The first and to date only woman to win the 1,000-mile, Yukon-Quest International Sled Dog Race, arguably Alaska’s toughest ultramarathon, and a three-time runner-up in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Aliy Zirkle is one tough woman.
And yet she was emotionally shaken to her core after coming under attack on the Yukon River during the 2016 Iditarod.
Because Zirkle had always lived in the belief that the Iditarod bubble would protect her, always thought her Iditarod fame a safeguard against the violence against women that pervades the 49th state, always trusted that she was an untouchable.
All it took was one nightmarish night on a wilderness river to shatter those beliefs.
All it took was the fear a man was going to kill her simply because she was a woman to make her recognize the world much of her Alaska sisterhood inhabits. Today, Zirkle works with the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault to try slow a plague of sexual violence and abuse that is bad everywhere in Alaska and worse in the rural areas.
“….Male perpetrators have a sense of entitlement due to their privileged status as men in our culture,” Judy Gette, a professor at the Matanuska-Susitna College wrote in 2014 after a University of Alaska study revealed that 53 percent of Mat-Su Valley women reported being sexually abused or physically assaulted or both. “This comes across in the form of misogyny: a hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women. Perpetrators of interpersonal violence will make statements supporting their violence in terms of women ‘deserving’ such treatment.”
There appears something of a view among some Alaska men that women, like sled dogs, are on earth to be used.
Changing such a culture is a daunting task as now clearly evidenced by two state lawmakers – one an Alaska Native and one a white – standing accused of sexually assaulting women in the state capital.
That disgraced and now former Rep. Dean Westlake, D-Kiana, and accused Rep. Zack Fansler, D-Bethel, come from Western Alaska only underlines the problems that region faces.
Westlake resigned earlier this month after being accused of making unwanted sexual advances on women working in the state capital. That sparked an investigation by Anchorage TV station KTUU that revealed Westlake in 1988 impregnated a 15-year-old girl. He was at the time a 28-year-old Kotzebue police officer, KTUU reported.
Then the Juneau Empire last week reported that Fansler hit a woman so hard he ruptured her eardrum because she didn’t want to have sex with him. His attorney says he is innocent. Fellow lawmakers have asked him to resign.
Fansler and Westlake come from a part of Alaska where women appear to be sometimes viewed as chattel, not that other parts of the 49th state are all that much better.
Still, Western Alaska is arguably the rape capital of the world.
A 2016 state examination of “Felony Level Sex Offenses” (the 2017 report is not yet available) put the reported rape rate there at 446.4 women per 100,000 residents.
Alaska is the U.S. leader in grim rape statistics with 141.9 rapes per 100,000 residents statewide. Nationally, the District of Columbia is a distance second at 78.1 per 100,000. The national average is 29.6 per 100,000.
Anchorage has in recent year been regularly identified as the most dangerous city for women in the U.S. Along with a high rate of violence, the city, according to the 2016 state report, has a rape rate at 262.2 per 100,000, up slightly from the year before.
Statistica – a statistical website – used FBI numbers to put the Anchorage rate at 173.6 for 2016; Battle Creek, Mich., was second at 132.9.
All of these numbers are bad, but none come close to those of Western Alaska,which has problems no one wants to address. Some villages in that part of the state appear to be literally warehousing registered sex offenders.
A 2013 AlaskaDispatch.com analysis of the state’s sex-offender database found that in some villages, one in every 30 men is a registered sex offender. Native women who live in rural Alaska, nearly all of whom are afraid to talk on the record, say sexual assault is a problem for which the men in their communities seem unwilling to take responsibility.
“It’s still really hard for some communities to talk about abuse,” Pam Karalunas of the Alaska Children’s Alliance told the website, “and, in some cases, children who are willing to disclose have had to leave a community because they’re shamed and blamed and ostracized.”
The state report on sex crimes documents a startling difference between rape victims and rape suspects in Anchorage and those in Western Alaska, the two worst places for sexual assault in Alaska. In both cases, the victims and their attackers are young.
But in Anchorage, the difference between the two is only five years. The most common victim in Anchorage was age 16, according to the report; the age of her attacker 21.
The age of victims in Western Alaska fell to age 14, while the age of their attackers rose to 27 – a 13-year difference.
There are same-sex rapes in Alaska, but the vast majority, according to the state report (about 90 percent) involve men attacking women, and almost always women they know. Statewide, only 4 percent of rapes are reported to involve strangers.
