Why does this affect so many people?”
I didn’t talk to anybody about this...”
Who in Alaska is going to listen to me?”


ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault in the nation, nearly four times the national average. About one third of women in Alaska have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. Yet it is a secret so steeped into everyday life that to discuss it is to disrupt the norm.

These 29 women and men did not choose to be violated, but they now are choosing to speak about what happened to them.

Last year, the Anchorage Daily News partnered with ProPublica to investigate sexual violence in Alaska, and explore why the situation isn’t getting better. We continue that work this year.

The profiles below reflect the urgent and everyday wounds borne by people all over the state. Many have parents and grandparents who are also survivors. Many have been repeatedly abused, often by different perpetrators. Some have chosen careers at the front lines of sexual assault response.

Most of the people included here responded to our joint callout. The more than 300 responses we received inspired a collaborative approach to storytelling.

Some told us that giving words to what happened is a form of justice. Some said they chose to speak so others might feel less alone. They recalled moments of brutality and callousness, but also transformation, rebellion and renewal.

Each person spoke to their individual experience, but taken together, their words reflect common themes found throughout our reporting.

It was important that each person sharing their story had input on how to tell it. This project is not only about what has happened to them, but also who they are today. Each chose how to be publicly identified and how their experiences — related and unrelated to abuse — would be represented.

They worked with Daily News photographers to make portraits that are true to them. They chose to be photographed in meaningful locations, alongside the people they love or dressed to represent a source of strength. Read more about the portrait-making process here.

We understand that not everyone is ready to share their story. We’ve made space for you, too, here and in the pages of the newspaper. For those ready to share their story, you can do so here.

We welcome your thoughts and feedback at [email protected].

Read more about our reporting process, fact-checking and collaborative process in our methodology. If you’re looking for resources, we’ve put together this guide.

(Some of the quotations below have been condensed for clarity.)

LINDA REXFORD, 23, Iñupiaq, accounts receivable clerk. Lives in Anchorage.

Rexford had just turned 21 in June 2018 when she went out to a bar with friends in Anchorage. That night, she was sexually assaulted by an older man she did not know. After she drove herself to the emergency room, police were called to help her file a report and to take her for a forensic examination. In the aftermath of the assault, Rexford quit her job in Anchorage and moved back to Fairbanks for a few months. There, she said, she unsuccessfully tried to get help from several agencies. She was devastated to learn there was a one-year wait to see a therapist through a local clinic, and ultimately did not add her name to the waitlist. When she told her friends and family what had happened, many of them shared stories of their own assaults. Rexford said that as a result of a backlog in processing rape kits, her forensic exam was not tested until the end of 2019. The Anchorage Police Department said its investigation remains open.

It makes me really sad because all three generations of my family have been raped or sexually assaulted in some way. And I was like, ‘Why does this affect so many people? So many of my friends and family?’ At the same time, it helps, because I know that I can talk to them if I need to.”
Linda Rexford says she comes to the Anchorage coastal trail as often as she can because it is always peaceful and everyone along the trail is always smiling. She recently had her fingers tattooed to celebrate her accomplishment after sharing her story publicly. She says, “The spruce on my thumbs represents resilience and it’s an everyday reminder that I can continue to succeed even in hard times.” She wears her traditional Iñupiaq regalia. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

KAYLA ARTHOFER, 29, Yup’ik, heavy equipment operator and psychology student. Lives in Fairbanks.

Arthofer was so young when she was abused by an older man, she didn’t understand what he was doing when he would hold her in his lap. She recognized it as molestation only years later, when she learned about sex for the first time. In her mid-20s, she began seeing a psychologist and started to share what happened with people close to her. By talking about it, she said, she learned the abuse was not her fault. She then decided to make a report to Alaska State Troopers. Arthofer said making that report was the single most important step she took to change her life. The investigation of her case stalled when investigators asked her to obtain a recorded confession from the perpetrator. Arthofer did not feel ready to confront him, and did not attempt to make the recording. Instead she began a dialogue about the abuse with her family. Still, Arthofer said, until she filed the report, she had been “a prisoner” of her mind. She continues to work on reframing her past trauma in order to be stronger in the present.

