By Cordelia Qiġnaaq Kellie
I had been in Barrow just over a week when I received a call from First Alaskans Institute, a statewide indigenous leadership development and policy center, inviting me back to Anchorage to meet with United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Seeking to spend a few months of uninterrupted time in the region where my family lives and is from, I was already leaving, but for an exciting purpose: a small group of young Alaska Native leaders were gathering to share experiences of how we have been exposed to the issues and challenges Alaska Natives face in an authentic and unscripted way.
I was going to meet the Attorney General! Soon after the invitation, I already knew in my heart what I wanted to share.
The North Slope is a beautiful and complex place, full of diversity between each of the eight villages which comprise our region. Each community has a distinct history, personality, and many of the communities in modern form evolved from various Iñupiaq groups who historically traded and at times, waged war with one another. These communities comprise some of the most generous, sincere and loving people that I know; alongside this likeness, there are also a host of issues that plague the region, not unlike the rest of Alaska. It was issues like these, and my experience with them, that the Attorney General of the United States, a member of President Obama’s Cabinet, sought to hear.
Last Friday morning, I boarded the plane and a friend picked me up in Anchorage. On the flight, I committed to sharing what it was that I came to say. I didn’t know that when I arrived at the meeting, I would lean on that commitment.
The meeting was Cook Inlet Tribal Council’s (CITC) conference room, a circular space with a round conference table and placards with our names, indicating where we were to sit, but it was the abundant security detail that I noticed first. Every seat was taken. All of the other young Native leaders were sitting to my right, and Department of Justice officials were filling the seats to my left, as well as representatives from the Alaska Federation of Natives and CITC. Additional legal professionals were also in attendance, as well as the media. It was quite the affair.
I began speaking to the guests around me, until someone said, “Something is happening.” Additional security walked into the room, there was quicker walking outside, and in walked the Attorney General of the United States. My first impression was that she was kind, strong, and warm.
The meeting hosts opened the meeting, stated the purpose of the meeting, and the first youth began to share her story, of sexual abuse and domestic violence, to the accompanying sound of camera shutters. The next echoed similar circumstances, personalized with the challenges in his community. The Attorney General listened intently as we all heard these raw, personal accounts of overcoming homelessness and poverty, racial discrimination, and striving to thrive while battling immense abuse, violence and trauma. Eight stories of tremendous adversity yielded eight accounts of overcoming the darkest aspects of our state.
The young leader to my right had just finished speaking about the healing, shared value of humor and how humor has saved his life, when all too soon, there was only silence in the room, because it was now my turn.
I was slightly shaking. But something I learned long ago is that bravery is not the absence of fear, but choosing to act in spite of it, and I thought to myself, “If I don’t say this now, the Attorney General is never going to hear it.”
I knew that most people in the room were not going to understand me, but I was taught to introduce myself in Iñupiaq; in doing so, you are representing the truest version of who you are. My name is Qiġnaaq. My family is from Wainwright. I am Iñupiaq. I was born in Anchorage. I come from the Tagarook and James families. These are my grandparents and great grandparents. I am so very happy to be here.
I continued, “We’ve had the opportunity to hear stories about a number of different challenges that affect Alaska Native people. We’ve heard about the trials of dealing with domestic violence, sexual assault, homelessness, suicide, poverty, and all forms of abuse. Today I hope to bring a big-picture perspective to all of this: It never used to be this way.
We never used to know suicide. We never used to know displacement. All these ways that to us now seem so normal – this is not normal. Some think that these issues exist because of who we are as Alaska Natives, and that is not the truth; these issues are due to that which happened to us, not very long ago. We never used to be this way. This is not normal.
I can see this in my own family’s line. My great-grandmother had her challenges. My grandma wasn’t okay. And my mom wasn’t okay. But I’m okay. And my nephew is okay. And the cycle of generational trauma, that’s how it ends. Everyone in my lineage before my great-grandma was okay, and everyone after me, including my nephew, will be okay, and this just needs to happen family by family, and that’s how whole communities heal.
I think of the image of a grenade going off in my mother’s hand of all the factors the other leaders spoke of; I received the shrapnel, residual pieces of her experiences; but my nephew, he is too far removed from this to have a single mark. There are some areas of the world where indigenous people are so entrenched with similar issues and experiences for so long, you ask yourself, “Where do you even begin?” regarding the road to recovery, but our great hope is how this has happened to us so recently, within the realm of living memory. My great vision for our people is that in 100 years, we will look back and think about how in the entire timeline of our peoples, all of this was that one weird thing that happened to us that one time.”
That was conceptually what I wished to impart. But there was also something tangible I have been researching since I moved to Barrow a few weeks ago, to live and work for the summer, an example that showcases the inequity too many in rural Alaska have to face.
I told her a condensed version of how when I got to Barrow, my good friend told me, “All charges for crimes less than a felony have been dropped for a year.”
I asked how that could be possible.
“I’m not sure, but it’s been this way since the DA’s office here shut down last summer,” he said.
But like any place in Alaska, the North Slope is going to have its share of challenges, and in this duration, it’s not as if people weren’t getting arrested for crimes.
As I was the only person flying in from the North Slope who would be in attendance, and knowing I was representing the challenges of our region, I sought out to do my homework, and at every opportunity, I talked and asked about crime and justice issues here. What were the shared sentiments? What were people saying? My friend told me that some think that those in the justice system feel like, “Oh, Eskimos are forgiving, so we don’t have to do too much. Eskimos will forgive each other,” or “She’ll just go back to him.” Another friend told me of how she woke up to someone unbuttoning and unzipping her pants. She chased him out of her house, called the cops and nothing was done. I asked another friend if she had heard about the dropped charges, and she said, “Yes! Yes, for a year! Ever since the DA’s office closed! And even though the District Attorney here was shot and killed last summer, they were going to close it here anyway.”
