THE BLOG
03/27/2013 11:34 am ET Updated May 26, 2013

Rural Alaska: Rape capital of the US

Steubenville is a small Ohio town with a high-profile sex crime that's spawned a scandal and nationwide discussion. Two boys -- local football stars -- were convicted this month of raping a 16-year-old girl during a party. Media coverage of the rape and the trial has now become a national topic, with debate raging over whether some coverage was too sympathetic to the girl's attackers, who will forever be required to register as sex offenders. The boys, who were sentenced to serve jail time, will be added to the list of 22 other sex offenders already registered in Steubenville, population 18,440.

That the U.S. has a problem with sex crimes is well-illustrated by the growing, national roll of registered sex offenders. There is now one sex offender for about every 450 people in the country.

That might strike some as a startling statistic, but if you live in Alaska, does it really come as a surprise?

Sexual violence is at epidemic levels in the state, particularly in rural Alaska, according to studies written on the subject in the past two decades, and nothing is changing on the edge of a wilderness largely out-of-sight from the rest of America.

Ever-expanding social media might have unmasked the tragedy of sexual assault in Steubenville, but it has yet to reach into the corners of the country's last frontier. A veil of silence drowns the conversation before it even begins in Alaska.

If you take the populations of the 20 largest rural villages in Alaska -- places not connected to the Alaska road system -- and add them up, they total 15,906 people, just a few less than in Steubenville. Living among these 15,906 people are 184 registered sex offenders, or one for every 86 people.

Per capita, there are nine times as many sex offenders living in rural Alaska as in Steubenville, even counting the two now getting all of the media attention.

Alaska has often had the highest rate of forcible rape in the country. There is one registered sex offender for every 293 people in the 49th state, and everyone involved in the issue of violence against women agrees the numbers for registered sex offenders underline the lowest measure of what is really going on: For every sex offender convicted and registered, there are untold numbers who go free.

Still, perusing the raw numbers we do have -- sex offenders -- paints a dismal picture. This is especially true in rural Alaska Native villages -- communities with no roads connecting them to the world, often few or no police officers, and few or no resources to help victims.

"It's still really hard for some communities to talk about abuse," says Pam Karalunas of the Alaska Children's Alliance, "and, in some cases, children who are willing to disclose have had to leave a community because they're shamed and blamed and ostracized."

An Alaska Dispatch analysis of the state's sex-offender database found that in some villages, one in every 30 men is a registered sex offender. Most are Alaska Native men. A community-by-community search of the 10 largest villages found 84 offenders, of whom all but two listed themselves as Alaska Native.

Native women who live in rural Alaska, many of whom are afraid to talk on the record, say this is a problem for which the men in their communities seem unwilling to take responsibility.

There have been suggestions from some rural Alaska leaders -- primarily men -- that the epidemic of sexual assault could be stopped if greater law enforcement powers were given to the state's tribes to crack down on non-tribal members.

Almost every Native village in rural Alaska is considered a "tribe" and receives federal tribal funding. Some use that money to support village tribal courts and law enforcement, though law enforcement in rural Alaska remains lacking. Most villages -- about 140 -- have no policeman of any sort. They rely on Alaska State Troopers, usually far away, to respond in a crisis. The state funds Village Public Safety Offices, VPSOs as they are called, in just under 100 rural communities.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is under fire for failing to grant greater police powers to Alaska tribes as part of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), has suggested the tribes and state find some way to blend their programs to expand police protection to more villages. Many of these villages have populations that are 80 percent or more Alaska Native.

Increased law enforcement might be one answer, but communities could also take matters into their own hands.

Federally recognized tribes have authority to banish tribal members who violate community standards. But Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents in Bethel, says the power is seldom used. The AVCP represents 56 federally recognized tribes on the Yukon-Kuskowkim Delta. Naneng suggests the power to banish tribal members who engage in violence against women, or other violence, is likely underutilized for two reasons: The tribes are trying work with the state's legal system and, in some cases, they are fearful.

"They try to leave it up to the state court system," he said, and they worry that if they order someone out of the village who doesn't want to go, that act alone might precipitate violence.

READ MORE: What will it take to shine a light on rural Alaska's sexual assault epidemic?

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