I was a little girl, around 5 years old. I would get brought to a family friend’s house with my elders and would be very bored waiting around for the visit to be over. While my relatives chatted, an old man asked me if I wanted to watch Disney movies in his room. Being so young, I loved Disney movies. … He would let me choose from his collection and I remember every movie I ever watched in there, because I can no longer watch them again. … As I watched the movie he would molest me.”
Kayla Arthofer says studying psychology is her passion. She hopes to bring what she has learned in her classes about self-expression to enrich village life through conversation on difficult issues. She says, “I want to help others know that despite their circumstances in life, they can get up and keep going. The past is always going to be there but what matters is what you’re going to do about you right now.” (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

META MENDENHALL, 27, pipeline security administrator. Lives in Valdez.

Mendenhall was raised in Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. When she was 15 and visiting her father in Wasilla, she said, a boy she met through friends raped her, causing extreme pain and ignoring her pleas to stop. She had never had sex before. Mendenhall says she told a few friends the next day, but never reported it to law enforcement because she feared getting in trouble for underage drinking. After the rape, she felt like sex could never be special, and for several years, she said, she behaved “promiscuously.” She said realizing that the assault was not her fault allowed her to encourage others to report rape.

When you tell someone that you’ve been raped it’s always, ‘Oh wow, I’m sorry to hear that.’ When you tell them that you lost your virginity to rape, it’s a whole new level. … I think it’s just the innocence. ... It’s the fact that you were saving something for someone special, and someone heinous just took it away from you. And you can literally never get that back. And that’s just so absolutely devastating. It’s so frickin’ selfish.”
Meta Mendenhall chose to be photographed in Valdez’s old town, a place where she often comes to reflect and where she says her family has taken all of their family photos. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

DAVID FISHER, 35, business consultant. Lives in Portland, Oregon.

Fisher moved to Alaska from Washington state in 1993, at 7 years old. In Bethel that first year, he said, he was befriended and then sexually abused by an older boy over the course of several months. Saddled with feelings of guilt and confusion, he never told anyone until he was a young adult. Now a business professional and a devout Christian, Fisher makes a point of sharing his story with others. “It’s tough to admit, as a man, that you were a victim,” he said. “I hope that my openness can be a sign to others that healing is possible, but I don’t want to give the wrong impression that my healing is complete.”

I didn’t talk to anybody about this … until I was an adult. It was, in part, because I felt personal shame about it, I felt like I was partially responsible. And in part because I had a chaotic upbringing in terms of family environment. … But since then I’ve learned that it’s not only appropriate to talk about it, and that I was not responsible for what happened ... it’s actually important for me to include it as part of my story. ... There are so many people who do not feel at liberty to talk publicly about abuse that they've endured. … Abuse depends on silence to continue.”
David Fisher chose to be photographed with his family. He is raising his three children with abuse prevention in mind. He plans to enroll them in martial arts lessons in the future, for self-defense. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

MARIE R. SAKAR, 48, Yup’ik, elementary school teacher and mother. Lives in Chuathbaluk.

The first boy to sexually abuse Sakar during her childhood in the Western Alaska village of Chuathbaluk issued a frightening warning: If she told, her parents would hate her and blame her. She believed him. Sakar went on to be abused by other boys and men in her village, abuse that followed her into adulthood. She became a mother and earned a college degree, but drank heavily to cope with the abuse. A turning point came when she heard someone say silence only served to protect abusers. She began to confront men who she said had abused her, got sober and began telling her story openly. A few years ago, she moved back to Chuathbaluk — her home as well as a place freighted with memories of childhood abuse. Now, as a teacher at the village school, she wants to be a trusted adult for children to confide in.

For many years, I thought this was my first memory as a child: Holding my perpetrator’s hands, walking back on the hill in the tundra, by the trees. Looking up at the blue sky, and being told, ‘If you tell your mom or dad, your mom and dad will hate you. If you tell your mom and dad, they’ll say it's your fault.’ Due to those two lies, I endured years and years of childhood sexual abuse.”
Marie R. Sakar dances to the healing song “Tarvarnauramken” during a yuraq, or Yup’ik dance, at the Alaska Native Medical Center. She says she was inspired by her maternal grandmother, with whom she shares her English name, who also loved to dance. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

EBONY MCCLAIN, clinical therapist. Lives in Anchorage.

