ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Desa Jacobssen, a Yu’pik and Gwi’chin grandmother in her “late forties or early fifties,” loves food – Native Alaskan dryfish, beef Wellington and fresh-baked bread – but for 21 days in April and May of this year, she refused to partake of her favorite culinary pleasures. In fact, Jacobssen didn’t eat anything at all.
On April 23, the day accused murderer Joshua Wade was acquitted and Della Brown’s mother wept and fled the courtroom, Jacobssen, a longtime Native rights activist and former Alaska Green Party gubernatorial candidate, embarked on a 21-day hunger strike to protest the verdict and call attention to a spate of murders of Native women in Anchorage in recent years.
Wade, a white man, was accused of murdering Brown, a 33-year-old Native woman whose abused and mutilated body was discovered in an abandoned shed on Sept. 2, 2000. Brown may have been sexually assaulted after her death; her skull was so pulverized the coroner compared her head to a “bag of ice”; her hair had either been cut or torn out; and burnt matches littered the shed’s floor near her body. For several days after Brown’s murder, unsympathetic gawkers paraded through the shed, lighting matches in order to view her battered remains. None called for help.
Since 1999, there have been at least 10 Native women murdered on Anchorage streets, and many of the homicides remain unsolved, a fact Jacobssen and other activists say reflects poorly on the Anchorage Police Department. In 1999-2000 alone, there were five Native women and one black woman murdered.
Of the 10 homicides, Wade’s case is the only one to have come to trial. Suspects are in custody and trials are pending in some of the other cases.
Jacobssen suspects the department’s dismal success record in the murders can be attributed to racism, incompetence or indifference.
“Their failure to respond in a professional capacity says everything,” she said. “The unsolved murders and acquittals speak for themselves.”
“Native women in Anchorage have a saying: ‘We don’t call the police, because they simply don’t respond,'” Jacobssen said.
Denise Morris, an Aleut woman and president and CEO of the Alaska Native Justice Center, an Anchorage non-profit victims’ rights organization, disputes Jacobssen’s claim that the police have been negligent.
“I think they have thoroughly investigated these cases,” she said.
The Brown murder and high rate of victimizations of other Native women can be attributed to institutionalized racism, Jacobssen said.
“These were hate crimes,” she said. “They were killed because they were Native women.”
Morris stopped short of characterizing the murders as hate crimes, but understands the consternation among Native Alaskan groups.
“It strikes very deeply at the heart of the Alaska Native community because, unfortunately, so many of these victims were Native women,” she said.
When Della Brown was alive, she loved fishing for salmon in Alaska’s bountiful waterways. She thoroughly enjoyed life, despite struggling with an intermittent drinking problem and living in a city renowned for being unsafe for Native women.
Alaska Native women comprise less than 4 percent of the population of Anchorage, yet account for 50 percent of the sexual assaults, Morris said.
Most violence against Native Americans is perpetrated by members of other ethnicities, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“About seven in 10 violent victimizations of [American Indians and Alaska Natives] involved an offender who was described by the victim as someone of a different race,” according the DOJ Web site.
Many non-Natives have been conditioned to regard Native Americans as fair game, as people whose lives and rights are inconsequential. The bodies and souls of Alaska’s Native women are violated, usurped and torn, much like their lands and cultures have been, Jacobssen said.
“It happened in the Holocaust, within the tribes in the Lower 48 and everywhere else whites have put their hooks in the land,” she said.
If Native peoples in both Alaska and the Lower 48 present a united front, victimization will be less likely to occur, said Flossie Spencer, an Inupiaq woman and operations manager at Victims for Justice, another Anchorage victims’ advocacy organization.
“If we obtain a sense of community at a much larger level, we can fight the violence and ignorance,” she said.
In addition to Brown, other Native women murdered in Anchorage since 1999 include Vera Hapoff, whose body was found on June 8, 1999; Annie Mann, found on Aug. 8, 1999; Helen Kinegak, found on Jan. 11, 2000; Genevieve Tetpon, found on March 22, 2000; Cynthia Henry; Louise Jacobs; Tina Shangin; Tawni Williams; and Mary Petroski, whose body was recently discovered dumped alongside an Anchorage road.
Morris said the Alaska Native Justice Center has offered a reward for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of the murderers of Della Brown and the other women.
Many describe Della’s final resting place in the Anchorage Municipal Cemetery as “beautiful” or “idyllic.” A hand-carved Inupiaq whalebone mask smiles tranquilly from a nearby grave and there is a serene stand of birch trees a few feet away. When the wind blows, the trees seem to tell stories for Della: Tales of bright summer days spent angling for salmon on the Kenai River whisper softly from the swaying birch boughs.
Several blocks away, Jacobssen often gazes down upon the picturesque cemetery from her fourth floor apartment window. It’s ironic, said Jacobssen, that the city has treated Della far better in death than it ever did in life.