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Anchorage Daily News

Ways of Healing
Writers, artists expose realities of violence

By Sandi Gerjevic
Anchorage Daily News

(Published May 29, 2001)

After reviewing artwork that included silhouettes of fallen bodies, strewn with trash and dead leaves, a diverse crowd packed Grant Hall's theater Thursday night at Alaska Pacific University. The event, "Ceremony of Healing: Expressions Concerning Violence Toward Alaska Native Women," was intended to spark dialogue about a recent spate of unsolved murders in Anchorage and also to speak to the value of lost sisters.

"What Does It Take for You To See My Heart?" is a work by Susie Silook on display in the "Ceremony of Healing" exhibit in Grant Hall at Alaska Pacific University. (Photo by Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)
"You need to see the humanity behind what's going on," said Susie Silook, an artist who has spoken publicly about a sexual assault she survived in 1999.

Silook's outrage about brutalities visited on Native women was echoed by other speakers and artists who relayed personal stories about molestation, rape and racism. Some spoke about a frustration to be heard and a history of cultural apartheid.

In an essay, writer Martha Upicksoun recalled a first youthful awareness of violence -- the murder of a young Native woman. Upicksoun spoke of how decades later, painful as it was, she contacted the murdered woman's family to re-examine the death. In learning their memories of the victim, Upicksoun was struck by two things: how the death had deeply touched each member of the woman's family, and how it seemed nobody else cared.

Anna Upicksoun and her daughter Aunalisa Fox look at artwork by Phyllis Ann Fast during the opening of the "Ceremony of Healing" exhibit. (Photo by Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)
The evening's defining moment came when an unruly, seemingly inebriated woman staggered into the auditorium, loudly creating a scene. An uncomfortable silence fell over the room as the woman, her face hidden by a headband and long hair, pushed away an organizer and an Anchorage police officer who tried to escort her out.

When the woman took the stage and picked up a script, the audience realized it had been had. The crasher was Diane Benson, a writer and actor, who launched into a catalog of work that addressed identity and respect. Benson's message was unmistakable as she gingerly slipped on beaded moccasins and humanized the "drunk" by unveiling her, inviting the audience to discard a stereotype.

In a performance piece that struggled to convey a horrific rape to unwilling readers in a creative-writing class, Benson said she only sought to speak the truth, because to be silent "makes you crazy."

"Ceremony of Healing" was starkly painful, disturbing and laced with anger but also held elements of hope and community solidarity. After the event, some visitors dropped beads into a glass jar in a ritualistic and symbolic purging.

Diane Benson speaks as "the writer" in "Would It Be Too Much," a dialogue about the experience of rape. (Photo by Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)
As the evening closed, patrons lingered to study the artwork, especially an exhibit by Silook that included transcripts from a police investigation of her rape.

In her piece called "Shadow of Death," Susie Bevins memorialized Native women "valued by their creator who formed them while yet in their mother's womb, fearfully and wonderfully made. Loved by their families and friends. They were of great value."

Reporter Sandi Gerjevic can be reached at