Watching Christine Blasey Ford testify in Congress during the confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, McClain reconsidered her past. She saw a fellow psychologist being questioned on national television for not remembering details of a long-ago trauma. McClain’s memory jumped to when she was 19 years old and attended a party at the trailer-home of a Taco Bell coworker. She had accepted a drink from him and quickly passed out; she believes she was drugged. McClain awoke to her coworker trying to perform oral sex on her. Despite years of providing therapy to clients who were survivors, she had never thought of herself as a victim of sexual assault. The Kavanaugh hearings prompted McClain to talk about the incident for the first time in decades.

Quite honestly, I had not viewed myself as a victim … I’m such a fighter. ... When I woke up, I saw him on the floor. I was enraged. I hit him. I confronted him. I didn’t ever feel traumatized by that experience. … I think what really triggered my experience for me was really the Kavanaugh piece ... and probably the #MeToo movement ... women coming out and sharing their experience. And then realizing, ‘You know what? You really were a victim of sexual assault.’”
Ebony McClain stands in front of a window in her office. “I work from what’s called a ‘wounded healer’ approach,” she says. “I can only help you heal to the extent I am healing myself. ... So as much work as I do in session, I also am doing that work myself.” (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

B.B., 28, mother. Lives in Southcentral Alaska.

In March 2013, B.B. reported to police that she had been raped by a man she met online. A grand jury handed up 11 felony charges against the alleged perpetrator: four counts of first-degree sexual assault, five counts of second-degree sexual assault, and one count each of third-degree assault and theft. Everything except the theft charge was dropped as part of a plea deal. The defendant was required by the court to write a letter of apology to B.B. In it, he said, “In closing I would like to note the remorse I feel in being a contributor to a situation where sexual boundaries may have been pushed. Any wishes you had that were not respected is not ok- I apologize for any part I may have played in that.” In December 2017, the same defendant pleaded guilty to an attempted sexual assault charge in the second degree, after another victim reported him. He is now serving eight years in prison.

The deal he got was pled down to a single theft charge. Everything else was dropped. I didn’t want to agree to the plea deal, but I was so broken from everything that happened that I agreed. I was told that if he ever did this again, that [my report] would come up. I knew that it would probably happen again — and it did. A year later, he raped a homeless person.”
B.B. wanted to be photographed with her husband. When he appeared in her life she had been feeling “broken and lost,” she said. “He came in like a freight train and showed me what real love looks and feels like and has been there through all the ups and downs of the mental struggles I still have from my past. … He’s most definitely my rock.” She requested anonymity out of concern for her safety. (Anne Raup/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

SUE ROYSTON, 73, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Retired. Lives in Fairbanks.

In 1973, a year after Royston moved to Alaska, she was attacked at knifepoint by a stranger who broke in through her bathroom window. Nearly half a century before #MeToo, in an era before rape kits were developed, Royston decided to fight for justice. She said her prosecutor warned her that her name would be all over the papers, that she’d lose her job, and that her daughter, entering second grade in the fall, would be bullied at school. Over the next two years, Royston said, she faced doubt and dismissal from the police, the prosecutor, and a neighbor whom she had looked to for support. Ultimately Royston’s assailant faced charges and pleaded guilty, but the hurtful exchanges still affect her to this day.

[It] was important to me to be a strong mother, to be a strong person for myself. And I just said, ‘I don’t care what anybody else says, I’m doing what I think is right and I’m going to see it through.’”
Sue Royston at her home in Fairbanks. She lives in a log cabin, which was her childhood dream. Her daughter and grandson come over often, and before winter each year they help her stock up on firewood. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

JESSICA WILSON, 34, Koyukon Athabascan and Iñupiaq, enrollment specialist. Lives in Fairbanks.

When Wilson was 17 years old, she reported being raped by multiple young men at a house party while heavily intoxicated. At first, Wilson said, she felt reluctant to speak to law enforcement. But when her mother — who said she is also a survivor of sexual assault — found out what had happened several days later, she insisted on driving Wilson to the police station. Alaska State Troopers investigated. One of the men admitted that he had sex with Wilson, but said it was consensual. As an Alaska Native teenager faced with the prospect of being cross-examined before a jury, Wilson ultimately decided not to participate in a criminal case. Today, Wilson works at the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a Native nonprofit serving Alaska’s vast interior. She has been sober for more than eight years. Wilson first shared her story on Facebook, and since then, she’s spoken publicly about sexual assault and trauma to audiences in Alaska and New York.

