What IS Kevin Pease? Ethnicity vs. Culture in the Fairbanks Four Case

KevinMompicSince the beginning of this case there has been a tremendous emphasis on race as it pertained to the crime itself and its potential impact on motive. We have caught plenty of heat for not shying away from discussing that, but is worth mentioning that we didn’t bring that emphasis here we simply exposed the opposing vantage point on it. The first articles in this case and nearly every one written since identifies the races of those accused very specifically.

Kevin is fair-haired and blue-eyed. His family has Crow in its ancestry, but it is not his dominant ethnicity, and at the end of the day Kevin would easily and always be identified by appearance and ethnicity as white. Reporters have expressed ongoing confusion as to Kevin’s ethnicity, and one reporter recently asked, “What is Kevin? Some articles call him white, some American Indian, but all of my interviews with the supporters would lead you to believe his is Athabascan.”

It is an interesting element of the case and one to which Eugene and some supporters have spoken directly. Ethnicity and culture impacted this case from many angles. Although this is not the most pressing or urgent issue in this case, it is thought-provoking and deserves to be addressed. This post contains their well articulated thoughts on the topic.

“I don’t like this idea that  outsiders get to define who we are for us. That’s up to us. It’s like Kevin isn’t Native enough for the newspapers, but he’s Native enough for the Natives, and he’s enough of an Indian to be stuck in here with us, right? Blood quantum and all, I think that’s just a way to control people. Tell them who they are. Our words in almost any tribe for ourselves in our languages mean, the people. It doesn’t mean, the people who BIA says are of the people. It means, the people who are of, basically, each other. Us. Kevin was raised with us, around us, he’s one of us, he just is. He’s as Athabascan as anyone can be right that word just means “us”, and I don’t like reading different in the paper. Like why do they want to always make that a big point. And I don’t care they call him white there’s nothing wrong with it not like its offensive  I just care they always want to make it like, he’s different. They don’t get it. But it’s always kinda like bugged me.” – Eugene

“The idea of adoption, in Athabascan culture, is an old concept. A lot of people were adopted in. The historical and cultural fact is that Athabascans never defined themselves in the way of birth order or pedigree. That is the white man’s way of thinking. It was never ours. Our generation isn’t seeing this some new way, we are seeing it the old way.” – Ricko DeWilde

“There is a critical and misunderstood difference between ethnicity and culture. Kevin’s ethnicity and his cultural identity may be different. His perception of his place in a community or culture versus the perception of the community’s view of him may differ as well. As in, Kevin may not see himself as culturally Athabascan while the Koyukon Athabascan community may see him as a member. To Kevin specifically he grew up with Athabascans through a series of events which he did not control as a young person which is not much different than a birthright. We are born into cultural identity in the sense that we are born into a specific culture. For many and most people this may align with their ethnic makeup and for some it does not. Through experience and sustained contact he was raised culturally Athabascan. Kevin does not look at a Native person and see a ‘Native.’ Kevin sees a person and often a person he knows through a relational concept of identity (again a concept which he was exposed to culturally). This is a tricky concept to articulate but I hope at least some blog readers can and will follow.

Fundamentally, Kevin is a cultural Alaska Native. At least, that is my perception of Kevin and I know it is widely shared in the Interior Native culture of Fairbanks in particular. Kevin for example is far more culturally Athabascan than an ethnic Athabascan who was raised by Swiss Italian American parents in New Jersey and never exposed to our way of life. That person is ethnically Alaska Native and culturally not. Those adopted in are more culturally a part of a society than those adopted out.

