In communities across the state last week, people came together to remember a very special woman, Kristen Huntington.
"She was amazing. She loved being a mother. She was a very proud Inupiaq woman. She worked really hard no matter what she was doing and she loved people. She was an amazing people person. People were attracted to her because of her smile and her laughter. She always took a moment to see how you were doing and checked in with her friends and family. She just glowed in so many ways. She was a really amazing person," said Adrienne Blatchford, who had known Huntington for about 11 years.
Huntington, 30, was found dead in an abandoned Fairbanks apartment earlier this month. A man, identified as her boyfriend, has been taken into custody and charged with her murder.
"Kristen initially was reported missing and her ex-husband's father wanted to do a search," Blatchford recalled. "We're from the village, so we immediately, when somebody goes missing, we get together and create a plan and initialize a search and rescue group."
They came together at night and the next morning, were told by police to call off the search. A body had been found and was later identified.
Behind this story of a woman with a family, who experienced domestic violence and was killed, is the story of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls (MMIWG). It's a story that always starts with an individual, a person with a life and a legacy, that ties into a much larger and more complex issue that has touched every corner of this country.
"There's so much going on behind all of this like the MMIWG movement and so much language that's carried with it about inaction in our communities and the police not being involved and the media not highlighting these stories," said Blatchford. "And Kristen was such an amazing light. She was a beautiful woman and she tried to leave that relationship. Her family and people around her encouraged her."
Huntington was in a place of trauma, Blatchford said, and ended up staying in the relationship. People who have experienced intimate partner violence and those who have worked with it for years understand how hard it can be to leave.
"The more we come together, the stronger we're going to be," said Charlene Aqpik Apok, gender justice and healing coordinator for Native Movement. "The more that we see and understand that this is not just a Fairbanks thing, it's not just an Anchorage thing, it's not just a one-place thing, this is a statewide, it's a national issue, and so elevating it appropriately and demonstrating solidarity is super important."
Following her death, Huntington's family wanted to do something to raise awareness about domestic violence and also remember their loved one.
With the help of organizers like Blatchford and Apok, among others, they held candlelight vigils around the state in communities like Anchorage, Fairbanks, Selawik, Ambler and Noorvik. Huntington's family comes from the Northwest Arctic, which is why several villages here held deeply personal vigils to remember their close friend and cousin.
The intent was to highlight domestic violence and encourage people to speak out in times of need. That might be if they hear their neighbors fighting or if someone in a family knows about something going on. They wanted to open up space to help people not be scared to report abuse and talk about it openly and honestly.
"To show that this movement for change is indigenous-led and what it takes is for community care and for accountability and for a full circle of healing, to help reduce recidivism and to hold our abusers and people that commit violent crimes accountable in that healing circle, as well," said Blatchford. "And to bring awareness to domestic violence and abuse by normalizing this language and holding healing sessions and healing circles and creating safe houses in our communities — not waiting for funding — but doing it as community care."
The narrative around missing and murdered indigenous women has a complicated history. Media outlets have contributed to dangerous and destructive portrayals of victims and perpetrators and law enforcement has often been called out for not paying enough attention to these types of incidents.
Now, organizers hope vigils like these will help reshape the narrative into one that can help the issue move forward. First, they ask that people stop using the word 'epidemic' to describe it; it's not a communicable disease spread among a community. Organizers also want it to be known that this is an indigenous-led response and that it's taking a healing-centered approach.
"In order to move this issue forward, to create action, to create change, and to demand justice in the way we are, we have to do the healing part of the work, too," said Apok. "The vigil is very much an example of that healing-centered way that we take the time to recognize and to honor and to come together and to create spaces of healing for our people at the same time as demanding systemic change."
A candlelight vigil is a visible, community-based way to highlight someone's story, she said. It's a way of being present and it can't be ignored.
"I believe in protests. I believe in demonstrations and having that visibility. There's a lot of criticism that people say that that doesn't do anything, but it does," Apok said. "When we empower people to have their voices be heard, action is a result of that. So, maybe they vote, maybe they speak to their legislators or other representatives. Also, on a broader narrative, the people who are supposed to be representing us, or the people who need to hold more accountability within the system, see that we're talking to one another, that we have a shared common goal, that we have everyone on the same page of what we're asking for. The awareness is there. And it does put pressure on them to reexamine those systems and their part in it." A lot of people who do this work have been personally affected by it, Apok said. "My cousin was Samantha Koenig, the barista that had been kidnapped and murdered. So, this issue is really near and dear to me," she said. "I've been a longtime advocate for women. I've worked in domestic violence and sexual assault for a long, long time." So, while this is a widespread issue, it's one that is built upon countless individual stories of women with families and friends and lives of their own. It's important to remember that and hold space for healing from their loss, along with change. And so, last week, while dozens of people stood outside in the winter cold and snow and lit a candle for the thousands of women who have been affected by this issue, they took a moment to remember one woman — Kristen Huntington — as she was, as a mother and friend and someone who didn't give up hope for a better future. This is not the end of Kristen's story, Blatchford said. "When I continue fighting, I'll always talk about Kristen, how our communities come together, the strength that we see, the need that we feel for change to come. She's got children. She has a legacy she left," she said. "I think a lot of that is just moving forward and teaching so the next seven generations to come don't carry this trauma, they don't carry this sadness and sorrow and grief. They feel joy from knowing that people fought for change and that safe place. We used to uplift our women in so many different ways and this oppression that we have — even lateral oppression that we see amongst our own people — is a fight. Changing the language, the actions we take in our communities, that's a part of her story. She would want it. She would want people to keep fighting."
If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic violence or abuse, help is available. You can find more information at the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at andvsa.org.
You can also call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
In the North Slope, you can contact Arctic Women in Crisis (AWIC) at 907-852-0267 or toll-free at 1-800-478-0267.
In the Northwest Arctic, you can contact the Maniilaq Family Crisis Center (MFCC) at 907-442-3969.
You can also reach out to local law enforcement, your local health aide, a hospital or medical center, or trusted family or friends.
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at email@example.com.