My mom brought me to the police station and I told them what happened, what I could remember, which wasn’t much. It was too late for a rape kit. And they told me that I was going to get torn down in court if it went to trial, and could I handle that? I am Alaska Native. I’m an alcoholic with a criminal record (no felonies). … Who in Alaska is going to listen to me? That's what I asked myself. And honestly, they wouldn’t have. … So I didn’t do it. I let those men walk free, because I was not strong enough to endure what had happened to me over again.”
Jessica Wilson stands on a hillside overlooking the Tanana River, where she used to play with her cousin as a child. That cousin took her own life at 20 years old. Wilson said, “We’d say we would marry our respective husbands [at this spot] some day. I actually did legally marry my husband there, over 12 years ago.” (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

BARBARA BEATUS, 64, Koyukon Athabascan and Iñupiaq, accountant. Lives in Fairbanks.

When Beatus heard that several men had sexually assaulted her daughter Jessica Wilson at a house party, she wanted them brought to justice. She drove her daughter to the police station to report the rape. That had not been an option for Beatus when she was a teenager in the 1970s. She had grown up in the village of Allakaket, an “idyllic” childhood, she said, until she moved to Fairbanks at 14 to attend high school. During the summer when she was 16 and back home in the village, Beatus and a female relative were out walking one night when a local man invited them into his home for a drink. Beatus said she had only a sip of the drink he gave her and quickly lost consciousness; she believes they were drugged. She woke up the next morning without her clothes. At the time, the only option seemed to be to run away and try to forget.

It took me years before I finally talked with a counselor. … Then, all of a sudden, I felt like there was like a big ball coming out of my chest, coming out of me, and it was, like, choking me and I couldn’t, I couldn’t breathe. And I was just gasping. Then it finally came out. And then ... then I cried, after years. That’s the reason why I’m doing this. I want to be open [talking about sexual assault] like Jessica, too, even though it’s not easy. I want the other young girls to know if something happened to them that they should let someone know, and that what happened was not their fault.”
Barbara Beatus at her home in Fairbanks, where she lives with her daughter Jessica Wilson, who is also a survivor of sexual assault. Beatus bought the house last year for her daughter and her family because she wanted them to have a home that they could live in for years to come. (Wilson contributes financially.) (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

RICKI DAHLIN, 28, inmate at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center.

In 2018 Anchorage police arrested Dahlin at gunpoint for trying to ram her way through a barricade in a stolen GMC Sierra. In the center console they found a gram of heroin; on the passenger seat a .380 handgun. For many in Anchorage it was another example of the rampant auto theft and drug-fueled property crime that has plagued the city in recent years. For Dahlin, her capture came almost as a relief. She’d been running from an abusive boyfriend and unable to kick the drug habit that had followed her across Alaska since childhood. Born premature and diagnosed with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, she said she was sexually abused repeatedly as a girl. The man who she says abused her has never faced charges. (He denies the allegations.)

A lot of people look at us as just drug addicts or junkies — ‘You know, they deserve to be in jail.’ Well, it goes deeper than that. We’re broken. We’re trying to fix ourselves. … Anytime I’ve ever tried to say it, nobody believed me. Nobody. So I never said anything.”
Ricki Dahlin in a prison visitation room at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center near Eagle River. Her cell in the segregation wing, where she was being held at the time, had only two windows, each the size of a brick, and a slat at the bottom of the door for food trays. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

DESI BOND, 35, Yup’ik and Blackfeet, legal advocate and SART coordinator. Lives in Dillingham.

Bond said she is the victim of multiple sexual assaults. In the aftermath, she struggled with substance abuse. In November 2016, Bond joined Alcoholics Anonymous and has collected an AA coin commemorating her sobriety each year since. The second anniversary gave her renewed motivation to remain clean. She said of her eldest daughter, “My baby told me how scary I was. … She told me how proud she is of me [now] and how she’s not scared of me anymore. That she feels safe, loved and protected.” In addition to AA, getting back to her Native culture helped her heal and “be present,” Bond said. Sobriety also led her to work with survivors of sexual assault at a Dillingham agency. She now coordinates a Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), a group of first responders who help victims make reports and collect evidence.

