The Anchorage Daily News recently announced a second visit to the alcohol scene of the 10-part series "People in Peril" published in 1988. I was a part of the People in Peril report. It was known then that the newspaper would not look for the many reasons Native people were in the fix they were in. Its only purpose at that time was to start a conversation. That conversation began a long time ago, but only a few answers have emerged. This time around, I am hoping for something more, something different.
Maybe just a closer look at the whole scene, and not just one small part of it would suffice. For sure just stopping drinking isn’t going to solve a whole lot. There are too many side issues that go along with alcohol and drug abuse.
When we began gathering the stories that were on the pages of that report, I like other reporters, soon learned that there was a great big problem and it needed fixing. No one knew for sure how that was to happen.
But soon thereafter, the Alaska Natives Commission was created by Congress in 1990 at the urging of Alaska Native groups.
In their words, the Commission said “in preparing these studies, the task forces went to great lengths to treat each issue as thoroughly and conclusively as possible. These issues were examined from a number of policy perspectives, including social, cultural and economic, in recognition of their complex, interwoven and inseparable nature.”
The key words here are ... ”their complex, interwoven and inseparable nature.”
Among them were justice and corrections.
The Commission found that “there is a prevalent misunderstanding or misconception on the part of many non-Natives that only by administering Western justice can there be justice, and this perspective is ultimately harmful to the pursuit of alternative dispute resolution strategies at the village level.”
The Commission also found that “the Native suicide rate has continued its upward climb in recent years, reaching nearly 69 per 100,000 population in 1989; death from suicide of an Alaska Native occurred once every 10 days, on average, during the 1980s, and preliminary figures from 1990-1993 indicate that the Alaska Native suicide rate is continuing to climb.”
And “while about one in four of non-Native suicides in Alaska are committed by 15-to-24-year-olds, virtually half in the Native community are committed by this age group.”
It also found that “during the 1980s, males accounted for 86-percent of Native suicide victims; the suicide rate for the latter part of the 1980s for males aged 20-to-24 years was in excess of 30 times the national rate for all age groups combined.”
It is clear alcohol continues to play a large part in the deaths of Alaska Native people.
Not much has changed since People in Peril was published. Many millions of dollars have been spent to fix people; be it in prisons, in half-way houses, in treatment centers and other “fix-it centers.” Most are failures due in large part to a focus on symptoms rather than core issues.
Most of the young men in prisons are there for probation and parole violations.
It is also the inattention paid to the premise of the interwoven and inter-relatedness of the issues we face as a people – unemployment, lack of justice, a criminal justice system that is administered unjustly, and many more. Stereotyping and profiling has played a significant role.
We are a people who have endured and continue to endure extreme change. Our languages are gone. Our cultural practices have all but been eliminated. And we have been required to adopt “new” ones to replace the experiences and heritage we were told to get rid of. That has not been an easy task.
Some of us have voiced our objections, only to be told and with amused contempt to remain silent.
What works for me may not work for others. My strength comes from my Ancestors and my belief in my Agayun, the Creator of the Iñupiat people. And it is a return to the spirituality of my grandfathers and my grandmothers and those who came before them. I am a survivor. I was once a person in peril. I know of what I speak.
John Tetpon is an Anchorage journalist who has worked for the Anchorage Daily News and The Anchorage Times, assigned to cover state and federal courts, police and crime, and rural issues. He was also the director of communications for the Alaska Federation of Natives. He is retired and lives in Anchorage.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.