I want to find a way to make the frustration when it comes up over and over in newspapers that identify him as white or outside Indian understandable to any random reader. When, while that may be true from a genetic or ethnic perspective, it is dismissive to us as a culture to instruct who we can consider part of our people, and further dismissive of our individual value as just human beings. The emphasis on race in these publications does not have the goal of identification although that may be the stated goal or the only motivation consciously known to the author, the categorization on this level has to do with othering the subjects. The ‘othering’ of Kevin in the beginning of this case was important. The media and community were hung up on this notion of the players. They couldn’t make a sound case for the guilt of innocent men in a crime so they had to attack their essence as a way to attack their credibility based on the social psychological perception of the situation. They placed them into roles that met the social normative and were therefore more readily accepted. They made these human individuals into archetypes – Eugene the stupid savage, Marvin the savage nature, underscoring the notion that even cloaked in apparent assimilation (valedictorian, etc) there is a savage nature; a difference which is past skin deep, George as the wild savage, and Kevin was the disturbed race traitor who associated with them.  Then there did not have to be actual motivation the public would accept the motivation was simply their nature, so different from the reader. In reality these identities were a construct which had almost nothing in common with who these people were as individuals and was only an articulation of  racial archetypes.

An attack on the identity of a cultural group weakens the position of the group. It is psychological genocide, it’s a way of eliminating a culture to take away the group’s own right to define themselves. Kevin likely views himself from many angles and in many ways, and probably has a cultural identity that is dynamic and made up of all of these roles and experiences. But from my perspective, and I know from the perspective of many within the Athabascan culture, Kevin is a member of our community and culture. He understands the traditions, the nuances of the language, the social strata, the modern history, the interconnection, he just is one of us as a people, as a specific group of people in the world. And being allowed to define yourselves does not in any way take from a person or group’s right to discuss discrimination. Quite the opposite because in fact these parameters put on a group from without are their own form of discrimination, and a under-discussed racial microaggression.” – Misty Nickoli

Race in the Case – The Hartman Murder was a Hate Crime

bookertwashingtonJohn Hartman was killed in the commission of a premeditated racial hate crime.

 “A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, Congress has defined a hate crime as a ‘criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.’” – F.B.I.

According to William Holmes who confessed in detail to his role in killing John Hartman, he and four friends went out onto the streets of Fairbanks the night they attacked Hartman to physically assault Native Alaskans.

Holmes and his fellow conspirators “decided to go downtown and have some fun.” Their idea of “fun”?

Harassing “drunk natives by throwing eggs at them, or 2 or 3 guys from the car would jump out with the driver still in the running car and punch them. We’d laugh at them falling or a cigarette flying from their mouth upon impact. The thrill came from running away, speeding off and messing with these drunks barely able to walk.”

holmesletterOn the night that they killed John Hartman, Holmes describes patrolling downtown looking for Native victims. The group found at least one victim, but their attack was thwarted when others appeared on the scene. When they were unable to find the victim they were looking for – a vulnerable Native person walking alone – they decided to end their “fun.” Sadly, as they were driving out of the downtown area they spotted “a white boy” walking alone and decided he would have to do. The group fell on the young boy with no warning, knocked him to the ground, and kicked him into a coma that would prove fatal.

John Hartman was kicked and stomped to death with violence so callous it defies explanation. He was killed because five young men carried with them a racial hate so strong and dehumanizing that group beatings of vulnerable Natives was a form of recreation. John Hartman was killed by hate directed toward a race of people he did not belong to in life. But in death, he joined a long list of the persecuted. He is not the first boy to die at the hands of race-based violence, but he may be the only white child to die in the cross-hairs of racism against Alaska’s first people.

In the days after Hartman was killed, when his face and the faces of the young men wrongfully accused of his murder appeared on the front page of the local newspaper, someone bought that paper and brought it back to Midtown Apartments, where a group of people acquainted with the four accused gathered around to read in disbelief. An elderly woman looking over our shoulders said, “I bet they were looking for a Native boy, I wish they had found one.”

For the majority of Fairbanks residents the idea that a young person could be attacked at random and assaulted simply for walking alone was unfathomable. Yet, for another sector of the community, it was routine. The other side of the story in a community where violent beatings are a form of recreation, and a person’s ethnicity is what makes them a target, and in turn makes them invisible to the rest of the community, was that there was a legion of kids who were familiar with the attacks. Scores of boys who were on guard, who slipped into the bushes when a car approached, who ran like hell when they heard the sound of tires slowing down behind them because those kids knew it was the cops or the people who jumped Natives, and that both were dangerous. Kids who curled into a ball and protected their heads if they didn’t run fast enough. If they had found the victim they meant to find, maybe no one would have died.

