Alexandra, or Sasha, Lindgren is a Kenaitze elder. She’s sitting at the front of the room telling a story that’s deeply personal. She’s holding a bunch of toothpicks. She pulls one out and shows that when it’s alone, it’s easily breakable. But, when it’s surrounded by other toothpicks, the bunch as a whole is nearly impossible to break.
“Sharing my story, I hope will give someone the strength to come forward and say, I need help, and that together, each of us just by sharing our stories will break cycles of abuse and violence,” says Lindgren.
It’s like people, Lindgren says. It’s much easier to stand up when others are supporting you. That’s why she’s here today, to start a conversation in her community that she says desperately needs to happen.
“Traditionally, at least the way that I grew up out in Bethel, it’s not always talked about. But I think when the elders are able to talk about it, then maybe the young people are welcome to talk about it and be aware that violence is not okay,” says Lindsey Anasogak, who works for Na’ini Social Services and coordinated this event. “Na’ini Social Services is a department within the tribe. When we met before we formed the group, we talked about it for a while, and we came upon the word Na’ini which is a Dena’ina traditional value. And the meaning behind that is courage and bravery. We chose that for a reason and we wanted to make sure our clients who came in that we know that sometimes asking for help takes a lot of courage and to be brave to come in.”
Barbara Waters is here representing the LeeShore Center, which provides outreach and education on the issue and is also a safe haven for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. She says public events like this are important because talking within a community is the first step toward solving the problem.
“We believe our victims, we listen to them, we honor their stories, and we thank them for what they share with us,” says Waters. “It brings awareness of the issue. Ms. Lindgren had a wonderful speech with us before we got started with the candlelight part of the vigil. And that awareness that there are people who have suffered from domestic violence and sexual assault, that it’s our neighbor, it’s our mother, it’s our sister, it might even be ourselves. So, I think that the community needs to get together and get involved and that’s the only way we’re going to see that problem go away.”
And it’s a big problem on the Kenai Peninsula. According to a 2013 survey conducted by the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, out of every 100 adult women on the peninsula, 43 have experienced intimate partner violence, 30 have experienced sexual violence, and 52 – more than half – have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence, or both.
For Alaska as a whole, about 60 out of every hundred women have experienced some type of domestic or sexual violence.
“You know, when you go to all these type of awareness-type events, you go to trainings, you go to conferences and conventions, these numbers are brought up quite often and it’s something that nobody is proud of,” says David Knight, who also works with Na’ini Social Services.
He says the first time you hear the statistics, they are shocking. But sometimes, he says we get used to hearing them and we stop paying attention. He says all community members, male and female, victim, perpetrator, people don’t think they’re intimately connected with the issue need to remember that every number represents an individual person.
“I think that those numbers should drive us to do better,” says Knight.
And Sasha Lindgren says that by putting a face, a family, and a story on those numbers, perhaps more people will step forward to seek help, to provide help, or to just listen.
“We can overcome this. You’re not ever stuck being one thing and there is always an opportunity to change your life, make it better, make your life better, your community better, your tribe better. Bad does not always have to stay in charge,” says Lindgren.
It’s like the toothpicks, she says. A person may struggle alone but a community standing together has the strength to make real change.
If you or anyone you know needs help, the LeeShore Center has a 24-hour crisis intervention hotline at 907-283-7257.