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AFN: A call for action to stem high suicide rate among Alaska Natives

Dermot Cole
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, applauds the courage of young children in attendance at the 2013 Alaska Federation of Natives. The Tanana 4-H club challenged their elders to help stem the tide of alcoholism, domestic violence and suicide in rural Alaska villages. Loren Holmes photo

FAIRBANKS—Counselor Mike Williams  of Akiak spent most of Friday night and early Saturday rewriting a resolution for the Alaska Federation of Natives convention, struggling to get the words just right.

The difficulty arises from the complexity of the problem. He shortened the text and the title, naming it “Building capacity to end suicide in our communities.”

The resolution says the high rate of suicide creates a “trail of untold sadness, violence and grief.” It outlines several steps, including increased federal and state funding and greater official recognition of indigenous peoples and their cultures.

Outrage and frustration about the high rate of suicide by young Native Alaskans emerged as one of the key issues at the 2013 Alaska Federation of Natives convention, epitomized by the presentation given by seven children from the Tanana 4-H Club Friday.

The comments that followed approval of the anti-suicide resolution Saturday drove the point home.

This issue needs to be dealt with at home in villages across the state,  not just with talk at meetings, several speakers said.

“We cannot keep coming up here year after year, continuing to say that the numbers are rising. We must draw a line in the sand at the local level,” said Rob Sanderson Jr. of Ketchikan. “Call out the people that hurt our women and children.”

Confront those who are creating the problems,

Julie Roberts-Hyslop of the Native village of Tanana said the 4-H Club delivered a powerful message and a cry for help.

“If we as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, don’t start to listen to what our children are saying this trend will continue,” she said.

“When you go home you make sure that you look your own community members in the eye and tell them, with a big heart, that you love them,” she said. “That’s what they need to hear and we all need to start practicing that.”

P.J. Simon of Allakaket said the root cause of suicide is the abuse of alcohol and other drugs.

“At the very local level we need to turn in our bootleggers and the dope peddlers because we all know who they are,” he said to sustained applause.  “That takes courage. That’s what we need to do to protect our young.”

Patrick Smith of Minto said he was proud of the 4-H Club from Tanana, he supports the idea of turning in bootleggers and he believes that “we’ve got to stand up for God also, because he is the one that will deliver us from all of this because that’s what he teaches us in the Bible.”

Joseph Esmailka, the first chief of Kaltag, also said he was glad to hear the children from Tanana and that bootleggers need to be stopped.

“We all know who they are in our villages and our region, the state of Alaska,” Esmailka said.

Trimble Gilbert of Arctic Village said that “now is the time to fight against alcoholism and drugs in the village," adding, "we have to teach our young people who we are.”

There were similar comments about a resolution urging more official action against domestic violence and sexual abuse.

“We plead with the state of Alaska and the federal government to accelerate law enforcement in our communities,” said Delbert Rexford of Barrow.

During her speech to the delegates, Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that difficult problems have to be faced honestly and openly.

“It may require inner strength and courage that you didn’t know was possible. I think we saw that at this AFN yesterday, with these young people from Tanana,” she said.

Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DermotMCole