Eugene. Eugene was walking alone that night. They wanted Eugene, but the timing was off.

George. George walked downtown the very same evening, and George was exactly who they were looking for.

Pick a name off the witness list. Pull a name from the wedding guest book. Nearly every person whose life would intersect with the wrongful arrest, trials, conviction, and decades long fight to overturn it was guilty of the crime of being Native that night, and it was hate directed at them that motivated the men who killed John Hartman. It was that same hate, woven into the fabric of the community and its institutions, which allowed for the immediate arrest and wrongful conviction of people who were guilty of nothing besides being Native.

This hate is alive and well, virtually unchanged since 1997. Ask any Native man if they have been physically attacked in the streets of Fairbanks at random, and you will hear the stories. Read the crime statistics, sexual assault statistics, human rights reports. Read. Open your eyes, look. Open any Alaskan Craigslist and word search the term “Natives,” and you will read the thoughts of the community members who carry this hate. The posts below are chosen at random, and simply some of the most recent posts on the topic in the local Craigslist. We include them simply as a reminder that this hate remains, and offer it as “proof” of racism to those readers who believe that racism does not exist, or that conversations about race undermine the credibility of our cause. We are not playing the race card. We are playing the had we were dealt.





The newspapers continue to describe the assault as random, when in reality the assault that killed John Hartman was premeditated, and the motivation was racial hate. The fact that he was walking at that moment, at that intersection, that the men responsible had not been able to find their ideal victim, that the assault proved fatal – perhaps all of that can be considered the product of coincidence. But his murder was not random violence – it was very specific and intentional violence.

The two most common pieces of advice we receive in writing this blog are to avoid writing about race or John Hartman, because it makes people uncomfortable. But we are not here to make anyone comfortable, we are here to tell the truth. And the truth is, race was a huge factor in this case.CL6

Racial hate motivated the crime, it motivated the wrongful arrest and conviction of innocent young men, and it was the overtly stated factor used to dismiss the testimony of many witnesses.

John Hartman deserves justice. He was killed in hate and denied justice in hate, and that is not an acceptable legacy for a loved and innocent child. Nearly every person who speaks of this young man in life emphasizes his kindness and open-mindedness. He deserves better than this. His family deserves the truth. The community that rallied around his memory and his family to demand justice deserve the truth.

The answer to hate is not silence. The answer to hate is not fear. The answer to hate is not regret, grief, shame, and it certainly is not hate. The only counter to hate is love. So with love, we think it is time to start an honest conversation about race in this case, race in our community, and what we can do to change the future for the better.

Readers, we want to hear what you have to say. Leave a comment, tell your story, share your thoughts.

We heard the advice loud and clear to stay away from the topic of race so that people feel comfortable, and it reminded us how very important it is to make people uncomfortable. This post will mark the first in a series about race in this case, because if we can’t even say the words, we will never be able to change the story. We welcome contributors.

A Thanksgiving Perspective from Alaska

Alaska. The tourists come here in buzzing clouds, thick and as transient as mosquitos. They are very old. They are in the twilight of their lives. The women have poofs of white hair and wear elastic banded blue jeans. Their husbands carry cameras and wear khaki explorer hats.They arrive on enormous cruise ships and travel the thin highways on guided bus tours and train tracks, led by bright-eyed college students spending their summer working as tour guides. The greatest generation, spending their carefully sequestered Alaska portion of their retirement account, shuffling on the gravel at every highway overlook, scanning the horizons with their binoculars in search of a bear, a moose, their history.  They all buy the same deep blue sweatshirt that says “Alaska: The Last Frontier,” in gold-embroidered letters. It is, after all, why they came  –  to see the Last Frontier. It calls to them because they come from places where the frontier has been conquered and settled and is gone now. Alaska is the last, the very last, American frontier.