After the exam I apologize. … I say I’m sorry they have to be here, I’m sorry they have to feel like this. … I explain the process. It’s not going to be overnight. It’s not going to be in a week. … It’s not like in the movies where if you go and report it, they’re going to get thrown into jail and they throw the key away. I’m able to tell them things that I wish someone had told me.”
Desi Bond at Potter Marsh in Anchorage during a layover on her way to attend a conference on “Strengthening Sovereign Responses to Sex Trafficking in Indian Country and Alaska” in Tucson, Arizona. She says her kuspuk helps her express who she is: “a strong, resilient, beautiful Yup’ik Blackfeet woman.” (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

PENELOPE PARAOAN, 28, Iñupiaq, Yup’ik, American Indian and Filipino, former winner of Miss Congeniality at Miss Alaska USA and bodybuilder. Lives in Anchorage.

Paraoan said she is a survivor of child sexual abuse. She spent years working through that trauma in therapy. Then, in her mid-20s, she experienced another assault by someone she knew through work. Paraoan didn’t hesitate to report it: She called a car and asked her best friend to meet her at the Alaska Native Medical Center emergency room. From there, she was taken for a forensic exam and an interview with police. She remained hopeful that her case would be investigated. Every few months, she called the detective assigned to her case to ask for updates. After nine months with no news, she stopped calling. The Anchorage Police Department said its investigation is suspended unless additional evidence or leads surface. No arrests have been made. It’s been nearly three years.

I just knew that I needed to get to the hospital and make a report, because I didn’t want what had just happened and I was upset about it. I would be glad that I did report if I had known how it ended, if he had gotten at least a slap on the wrist for raping someone. But I can’t say that I’m glad that I did ... that I went through the trouble of doing all of that if, at the end of the day, he’s not seeing any consequences.”
Penelope Paraoan by the ocean at Turnagain Arm, a waterway into Cook Inlet. She says, “I always read ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou when I needed encouragement, and this passage always struck me: ‘I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide, / Welling and swelling I bear in the tide. / Leaving behind nights of terror and fear / I rise.’” (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

E.K., 43, Yup’ik. Lives in Southwest Alaska.

In the summer of 2017, E.K. was hired on a tug-and-barge operation that worked in remote waters off Alaska’s southwest coast. She recalled reporting for duty, when a deckhand showed her to her bunk, under the stairs. It had no door, just a curtain, she said. Everyone else had a locking door. E.K. was the only woman on site. She said most of the men came from out of state or out of the country. She was used to working in male-dominated fields — she had worked construction since 2012. But she said what happened in the days at sea left her traumatized. Due to an open Alaska State Troopers investigation, E.K. would rather not provide details of the alleged sexual assault but says the PTSD from this incident has had a devastating effect on her ability to make a living.

I was in bed for a good year. I couldn’t function. It was hard. Oh, my God that was hard. I wouldn’t want to go back there. After the boat, I took a construction job a little bit south of Anchorage where I realized I could not work with men at all anymore, I just can’t.”
E.K. looks out on a field where she sometimes takes her children to collect masu, a small yam-like root also known as “alpine sweetvetch” or “mousefood.” She wears her grandmother’s 50-year-old parka, made from wolverine, wolf, squirrel, sea otter and calfskin. E.K. says the wolverine is a symbol of strength. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

JUDY JESSEN, 28, advocate and organizer. Lives in Anchorage.

Jessen decided she wanted to get a forensic exam after she was raped by an acquaintance in 2015, her second assault since high school. She wanted to preserve evidence of the assault and get proper medical care. Jessen chose to get the exam while remaining anonymous and not working with police or an advocate. She said the forensic exam and interview were “awful.” But by giving a statement to a forensic nurse and undergoing the exam, her evidence was preserved for the future. That meant she could wait until the immediate trauma had passed to make decisions about whether and how to pursue her case. For months after the assault, she shared her story and recommendations about how to make it easier to get a forensic exam with politicians and advocates. In 2019, a new multidisciplinary center was opened in Anchorage for survivors of sexual assault to get medical and law enforcement services in one place. Jessen said the opening of the new center addresses some of her concerns, but change has been slow to come as she has continued to help others navigate the reporting process.

You always hear people say that getting a rape kit is harder than being raped, and I think that’s true. It takes a lot longer. It’s very invasive. And it feels bad to be processed like evidence. At the same time, getting the rape kit done … and being able to have time to think about how you want to move forward ... made a big difference for me in the way that I was able to heal after the assault.”
Judy Jessen said she derives strength from the community around her and wanted to be photographed surrounded by people. She is a daughter, sister, partner and friend. She says, “I built this really excellent life for myself because I wanted to be more than just a victim.” (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

S.S., 51. Lives in Southcentral Alaska.

