Alaska Native leaders tackle suicide problem
Tears were shed, vows were made and stories shared as dozens of tribal leaders and villagers gathered in Anchorage last month for the 13th Alaska Tribal Leaders Summit.
This particular gathering focused on suicide. And over two days, there was much discussion on the causes, and possible solutions, to the loss of life happening statewide, particularly amongst Alaska Natives.
Alaska has the highest suicide rate per capita in the country, and Alaska Native men are most likely to take their own lives. Between the years 2000 and 2009 the state had nearly 1,400 suicides, according to the state›s Suicide Prevention Council. Suicide is often a consequence of depression and hopelessness brought on by loss, alcohol, violence, abuse, neglect and boredom. Or all of the above in some cases. And finding a solution is even more daunting, perhaps, than realizing the cause.
But one message surfaced over and over at the summit.
“A little bit of love goes a long way,” said Ed Johnstone, a fishing rights activist from the Quinault Nation in Washington State and one of several keynote speakers at the summit.
And that love and nurturing needs to start at a young age, added Bethel Elder Daniel Bill.
“From a traditional point of view, every one of us would have been taught the urge to live and succeed at whatever we do,” said Bill, who has been addressing the issue of suicide through his work as the youth services director for the Association of Village Council Presidents for decades.
Building a good foundation through communication at a young age is key, he added.
“The younger, the better,” he said. “That means getting involved even before school starts talking to them about alcohol ... And learning to celebrate life.”
Helping young children and adolescents understand what it is to be an Alaska Native was a common thread in the discussion about causes and prevention of suicide. Teaching young people how to hunt and fish and gather - explaining their history, language, heritage and the land they live on - are all important, positive aspects of life that parents, grandparents and community members can use to help engage the younger generation.
“Yes, suicide is hard. But if you really think about it, there are a lot of good things going on,” Bill said.
There are many devoted individuals and agencies in the state dedicated to suicide prevention, but there are no easy solutions.
One idea brought forth was means restriction - which is exactly what it sounds like: Lock up guns, and the number of firearms-related suicides will go down.
“My first impression was that it was being oversimplified,” said Warren Jones, originally from Hooper Bay and a fellow at First Alaskans Institute.
But the more Jones read on the topic of means restriction, he realized that while it’s not the only solution for decreasing the number of suicides, it is one.
“I saw it in my own life,” Jones said.
Twice in his 35 years, Jones picked up a gun with the intention to take his own life or the life of someone else. And both times his mother wrestled the gun away from him. The suicide attempt was an impulsive decision, he said. And when the means by which he intended to kill himself were no longer available, the impulse quickly faded.
“I had gotten in an argument with my mom,” Jones recalled. “There was a lot of other things going on in my life, but that just set me off.”
He put the rifle in his mouth but his mother got it away from him.
Jones got help after that incident, but said he still contemplated it.
“Sometimes those thoughts just come into your head, whether you like it not,” Jones said. “Sometimes (suicide) is an impulsive act. And sometimes people are going to kill themselves no matter what, but for a lot of people, it’s an impulsive act and firearms are an effective way of accomplishing that.”
In Alaska, 60 percent of “completed” suicides involved guns, said Jones.
Means restriction is just one small step to preventing the act itself, but the underlying causes often run much deeper.
“It’s not the only solution, and to get behind the reasons why people kill themselves ... there’s a lot involved,” Jones said. “We know this is a problem. We know there’s dysfunction in our communities. I guess it depends what happens after this conference to gauge whether or not it was successful.”
The subject of alcoholism and substance abuse were brought up many times by speakers and spectators alike.
“If you’re a happy-go-lucky person and you drink, chances are you become a silly, happy drunk,” said Bill Martin, the former chairman of the Alaska Statewide Suicide Prevention Council. “But if you’re feeling bad and you drink ... that can push you over the edge into depression.”
Next month will mark 21 years sober for Martin, who emphasized the effects of alcohol, not only on the individuals but on the entire community.
“We need to be examples for our young people. If you can quit for one day, you can quit for two. Just take it one day at a time. I know it’s not an easy thing to do,” he said.
“Be that person that our young people can look up to.”
Land claims and subsistence rights have also played a huge role in the suicide rates and village stability overall, said Akiak’s Mike Williams, a summit organizer and regional vice president for the National Congress of American Indians.
“In the last 40 years, our tribes have turned upside down,” Williams said. “Before that, there were no suicides, no diabetes or significant health issues. Everyone was whole.
“It seems to me, in that time (over the last 40 years), dependency has set in, and confusion and hopelessness with young people. But in listening to a lot of these stories that we heard over the last two days, people want to find a solution to this issue and begin the healing journey, so I think we’re at the crossroads.”
Among the resolutions and action plans passed at the summit was a statewide suicide prevention action plan involving all communities and all 229 tribes in the state. Education programs geared at youth as well as working to restore rights and languages are on the agenda for the coming months.
“People are thirsty for change. To take our lives back, to take our hunting and fishing rights back, to take our land back and to become responsible for the actions of individuals in the communities and be empowered to do so.
“I think the choice is right now: Either suicide or sovereignty.”