'Those are statistics we shouldn't be leading the nation on'--addressing violence against Alaska Natives

Anchorage (KTUU) - Tara Sweeney, the first Alaska Native to oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Department of the Interior, Acting Deputy Secretary Kate MacGregor traveled to Bethel and Nome this week.

Photo courtesy of Melissa Brown

Sweeney is from Anchorage and Utqiagvik.

The pair are having meetings with people in these areas called 'Reclaiming Our Native Communities' in which they are hearing first-hand stories from Alaskans about a lack of law enforcement, how survivors are treated, as well as stories of abuse.

"I thought it was very moving to spend so much time with those in the community and have them, in many cases, bare their soul on a lot of these really tough issues," MacGregor said.

Violence against American Indian and Alaska Native communities is disproportionately higher than in other groups.

"American Indian and Alaska Native people face alarming levels of violence. Data from the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that more than 1.5 million American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, including sexual violence, in their lifetimes," President Donald Trump stated when he pronounced May 5th as Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives Awareness Day.

MacGregor said a study from 2016 revealed that roughly 84 percent of Native American women have faced some form of violence in their lifetimes and that more than 50 percent have experienced some form of sexual violence.

"Those are statistics we shouldn't be leading the nation on," Sweeney said, "and as responsible Alaskans, we all need to get engaged in this process."

Sweeney says she and MacGregor will take what they learn back to Washington to craft a response moving forward. One idea she's already talking about is trauma-informed training for law enforcement, which focuses on how law enforcement deals with a survivor.

"More sensitivity in how they react or engage with an individual," Sweeney said.

MacGregor and Sweeney both said the stories from survivors and the raw openness of what they experienced have had major impacts on them.

"The issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, violent crimes and missing and murdered Native Americans is prevalent," Sweeney said. "You can see it whether you're in Utqiagvik whether you're in Selawik or in Kwethluk or if you're on the Crow reservation in Montana, the issues are extremely similar and our job is to bring voices to the forefront and work with communities on how we arrest these statistics and these issues that are plaguing our communities and that is why we're here that's why we are traveling throughout the Lower 48 is looking for solutions on how we can reclaim our Native communities."

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