Sixty-eight percent of attackers are acquaintances or friends of some sort; 28 percent are family members.
Of the victims of rape, more than 55 percent are Native women, but that figure is heavily weighted by the rate of rape in Western Alaskan where the population is almost wholly Native.
Ninety-two percent of the women raped in Western Alaska are Native. Nearly all of their attackers are Native as well.
Statewide, the data indicates that attacks by Native men on women of other races are rare. Eighty-six percent of their victims are Native women, 9 percent Caucasian and the rest a variety of races.
Native women, however, are victimized by men of all races. Thirty-six percent of the victims of Asian suspects are Native. Twenty-five percent of the victims of white suspects are Native. And 24 percent of the victims of black suspects are Native.
The study does not indicate how many of the suspects in Alaska rapes are people in positions of power or authority, such as local government or business leaders, teachers, law enforcement officials, politicians, tribal or religious leaders. But there are plenty of anecdotal indications people in power take advantage of that power.
Catholic priests have a sordid history of sexual abuse in rural Alaska. That appears to have been cleaned up, but over the years there have been suggestions that others in positions of power have moved in to take the place of priests.
In 2014, 70-year-old Peter Tony, a one-time foster parent in Bethel, was sentenced to 66 years in prison for abusing children for decades.
Tony was five times reported to state officials as a sexual predator before a final, 1988 report led the state to revoked his family’s license to provide foster care, Eli Martin and Suzanna Caldwell wrote at AlaskaDispatch.com.
He was not prosecuted, however, and 15 years would pass before he was arrested and charged with abusing a 4-year old girl from 2011 to 2012. The girl was at a daycare facility Tony and his wife operated after losing their foster care license. Alaska Department of Health and Human Services told Martin that the Tonys were not licensed daycare providers but instead operated on an informal basis.
Authorities on sex crimes say the tolerance of sex abuse in Alaska has become self-perpetuating with victims of sex crimes later becoming perpetrators.
Among social researchers, there has also been an increasing discussion of “rape culture” in recent years. In a landmark, 2013 study published in the Lancet, a global health publication, scientists asked thousands of men in six Asian countries about uncooperative sex partners and found that rape might be significantly underreported.
About a quarter of men in that study reported forcing themselves on a woman disinterested in sex.
“All men who had raped were asked about the reasons for the most recent rape,” the researchers reported. “Of those who had raped a non-partner woman, the most common reason for the most recent rape expressed sexual entitlement (statements endorsed by 73 percent of men across the region), followed by entertainment seeking (59 percent), anger or punishment (38 percent), and alcohol or substance use (27 percent). When asked about what consequences they had ever experienced after rape, only 55 percent of men had felt guilty, and 23 percent had been sent to prison for rape of a partner or non-partner woman, or man, but this proportion varied from 2 percent (Sri Lanka) to 52 percent (Papua New Guinea), where traditional rape punishments are used.”
“Although this study focused on countries in Asia and the Pacific,” the study said, “the findings are of substantial global interest, partly because most of the world’s population lives in this region and the countries are very culturally diverse. Moreover, the high consistency between associated factors described in South Africa and North America and those from countries of this region is notable.”
There are a long list of studies documenting the ways in which abhorrent behaviors can become normalized.
Dani Bickford has argued some sexual harassment, if not assault, has been normalized in Alaska’s capital city. Bickford was a voice in the wilderness when she first suggested this idea. The recent cases involving Westlake and Fansler – who appears to have slugged a woman at a time when #metoo is actively looking for men on which to focus its anger – would cause any reasonable person to wonder if there isn’t some fire beneath the smoke Bickford put up.
Former Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell championed a public relations campaign called “Choose Respect” to try to break this cycle. Many scoffed at it as more image than substance. Choose Respect sprang from a program started in 2008 by the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in the state Department of Public Safety.
The “Real Alaska Men Choose Respect”‘campaign was born in an effort to engage men in the work of ending domestic violence and sexual assault,” according to the state website. “In December of 2009, Gov. Parnell pledged that Alaska would take every step necessary to stop the epidemic of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child sexual abuse in Alaska, and began his statewide “Choose Respect Initiative.”
For a brief time, as Alaskans argued over whether the program would do anything, Choose Respect gained a pretty high-profile thanks to Alaska Dispatch News columnist Shannyn Moore, who went to great efforts to mock it.
