At the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage Saturday afternoon, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski held a hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on suicide prevention. Federal and state officials described the high rates of suicide among Alaska Natives, and causes such as adverse childhood experience, alcoholism, and substance abuse.
Sally Smith, from Dillingham, and a board member of the National Indian Health Board, said funding and programs for suicide prevention are fragmented, lack continuity, and don’t address the root causes of suicide. She suggested agencies provide non-competitive grants to small organizations, which she says often lack the staff needed to write grant proposals and reports for federal and state grants.
Evon Peter is a former Gwitchin Athabascan chief and now director of the Maniilaq Youth Leadership program. He described the effects of multi-generation trauma. His mother lived a traditional lifestyle and spoke Athabascan until she was sent to boarding school at age five or six, and later was a victim of sexual abuse. He says his childhood was also full of trauma.
Peter says his people had lands and resources taken in an era when they weren’t allowed to vote… and reformers thought the best thing to do for Native Americans was to, “kill the Indian to save the man.”
Tessa Baldwin, a member of the statewide suicide prevention council, said she was just five years old and 20 feet away when her uncle committed suicide. Now, at age 17, she’s had seven people in her life commit suicide, including her boyfriend last year. She says funding would help. For instance teenagers trained as peer helpers could call others having problems if both had cell phones. But she says everyone can do something to prevent suicide immediately and at no cost.
Murkowski says Congress needs to support Alaska Natives in the fight against suicide in any way possible, and she will share Saturday’s testimony with other members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
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