When the Reverend Scott Fisher prayed with the crowd gathered in front of the Fairbanks Courthouse on the day the Alaska Innocence Project filed their court motion claiming the innocence of the Fairbanks Four, the hundreds gathered under a cold and gray sky fell silent and listened. It was that strange kind of silence – the absence of noise where sound should be. It was as if we all just knew that this prayer should be alone in the air, its path upward completely clear, the words free to travel unaccompanied into the heavens.
Just a few hours ago, it was night. Yet, the sun rose. Morning came. The light made its way over the horizon, and now we stand in the light. For sixteen years we have waited. For sixteen long years these young men in prison have waited, in darkness, with only faith that light would come. We call upon the soul of this young man John Hartman, who was taken by darkness, and promise him, morning is on its way. We remember that with only faith in the darkness we stood, we prayed, we waited for the light.
The preacher’s voice was soft. This was a lamentation, a laying down of grief. This was the painful recollection of so many prayers said and left unanswered. Yet in the long pause that followed these heavy words, hundreds of heads remained bowed. Everyone knew this prayer was not over. When he resumed it was in a voice of power, a proclamation.
But now, there is light on the horizon. We can see it, we feel it, and we know the light is coming. To those of you who have waited, with only your faith, who have feared and gone forward, who have fought for justice in a dark, dark world, let me assure you: THE LIGHT IS COMING. To those young men in their prison cells, fear not: THE LIGHT IS COMING. To those of you who have hidden in the darkness, kept yourself and your secrets there: THE LIGHT IS COMING. And it is time. Step into the light. Seek the light. Because it is seeking you, and soon there will be no dark place left to hide. We have walked through darkness these many miles and we have many miles left to travel, but there on the horizon we can see a glimpse of morning and we know THE LIGHT IS COMING.
It is hard to say when the clouds parted and the sun shone down on those people holding hands, heads bowed. But when we looked up, it was a blue-sky day. The summer found its way into the autumn, the sun touched everything, and the looming gray marble of the courthouse faded into the background, insignificant amongst the brilliant red and gold leaves on the trees and the blinding white sun shining off of the river. The clock tower and church bells rang out at once in a strange and serendipitous orchestra, and people broke out into song.
The song was Nuchalawoyya, a song many hundreds and maybe thousands of years old, from the people and the place on the river that these wrongfully imprisoned men dream of returning to. A word that means in literal translation, where two rivers meet. But, as many words, loses meaning in a simple translation. The word is a place where rivers meet, a place where people from many places met. A place where, long ago, people discussed things like treaties and territories. A place of common ground, a destination, and now, a celebration. A song.
The song began with a small circle of four men. The men who were singing were boys once. Just kids in 1997. Theirs were the first voices to ring out that day, a powerful song from this small circle of four men. All of them were interrogated in this case. Each of these men, in their mid-thirties now, have carried with them these many years a burden we rarely discuss – the shame that came with this case. The shame of feeling and believing that if they had been stronger and louder; that if their voices had somehow been heard that their friends would not have been taken. They have walked with the guilt of survivors, never knowing why it was they were not taken. They have understood the grief of Eugene and George, who buckled under pressure and have had to live with the shame and the belief that if they had been stronger perhaps they would be free, their friends would be free, they would be there as men should be, at home to care for their families, and now, that perhaps the next victims of the men who killed Hartman would be alive and home as well. These men have carried with them a thousand shades of shame, the pain unique to those who spoke the truth and were not heard.
The list of names of the men who were given this shame as boys and who have carried the weight of it through the years grows shorter with the passage of time. Beside them in that circle was the space where others should have been. People who are gone now. Many of the young people who were interrogated, questioned, who testified in those dark years, who lived through a time when they spoke as strongly as they knew how and were not heard, have been buried. Some have died at their own hand. Yet, as these remaining men broke into song you could see some of the burden – a burden which will never leave completely – lighten.
This time they were heard, and their voices were joined by many others.
For far too long a time this case has been about darkness. This injustice has thrived in shadows and fed itself on secrets. Injustice draws strength from the evils of humanity – shame, fear, trickery, corruption, pride, denial.
That time is over.
For those of you who have information in this case, step into the light. The sun is on the horizon, morning is on its way, and if you don’t seek the light, it will find you. The light is coming.
For those who have walked with a heavy heart, who still carry the shame and grief and fear and pain, set it down. Let that darkness go. The light is coming.
*photo of Nuchalawoyya above is by “FairbanksMike” whose lovely pictures can be seen on Flickr