There is a lot of magic in a name; part truth and part spell. The Last Frontier was bestowed carefully, a  tribute both to the land’s untamed expanses and America’s deep rooted nostalgia for the era of cowboys sleeping under the stars and teepees peppering the wide open plains. America misses the Last Frontier. The idea that our ancestors walked bravely into the unknown, carved trails through an unforgiving wilderness, and ultimately weaved from the fabric of drastically different cultures, hard work, and luck the world’s strongest country is a great story. Our story. It is written so deeply into our collective consciousness that we walk with it, always, so intrinsic that we forget it is there. All of those old men and women were children once, together in that November classroom to learn the story. We were all there. When winter began to bite through fall we carefully stapled together the wide brown band of construction paper and pasted bright feathers to our Indian head-dress. We glued the bright yellow paper buckle to our pilgrim hats while the teacher laid out the multi-colored corn and parents arrived for the feast. And there, divided only by our different paper hats, we acted out the story: pilgrims and Indians eating together. Pilgrims and Indians celebrating abundance, welcoming the winter, waiting for the thaw, for the spring when America would begin in earnest. Thankful. So very deeply thankful for not just a meal, but for what was to come.

The story of our bright beginning, the purest freedoms, the wide open plains, that story is deep in our bones now. But we know that it wasn’t that easy. We feel the ghosts of other, less often told stories, lurking in the periphery of that happy story. We close our eyes and see teepees burning. We know that the pilgrims won, and we know how. Sand Creek. Custer’s Last Stand. Trails and trails of blood and tears carved through what was the frontier, paved and perfected so that the wild could become America. We sense it – that when those early November’s frost chased away the last of the leaves and winter was moments away, thousands of children were placed in hard-dug graves, wheels of wagons crashed over tiny bones and ground them to dust, and the division was real. Some of us walk with those stories, too, as deeply written and as impossible  to shed as the first Thanksgiving. But those stories are heavier. Harder to carry.

For most of America, the stories get further away each season, until they are so far in the distance they are forgotten. The terrible ones remain untold until the words are hard to form and people are able to forget. But this is the Last Frontier, and here, the wagons must keep moving if America is to take root properly. Here it is sometimes America of golden arches and great bridges, but much of the time it is still cowboys and Indians.

In Alaska we are plagued with a terrible double vision, one we cannot make peace with. See, this is the America that learned from its past. This is the country that has progressed, where a million men marched, where a woman would not budge from her bus seat, where we can erradicate the past in order to form a more perfect union. And Alaska is part of that America. Yet, we are out of time in some ways. We are not as far along in our story, we are somehow still in the part where teepees must be burned and trails must be carved, even though we know the ending, even though McDonald’s is here before all the bison are dead. We are American enough that we believe ourselves to not be racist, to believe ourselves to be undivided. But when Martin Luther King had a dream, soldiers still came in the night to take Indian children out of their beds and send them away. Not a story from our ancestors, a story from our parents. It’s all wrong. Someone forgot to divide the Indians into reservations and erect copper likenesses of their murdered chiefs in the town squares. Someone forgot to build town squares. We are not divided enough to pretend convincingly that we are undivided. So, we have to play a kind of first Thanksgiving. America lays out the feast and shows us the colorful corn that could never grow in this soil. See here? America says. The proof that this is your story, too. Our story together. And we put on our technicolor feathers and flopping construction paper buckles and rehearse our happy meal. Pilgrims and Indians, cowboys and Indians, make believe until you believe.

Then, sometimes, something happens that breaks it all back open and the other stories come roaring alive. A boy, say, scalped on the streets, his blood staining snow, the last of his hot breath wisping into the late fall sky, life leaving him.

Men in cars with red and blue flashing lights, wearing badges and those black paper hats that were placed onto their heads so long ago that they have forgotten they are there. Still, right away they scan the horizon, begin looking for four Indian boys playing at warrior games, feathers like a shadow. The investigation is over now, before it has begun, because these men remember this story. They know how it ends already.

This story is very old. This is the story of America. This is the story of the Last Frontier, the very last. This is a story that you know already. This story was whispered to you once in the rustling of construction paper and dried corn. This is a sad story. Listen, listen.

Free the Fairbanks Four