Nearly 40 years passed before S.S. found trauma care that felt welcoming and made sense for him. A survivor of child sexual abuse by a priest listed as credibly accused by the Catholic Church and by a neighbor (both have since died), he grew up in silent turmoil that affected every part of his life. Still, he pushed on toward the hallmarks of adulthood, becoming an accomplished professional and dedicated father. But there were points when he thought he wouldn’t make it another year. “I sat for decades in a vicious loop … never coming forward, never dealing with it,” he said. In his early 20s, S.S. considered seeking help, but he found few spaces that appeared to welcome survivors like him — a man, grappling with the cycle of anger, shame and guilt. After a particularly dark episode in early 2019, he picked up the phone, dialed Standing Together Against Rape (STAR) and asked for care. This time he was connected to a therapist who is helping him make sense of the trauma. He said it was the start of the healing process that he’s long been searching for.

I did want to go to a support group, a women’s support group, [where] I fit everything they were offering except for [being a man]. I thought about just going because I really needed something. … I really needed to be heard. But I thought, you know, that they'll kick me out for being a man. … How many others were like me?”
S.S. chose to be photographed in woods he visited as a child, where he says he has found peace and solace through the years. “After my abuse early on, the woods were the place I could go for safety. ... I could always go home after and feel like I got it out of me,” he says. (Anne Raup/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

NATASHA AĠNAŊULUURAQ GAMACHE, 39, Iñupiaq and Yup’ik, pre-law student. Lives in Anchorage.

On Jan. 13, Gamache sat in a courtroom and told a judge some of what her ex-husband had done to her. He was being sentenced that day for two felony charges of sexual assault of a minor, and Gamache was giving a victim impact statement. Gamache said that in 2011 she had reported her husband to police for raping her and had helped police tape a confession from him. But he was not charged. Alaska’s state law at the time allowed a “marriage defense” in some cases where one spouse sexually assaulted the other. The law was changed in July 2019. Gamache’s ex-husband pleaded guilty to the charges of sexually assaulting minors, and that day in January, he was sentenced to a total of 36 years in prison. He is currently incarcerated. When he was offered the chance to speak in court, he said, “Everything that she said is completely accurate. Everything is true. There’s so much more she could have put in there that I have done.”

I didn’t find out until my 30s about consent ... until I went to my first semester of college at UAA. … I was like, holy crap, you mean that to consent to something, that has to look like an emphatic ‘yes!’? Not somebody threatening you? That changes all of my sexual history.”
Natasha Aġnaŋuluuraq Gamache is a student at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She says that after spending significant amounts of time in legal proceedings, including representing herself in some family law matters, she entered college with the goal of one day going to law school. She hopes to support other Alaska Native women who need better access to legal representation. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

SONYA SMITH, Tlingit and Haida, community mental health cultural developer and formline artist. Lives in Sitka.

Smith is known by many in her community as “Dr. Sonya.” A community advocate for Alaska Native survivors of sexual assault, especially missing and murdered indigenous women, Smith intimately knows the scars of child sexual abuse. She said a now-deceased uncle sexually abused her from the time she could walk into her teenage years. She believes she was first raped at age 4. The day after she graduated from high school, Smith left her family home, moving to Juneau, Anchorage and Seattle before settling in Sitka in 2008. There she became a certified nurse assistant. She now takes pride in looking out for younger generations. “I think it takes more guts as I age and come into our matriarchal experience,” she said. “I am responsible for them all. … it’s my turn.”

On my 16th birthday the perpetrator showed up when no one was around. I grabbed a gun and aimed it at him, told him if he ever laid a hand on me again I would shoot him. He never came back. That day changed how I saw myself. I knew I was never going to be the victim again.”
Sonya Smith said she continues to feel guided by previous generations. “The strength of my ancestors embraced me when I chose the path to heal,” she says. She is wearing her Tlingit regalia. Her cedar hat was woven and given to her by Della Cheney, their matriarch from Kake, Alaska. (Anne Raup/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

EMILY KNOWLES, 36, family business executive. Lives in Anchorage.

In the early 2000s, Knowles fought her way out of two sexual assault attempts as a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Both of her assailants were friends; one she had known since childhood. She worked as a paramedic for 12 years after graduating from college. Knowles said witnessing other women’s traumas compelled her to deal with her own. She has been in therapy since 2014.