“Maybe Parnell will get Joe (Hazelwood) to chair the Ship Passage Safety for Prince William Sound Review Board,” she wrote in the summer of 2014. “But why stop there? Maybe serial killer Robert Hansen could chair the Choose Respect Campaign. He knows a thing or two about women and violence. With this governor, don’t bet against it.”
Hazelwood was the skipper of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez when it went aground in the Sound in 1989 and caused the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. Robert Hansen was a baker who kidnapped, raped and then murdered 17 to more than 20 Anchorage women in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Hansen escaped detection for more than a decade because he preyed on the state’s most vulnerable women – strippers and prostitutes – and buried them in remote areas where many of the bodies were not found until Hansen confessed to some of the murders.
With opinion leaders like Moore mocking Choose Respect, the program wasn’t destined to stay in the public eye long Moore-favorite Bill Walker replaced Parnell as governor.
Choose Respect is officially still out there somewhere, but there are a lot of men in the 49th state who could care less.
The situation doesn’t seem to be getting any better. If anything, it’s getting worse.
And, as with many problems in Alaska these days, nobody seems to have a good idea on how to make it get better.
CORRECTION: This story was edited on January 30, 2018 to fix a math error.
Categories: News, Uncategorized
Alaska and the feds need to take the 60,000 foot level view. Western Bush Alaska society is a failed socialist experiment. Throwing money at people that live in places with no economy and no hope is pointless. Stop giving the Bush money. Make the Bush stand on its own. If it can’t, then it is not meant to be.
Interesting article, thanks Craig. I very good friend of mine is in an upper level position with AST in Bethel. He has seen almost everything over his tenure with the Troopers, and has passed on to me that between domestic abuse and sexual assault they have no time for just about anything else there. And he’s continually appalled by the depths so many people there have sunk to. Only way to catagorize it is as a wide-spread disease. Time we looked at it that way, and respond to it as an emergency.
Thank you, Craig, for taking on this subject with the breadth and depth that you have.One would hope that Aliy Zirkle would not mind her very public story being placed in its larger context, which is the extraordinary rates of violence, including sexual violence, that women, and children of course, face in Alaska. We all know that many men still believe they have property rights to women, as they do to dogs and other kinds of stock. We also know the varieties of violence women experience at the hands, and feet, and weapons, and vehicles, of men who truly believe it is their right to do so.
How so many of these comments have turned to the dogs involved amazes me and makes me wonder if the clear, forceful writing you’ve done is really even read by the commenters.
I believe, with you, that drawing attention to these crimes, again and again, AS the crimes they are and the relatedness among them, is the only way to make a dent in the thinking — if that’s what it is — that keeps people ignorant and defensive.
When I was investigated by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, some years ago for publishing a poem of solidarity with the women who suffered in Alaska, many native women and men reached out to me privately to thank me, apologizing for the fear that kept them silent among their own communities. If such people were to be encouraged to write, without disclosing their identities, in support of the kind of cultural change that might have an impact, that would matter.
I grew with an Irish Catholic alcoholic madman father, first generation from IRA country, a product himself of such sectarian and sexual violence that his crimes are understandable. My compassion for “families,” if that’s really what these torture units should be called, is authentic and earned.
Thank you again.
Linda: i’m confident Aliy is happy to have her name used in this context. she is clear in her belief that the assault on her is a sign that what has long been a bad problem has only gotten worse in recent years. there was a time when sexual violence in rural Alaska was almost wholly limited to the residents of rural Alaska. there was a paper written back in the ’70s or ’80s basically saying that rural Alaska was about the safest place in Alaska for a visiting, non-rural woman because, sad to say, all violence was directed toward women within village communities and never out. the assault on Ms. Zirkle would indicate the protection women visitors to rural Alaska once enjoyed by the simple nature of being outside the community is fading.
i have no explanation as to why some people want to turn this into a discussion of dogs. maybe to distract from what is a crisis problem in this state?
I believe you’re off by an order of magnitude with your per-100k math. I think that’s 1 in 200, not 1 in 20.
Depressingly, re-run that rate against the size of a village and the number of rapes, and it could be that the 1 in 200 figure is sadly underreporting things. But regardless, I do think your math is in error.
thanks, Gavin. you’re right. off by a factor of 10. i fixed it. i’ll blame fatigue from working late. and i’m sure it is under reported.
Which Senator is depicted on Bickford’s Prick? Kinda looks like Vince Beltrami but he’s not a Senator….