I had heard enough to be direct about getting additional information, so last week, I met with a senior representative of the North Slope Borough Police Department. I asked about what I was hearing regarding the year of uniformly dropped charges. He shared that it was akin to the truth in the sense that in instances where you might see prosecution, he was seeing bail, fines, sweet deals and yes, dropped charges instead, because of the case loads and budget cuts. He also spoke of how the Fairbanks DA’s office, who took over the cases from Barrow and the North Slope, were finally getting to cases for crimes that happened here in Barrow last summer.
As my information rose, thus did my indignation. This was the level of protection that was being provided to my region? My family, my friends, our community – how could this be okay? And additionally, if so many of our North Slope questions were stemming from the Fairbanks DA’s office, what was happening on the other end? Two days after meeting with the NSB Police Department, I decided to place a call to the office of the Fairbanks District Attorney.
“Hi, my name is Cordelia Kellie calling from Barrow, and I would like to talk to someone regarding the congestion of cases coming out of Barrow and how misdemeanor cases are being dropped?”
“And who are you with?”
“I’m unaffiliated, but…” –Lightbulb– “I actually have a meeting in the morning with the Attorney General of the United States and I have some questions regarding case prosecution in Barrow in advance of that meeting.” I was on hold, and then patched through to a senior representative of the Fairbanks District Attorney’s office.
I introduced myself and told him the purpose of the meeting with the US Attorney General. I told him that I had heard that cases were not being prosecuted for a year. He said, “That is completely untrue.” But in hoping to dispel inaccurate notions, it was the truth that was more frustrating than fiction.
The representative spoke of the budget cuts I had been hearing about and how they were affecting his office. He spoke of everything they were doing to provide the best service to their district; there was a dedicated prosecutor, for example, whose sole responsibility is to prosecute Barrow and North Slope cases. He also spoke in strong support of empowering tribal courts to take some of these cases, as misdemeanor crimes are being screened statewide, that in the past, might have been taken. In 2008, when he first went to Barrow, there was a glut of cases that weren’t moving and felonies were being classified as misdemeanors – with prosecution coming out of Fairbanks, at least he can oversee systemic standards such as correct designations for crime.
But because of the fiscal crisis and financial constraints, the bottom line is that they can only take the cases they can afford to prosecute. They have to take the “best cases,” as in, the airtight ones, because if there is any case that requires additional resources, they have to be conscious of how they expend their funds. The bottom line is that there are outcomes being decided for crimes that might look differently if the DA’s office was more fully funded. And as he told me, if there is a crime that happens on the YK Delta and they have to fly in witnesses, they were going to ask themselves, “Can we afford to prosecute?”
I shared this story and told the room that this speaks to the very heart of inequity in our state. But how divine that the official to my left would be charged with oversight with the justice system in Alaska, and how equally divine that she directly reported to the Attorney General of the United States. And how magnificent, that the Attorney General would shoot her looks all while I shared my story.
Having worked this spring in Juneau for a state Senator on the Finance Committee, I understand why and how the State is making cuts. I really do. But if Alaska’s residents suffer at the hands of the justice system due to the fiscal crisis, let us equally suffer.
I understand that the North Slope Borough are doing their best with what services are being provided by the Fairbanks District Attorney’s office. And I understand that the Fairbanks DA’s office is doing their best with the hard prosecution choices they have to make with what they are allocated from the Alaska Legislature. But if the State not affording to prosecute cases is the best we can do, the best is not good enough. And one thing I learned in Juneau is that if a system is working for nobody, then that system is broken. This is not working for the Fairbanks DA’s office, in my opinion. It is not working for the North Slope Borough. And it trickles down to my community – having a friend’s pants unzipped, with no just outcome – this is not working for me.
This is a complete failure of our state in depending so long on one resource, where so much of our revenue could disappear overnight. It is a failure of our legislature for introducing controversial bills such as “guns on campus” and “Planned Parenthood in the classroom” to distract the public’s attention and delay dealing with the budget for 18 months to a year. It is a failure of our state legislature to operate in fear and care more about reelection than by the words of our State leader Governor Walker, “I did not run for Governor to keep the job, I ran for Governor to do the job.” And every night our State leadership goes to sleep having put their political interests and security before that of our Alaskan community members, I want them to know that a man unzipped my friend’s pants, and nothing was done; and while they may have had nothing to do with that particular outcome, they also may have, with possibly hundreds of other incidents just like it. That the justice system has to consider whether they can afford to prosecute is an outrage.
There 10,000 residents in the North Slope Borough. Where else in the United States would 10,000 citizens receive this rate of protection? Some think, “You choose to live in rural Alaska; what do you expect? How can rural Alaska not expect 2nd rate service,” as if rural Alaska is a drain on Alaska’s resources; however, 90% of Alaska’s revenue actually originates in rural Alaska, and so. Everything about that thought is backwards.
Equity is the least that rural Alaska deserves. Rural Alaska does not want special treatment; rural Alaska asks for equal treatment. How base, that justice in our state is so tied to budget and income. Because, no matter where you are, justice should not belong to those who can afford it.
As we took a group photo, the Attorney General shook each of our hands, and as she shook mine, I thanked her and remembered how she had said this meeting was the best hour she could remember spending, in a long time.
There is no telling how the stories in that room will affect the processes and procedures that govern our lives, that police us, that tell us what we may or may not have and guide what our experiences will look like.
But we have to hope that by educating those in power and by sharing our stories between us, progress will be made.
Do you have an experience with racial discrimination or rural inequity and justice? Email Nalliq at nalliqalaska.com and let your voice be heard.