The Alaska Federation of Natives convention that just concluded in Fairbanks had a theme of traditional values this year.
Protection became a big component of that. The perennial call to ensure that subsistence rights are not diminished was strong, but even stronger this year was the outpouring of support for young people, who opened up with gut wrenching stories of pain from the fall out of addiction, suicide and abuse.
The kids were with the Tanana 4H group and their words were filled with emotion.
“I’m here to help those who hurt, like I hurt.”
Geneva spoke out about molestation.
“Male, female, young, old, gay or straight, we all hurt. No more. I’m not here because I hate my family. I love my family to the moon and back. That’s why I’m here, here for the future, of my little cousins and the children I will have in the future. Break the silence, no more violence – emotional, mental or physical. Rape and molestation stops today,” Geneva said.
The kids held cards with statements and words that were important to them. Patrick wrote about the connection between drugs, alcohol and suicide. He’d lost an uncle.
“Every time me and my brothers seen him when we were younger, he seemed joyful and happy, but he wasn’t. He got hurt, he got depressed – because of alcohol. The last time I seen him he was driving away in his buddy’s truck. I waved at him, but I didn’t know that was the last time I was gonna see him. I want to give him one last hug, but it’s too late now,” Patrick said.
Natawnee started by saying she hates alcohol.
“I hate it. I hate it in my family. I hate it in my village,” she said.
She told a story that is too common in families suffering from substance abuse, she had to be responsible for others. Rather than playing basketball as she wanted, she stayed home to protect her sisters when her parents were partying.
“Something bad happened to me when I was younger and I didn’t want it to happen to them, so I would stay home and send my sisters out to spend the night with friends whenever they were drinking. Sometimes I would wake up to drunk people laughing, or sometimes I would wake up to a zero below house. Nobody wants to feel alone,” Natawnee said.
Seven young people spoke, the last was a very young girl who urged people to spend time with their children and eat meals together.
Adults responded immediately by standing and taking a pledge to protect themselves and their families and stand together to stop suicide in Alaska. And during the resolution process, amendments were offered to strengthen language to combat abuse.
To applause, Rob Sanderson from Hydaburg said tribal leaders should not wait for funding from DC, they should stand up and act.
“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. People, please, for those of you that live in our communities, call out the people that hurt our women and children. Don’t be afraid, step up to the plate,” Sanderson said.
PJ Simon, from Alakaket said the root cause of problems in rural Alaska is substance abuse.
“At the very local level we need to turn in our bootleggers and the dope peddlers because we all know who they are,” Simon said. “So that takes courage, that’s what we need to do to protect our young boys and girls.”
Others called for working with rural air carriers and fish processing companies to help stop trafficking of drugs and alcohol to villages.