Wow. How you manage to tie in and attack sled dog owners while addressing such monumental issue as sexual abuse, rape and women not being respected is frankly astonishing. I am disgusted frankly. Aliy Zirkle, I am certain, would not appreciate your use of her name and person in this piece either. How you even make the connection between her being a woman and this person under extreme influence doing what he did to a musher and team of dogs is so distasteful and disrespectful. Just look at the comments Craig. First comment is from a man that hates sled dogs, a man who has several times gone after them, dogs and mushers, with vehicles and machinery. I am just shocked by this piece of writing. What really gets me is why you felt you had to make this connection: do you not think the matter you actually write the piece about can stand on its own? It is one of the most significant issues we have to deal with; it is so important to cover and yet you ferl like you have to draw in sled dogs to this??
“baznyankee” and “David Boyle,” I apologize, I realize now that you wrote comments earlier than Steve Stine, who I in my comment am referring to as being the first to comment on this article.
Why are you not honest with who you are?
Maybe then we can address your false accusations…accusations that have been a source of harassment for years…and harrassment we all know leads to abuse…which is what this story is about.
And just for the record I love all dogs…not just sled dogs (of which I have adopted a few to care for in the last twelve years).
Steve Stine, I have no idea what you are writing about. I, as authorities in the borough, know who you are and your track record supported by evidence of how you harass sled dogs and dog mushers. Real question is maybe why you will behave this way and yet not stand by it when questioned or confronted with it.
You need to identify yourself or stick to the point.
I suspect you are a local musher that is unhappy with this discussion…
And possible one with a large “bone pile” in your own backyard.
Mike: first off, i have no idea of what this sentence even means:
“How you even make the connection between her being a woman and this person under extreme influence doing what he did to a musher and team of dogs is so distasteful and disrespectful.”
what “this person” are you talking about? you have no antecedent in the paragraph to clue me in.
are you talking about Fansler? are you talking about the young Demoski in Nulato?
and what does under “extreme influence” mean? influence from who or what?
but that’s kind of secondary to the rest of your screed.
if you’re disgusted, you’re delusional. but i don’t believe you’re disgusted. obsessed maybe, but not disgusted. this is a bunch of smoke about nothing.
the simple reality is that there are men, and women, in this state who believe dogs are work animals to be used. it’s a black-and-white fact. it’s why the Matanuska-Susitna Borough regulates dogs as livestock:
“‘Livestock’ includes, but is not limited to, domestic animals such as horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, ducks, and other animals normally considered farm animals, whether kept for profit or not, as well as sled dogs housed at a licensed mushing facility, or sled dogs owned by the owner or licensee of a licensed mushing facility, whether kept for profit or not.”
in the view of some dog mushers, sled dogs are not their furry friends. they are beasts of burden trained to do a job.
now, do i think a lot of modern mushers have a different view? yes. do i even believe there are some who treat their dogs better than their families? yes.
am i going to ignore the fact there are some who think dogs are purely on earth for them to use? no.
why? because there are strong, documented connections between how people treat their animals and how they treat others. and i’ve known of mushers who fit the data set of women abuser/dog abuser. and i’ve known way too many men in my life time who basically thought women should be treated like dogs, and they didn’t mean that in the sweet loving sense of the horribly spoiled Larbrador curled up under the desk as i write this.
i don’t know how you treat women or dogs, but flying off the handle about this one line in a long story does make me wonder.
Craig, your insinuation of my person is disgusting and unprofessional. How about you connect with Aliy to ask her about her view on the connection you make here, before you write ‘speaking on her behalf,’ in comments or otherwise!? The person under influence driving the snow machine that attacked her, also attacked a man: Jeff King, and killed his dog. I believe this experience has been plenty traumatic for Aliy, without you using it as you see fit. There is certainly a case for people abusing people, also abusing animals. But that is not what you write here; instead you single out a female dogmusher, an attack that had nothing to do with her sex, sled dogs and their owners (not animal abuse, dog abuse, horse abuse), and link that to an otherwise strong and informative piece on abuse of women. It is odd, distateful and disturbing.
