaking to the AFN convention early Thursday, praised Alaska Native women who have shared their stories.

"To all the women that have come forward about mistreatment in their life, thank you. You are brave. You deserve respect," he said.

The issue of sexual assault received prominent attention at this week's First Alaskans Institute's Elders and Youth Conference, a precursor to the AFN convention.

Fairbanks performer Julian Lillie, aka Bishop Slice, brought tears to eyes on Tuesday when he rapped about two village kids struggling with low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts after they were molested.

"I know it's hard living in the vill, and you pray to God like why you gotta deal, with all the hurt and pain that a Native gotta feel, all these wounds inflected are too deep for them to heal," he said.

More than 1,000 youth and elders in the audience gave him a standing ovation.

Lillie told a reporter after the performance that every Native female he has dated was molested. People need to talk about it, he said, in part to help young people come forward so perpetrators can be caught.

"Some people like to sweep it under the rug, but if you do, it gets worse and worse," Lillie said.

As he spoke, a woman came and shook his hand.

"The girl sitting next to me had tears in her eyes," the woman said. "Thank you."

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