It was really hard for me to start going to see a therapist. … I had to make huge adjustments in my life to do it. But it was worth it. … It’s something that I personally have found success with. And it’s something that I feel very, very strongly about. I wish other people wouldn’t negatively stigmatize it so much.”
Emily Knowles with her dogs, Dasia (left) and Skyler (right), at her parents’ home in Anchorage, where she works during the day. She says she can’t imagine her life without animals and their companionship; she says if she hadn’t decided to become a paramedic, she would’ve gone to school for veterinary medicine. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

TERESA LOWE, 41, Yup’ik, physician assistant. Splits her time between Fairbanks and Utqiagvik.

Lowe grew up in Mountain Village along the Yukon River in Western Alaska until the age of 12. She graduated from high school in the hub city of Bethel and went on to college in Fairbanks and Seattle. Until her 20s, Lowe says she experienced sexual assault in each of those places. She became a medical professional inspired by the belief that Alaska Native providers could improve outcomes for Native communities. In 2006, she asked her supervisors to be trained as a forensic examiner. She worked with a sexual assault response team in Bethel from 2006 until 2012. She was the only Native forensic examiner on the team.

I think that it is really important, because we do know that people generally have better outcomes if they see a provider that they can identify [with], that looks similar to them. If you have someone who is, or at least seems to be, of the same culture as you or the same background as you, there is more likelihood that you’re going to share things with that provider than you would with someone who is different, because there are some things — say, beliefs or ideas or thoughts — that are commonly shared in that culture. … I don’t think people really understand how important that is.”
Teresa Lowe was photographed in Anchorage; she had traveled from Utqiagvik to attend a meeting of the Alaska Department of Public Safety’s Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (CDVSA), where she has served as interim chair since September 2019 and has been a public member of the board since August 2018. (Anne Raup/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

D.M., 42. Lives in Seward.

D.M. grew up in Southeast Alaska, where she said she was sexually abused by someone close to her. She left the village at 17 and had a child soon after. Drinking alcohol numbed her but could not heal her. She said she later experienced other sexual assaults. In her 30s, she changed her lifestyle in order to find healthier ways to cope. She is now nine years sober. Running and leading addiction treatment classes have helped her stay on course. She said getting older has also given her the opportunity to redefine herself.

I’m 100 percent sure that [sexual abuse as a child] led to me placing absolutely no value on my body and probably becoming way more promiscuous than I would have otherwise. I became a very young parent and was very reckless with my body until nine or 10 years ago. I didn’t see any self-worth or anything. It took me that long, until I was 30 or 32.”
D.M. chose to be photographed on the shore of Resurrection Bay. She says living near the water and being surrounded by mountains makes her feel safe. “The best thing about this area is that I can watch and hear the whales from my home in the spring,” she says. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

ASH, 25, administrative worker in public safety. Lives in Anchorage.

Ash, who asked that her last name not be used, said she always wanted to become a police officer, and she believes her personal experience of sexual assault will make her more effective in that role. She has been in therapy since age 9 to treat the trauma of childhood sexual molestation, she said. Seven years ago, during her first year of college, she said, she was raped at a party. Afraid she wouldn’t have a strong legal case, she never reported it to police. In college, Ash majored in criminal justice with a particular interest in public service work around sexual assault prosecution. Soon, she hopes to prepare for the police entrance exam. She said every day continues to get better.

I actually want to be either a Crimes Against Children or a Special Victims detective, specifically. … The attitude of ‘Well, [the system] is not going to change’ — that’s the problem. ... Maybe I won’t make changes tomorrow, but ... if I honestly just had one survivor come to me and be like, ‘Because of you, I decided to report,’ or something like that, that would complete [my goal].”
Ash was photographed in her Anchorage apartment, where she feels safe. About the hanging blanket she says, “Captain America was the superhero I fell in love with at a young age … because I felt that I really related to ‘standing up for the little guy’ and ‘doing what’s right even if nobody else agrees with it.’” (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News)
Show Menu

MYRA SCHOLZE, 26, fisheries biologist. Lives in Nome.

After Scholze moved in with a boyfriend, she said, he began physically and verbally abusing her. Eventually a group of her friends convinced her to move out of state for a few months to escape the relationship. After she came back to Alaska, life prospered, but years later she struggled with severe anxiety and depression.