Mike: since no one knows who you are, it’s impossible for me or anyone else to insinuate anything about your “person.” for all i know, you’re some dipshit posting from prison in Sri Lanka.
if you want to step out from behind your avatar and act like a woman or a man, we can talk about your person.
as a general rule, i don’t let people in the forum here unless i at least know who they are. i made an exception in your case because i thought your first posts reflected someone who had some reasonable things to say. i’m beginning to wonder about the validity of that conclusion.
in this case, you are factually wrong. the person who hit Jeff King’s dogs did not “attack” Jeff King. Demoski hit King’s team and kept on going. that is decidedly different from what happened to Aliy who was stalked and harassed and felt like her life was in danger.
i have talked with her at length about this. she was traumatized, seriously traumatized, by the idea the Iditarod bubble no longer provided her protection as a woman.
she believes the attack had everything to do with her sex. you clearly have not talked to her.
she got involved with trying to help women and girls subject to domestic and sexual assault and violence in rural Alaska because of a personal realization that if this could happen to her – an Iditarod celebrity – how bad must the problem be for the average woman living in rural Alaska.
Steve Stine, My point, that you responded to, is exactly that I am not happy with the discussion that this article is fostering! So, I am sticking to the point and being very honest. You, not so much. You deflect from my response to you: my questions to you and your lack of honesty about your own documened improper behavior and treatment of animals by instead attacking my person. Whom, you are right, you know nothing about!
This “Mike” must be Mike Jonrowe…as I know of no other individual who is as delusional about the Sled Dog abuse issue…which Craig has already pointed out in a response to your comment.
And Mike Jonrowe is the number one member on the board of the ITC with over 30 years of conflicts of interest…
All your false complaints to “authorities”, which are a source of harrasment for my family have been proven just that false.
While this might be getting a bit away from the article Mike, it appears that you have access to some information about the character of one of the commenters here. If, in fact, you do have evidence of this commenter’s misdeeds by all means share them with us.
I, for one, would love to hear of this harassment of sled dogs and mushers (especially with vehicles and machinery). And Steve, in the offhand case this alleged behavior was accidental, did you have to shift down once you got to the wheel dogs?
All in good humor, of course, but just getting these accusations into the daylight should be a good start to putting them to rest IMO.
Bill you can public record request the b.s. complaints from my neighbor Iditarod mushers…just as Mike Jonrowe did.
The first one was for plowing my road to my cabin over 11 years ago.
If I trim trees on the unmaintained road, then he thinks it is against him.
Weirdest bunch of folks in Alaska.
you may also be interested to know that the person whom filled a few of the initial complaints with “authorities” was also the same person to stand in front of a group and give a speech that the reporter states: “Later, she took her darkness to a medical doctor. The doctor said “you need counseling”.
“Brave New World” up in the Arctic these days…you are far too polite when you say sled dogs have been “used” up here for many years. They have been greatly abused just like much of the transient unskilled labor force throughout the state each summer. If we know that Western Alaska is “the rape capital of the world” and over 90 percent of the women raped are Native…then we have an idea of the problem.
We also know through FBI studies that those who abuse animals are far more likely to abuse people as well within their community.
Now, I will ask….Will mushers keep buying sled dogs from Natives with puppy mills in the bush and continue to prop up a failing economy with the Iditarod Trail Committee or take a step back and look at their commercial dog lots and “race” through western Alaska and see it as what it is….not connected with the villages that it passes through and a large source of animal abuse throughout the state.
We as a society cannot continue to toss money at things which are failing and cause abuse… that list in Alaska is very long these days.
Craig, did you think Moore’s tongue-in-cheek selection of Joe Hazelwood to head the Ship Passage Safety for Prince William Sound Review Board was mocking that review board??
She was not above mocking Parnell, that’s for sure, but Parnell’s handling of the National Guard sexual assaults made his “Choose Respect” program an interesting target IMO.
Craig, excellent article and summary of a deplorable situation in AK. Very depressing. The question is–what will cure this terrible problem? And is this really a cultural issue? It seems as if the tribal elders have not been successful in curing the cause of the problem. Maybe it’s time for the heavy hand of the law and justice to help cure this problem.
the hand of the law has been applied pretty heavily, though maybe not evenly, in Western Alaska, and that appears not to have worked well. it’s part of the reason we now have so many registered sex offenders in villages sometimes full of young girls because of the demographics of Western Alaska. and once men become registered sex offenders, how do you get them out of the villages? they’re really sort of stuck there because it’s hard to leave to work elsewhere.
i don’t know what the solution is. somehow the majority of men, who are good and decent, need to rise up to restrain the minority who aren’t. but how does one organize that?