Nowhere to Turn

For years Alaska Native women have been urging officials to address a crisis of violence throughout their state: reported rape is twice the national average, and child sexual violence six times the national average.  Alaska’s western region has the highest rate of felony sex offenses in the state; and the overwhelming majority of victims are Alaska Native.

In Nome, a city of fewer than 4,000 full-time residents that serves as a regional hub for dozens of smaller villages across western Alaska’s Bering Strait region, rape survivors and their supporters say the city’s police department has often failed to investigate sexual assaults or keep survivors informed about what is happening with their cases, even after they underwent invasive rape exams. Sometimes, they say, police wouldn't respond to sexual assault calls--- a claim supported by former department insiders. Survivors say that when assaults are reported by Alaska Native residents and visitors, police are less likely to pay attention and investigate thoroughly.

Over half of Nome's residents are Alaska Native, largely of Inupiaq and Yupik heritage, but the city power structure is overwhelmingly white. None of the police department’s sworn officers are Alaska Native.

Officials and citizens in Nome are still struggling to come to grips with a history of strains between its police force and the Alaska Native community. There has been some progress. Local police have new leadership and the police department announced it was taking a new look at hundreds of old sexual assault cases. The city council approved the creation of a citizens board to review police conduct.

A key catalyst for change has been an informal support group formed by survivors of sexual assault and other violence. The group, worried about a backlash, had met quietly on the edge of town for three years to plan their efforts. At first members tried to work behind the scenes with police and city leaders, but made little headway. They finally went public with their concerns in the spring of 2018.

Despite being thrust into the spotlight, the city has been slow to react, critics say, and loathe to acknowledge past harms against native residents.

“We can’t look away for one minute, or all of this goes away” says Lisa Navraq Ellanna, an Inupiaq resident of Nome.