Ms. Camai Taking On Rural Suicide

“I hate my life. I want to die. I should just kill myself.”

These are common words both spoken and heard by youth in the YK Delta. All of which are thoughts of suicide. Suicide is a strong word. It can put a room to silence, or make the world roar. I’m one of who does both. I’m silent when it happens, but I’ll roar when I want to stop it. And right now, I’m roaring!

I’ve been affected in numerous ways by suicide. And I know that every person I’ve ever met in the YK Delta has too. I thought of every person I knew who either attempted, committed, or has been effected by someone who tried or did both. This not only brought a colossal alarm to me, it also did to the whole YK Delta.

During the Camai Dance Festival of March 2011 in Bethel, AK, Harley Sundown of Scammon Bay said a prayer over thousands of people to rid the ghost of suicide with the beat of the drum. Later that evening I, along with two other young ladies, Stephanie Lupie of Tuntutuliak, AK and Allyse Lincoln of Toksook Bay, AK were crowned to reign the sash of Miss Camai for one year. Miss Camai’s mission is to build leadership and community involvement in Alaska Native culture and traditions among Alaska Native Youth in the YK Delta.

Over the months representing my culture as Miss Camai, I started to think about this strong word once again. The beat of the drum from the Camai Dance Festival played in my head, and I had the strongest urge to fight and stand against suicide. I’ve developed ideas and created strategic plans for what I must do in order for this to truly happen. Now, I have accepted a job in Platinum, AK with an opportunity to meet numerous people from the coastal villages in the YK Delta.

During my free time while in Platinum, I gathered over 20 youths and asked them questions regarding the things in their village that negatively affect them. They listed drugs and alcohol, violence, huffing, gossip, rumors, suicide and much more.  I found that suicide didn’t seem as big as a problem to them as drugs and alcohol were. But the more we talked about it, the more they came to see how all these problems were what triggered the thoughts of suicide.

So then, I asked everyone in the room to raise their hand if they’ve known anyone who has ever committed suicide. All hands went went up. I asked everyone to raise their hand if they’ve ever heard someone they knew tell them that they wanted to die. Again, all hands were up. I told them to raise their hands if they’ve ever thought of it, and all hands were up. I asked them to raise their hand if they’ve attempted it. And slowly, all hands were up, including mine.

My heart sank so deep to see everyone’s hand go up to these questions. All the youth that I asked these questions to, were from completely different villages. They were from Kongiganak, Chefornak, Toksook Bay, Newtok, Nightmute, Hooper Bay, Napakiak, Scammon Bay, and Tuntutuliak Alaska. Once again the word suicide brought silence to that room, and I made sure they noticed.

I told them that if we remain silenced, than no one will hear us. So I asked them all, how this made them feel. “Sad.” Everyone said.

“I know two people from my village that killed themselves. It makes me feel sad because it felt like I lost a family member. You know, in a village everyone knows everyone. It felt like they took a part of us with them,” says Arlene Tulik, age 22 from Nightmute.

When I asked Arlene what she would like to see in her community that would reduce the risk of suicide, she answered, “Well, I want to become a social worker so I can reach out to people and help them to let them know that they are not alone.” As I she told me her experiences that she has had both directly and indirectly to suicide, I watched her eyes drift into to space as if she was watching a scene from when her best friend called her one day to say good bye.

Cherene David age 21 of Kongiganak, AK knows 4 people in her villages that committed suicide. She mentioned she knew one of which had clear signs that he was crying out for help, and no one did anything. “She wrote an In Loving Memory thing for herself, and her mom found her dead, in her room the next day.” Cherene’s voice quivered when she talked about a man she knew that shot himself with a shotgun, “It was guilt that drove him to suicide. The signs were so clear, and again, no one did anything.”

“I know three people from my village who killed themselves. One hung himself. People in school used to pick on him calling him fag, gay, and other bad names.” Harry Albert, age 22 from Newtok adds while we talked in a group of how many people we knew that have done it.

“Me, I don’t know anyone in my village who killed themselves but I know lots of people think of it, and they try,” says Matthew Billy, age 19 of Napakiak, AK.

Listening to the youth talk about their experiences with suicide made me realize that the people that surround us are the people we need to make feel better about themselves with positive comments and feedback. As soon as I thought of this, I remembered reading hundreds of facebook posts on several people’s walls of those who committed suicide. This proved to me that we all waited until it was too late for these people to hear how proud we truly were of them, and how much they really meant to us.

The testimonies that everyone has to share about suicide are pretty much the same. It’s been going on for years, and the rate is still rising. Once you type the sentence ‘Suicide rate in rural Alaska into google’ you will find news headlines roaring: “Suicide attempts spike once again in rural Alaska,”-ADN “One of the world’s highest suicide rates: Native Alaska Villages,”-ADN “Alaska suicide rates remain high”-Alaska Dispatch, and so many more. Seeing these results make it hard for anyone to splash a smile across their faces. This message clearly says that something needs to be done.

As Miss Camai, I am a Role Model. I am a leader. I am a Cultural Ambassador. And suicide is not of Alaska Native Culture. My mission is to create awareness for the problems that affect Native youth, and this is one of them. Some of my goals are to visit more villages across the YK Delta. And every village I step my foot in will should be aware that I’m there to make a difference. I can proudly say that I’ve inspired a handful of youth from the villages of Toksook Bay, Kongiganak, Napaskiak, Napakiak, Chefornak, Tuntutuliak, Chevak, Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, Platinum, and Kipnuk. That’s just a handful, and I have one more hands to fill.

My biggest inspiration to take on a role such as Miss Camai, was Nicole Alek’aq Colbert from Napakiak, AK. She inspired hundreds of young Native women. Sometimes I think to myself: “Who would have thought that there would be someone from a village as small as Napaiak that could inspire Native youth across the world?” That question alone gave me chills up my spine. I wanted to fill her shoes one day. And here I am.

This gave me the idea that youth are drawn to other young successful native leaders with a role such as Miss Camai. But Miss Camai is in Bethel. What about the remaining 56 surrounding villages? This led me to the idea of starting pageants for every village I can visit. And I believe that if the youth from the villages in the YK Delta had an opportunity to look up to someone within their own village, we could create a chain of inspiration, a reduction to the rate of suicide, drugs, alcohol, and violence. It’s a dream that I have, and when I dream, I strive to make them come true!

Mark Kassaiuli, age 20 from Newtok, AK says he wants to spread a message to his peers by one of his talents. So he writes a poem and asked me to submit it to the newspapers too.

Suicide: Look deep into my eyes, so I wouldn’t have to say good bye. People have weak feelings at some point it has to start healing. Here I am standing my ground, searching for help looking around. I know every road is tough, and we all know that we’ve had enough. Never think of short cuts in life, hold on and cut the rope with a knife. Trust me. I was also on suicide; you’re not the only one so get onto my side. We all need to think twice, so let’s ask the elders for advice. Let’s not cause such violence; we should all get it to silence. Have faith and grow strong. Lock the evil door because they’re wrong. Let God plan your future, and lets all enjoy our culture.

My goal is to stop the rising rate of suicide among Alaska Natives with a touch of inspiration. And this is my first step into a path of conquering the negativities that affect my people. Let’s stop it together. All things are possible!

In the picture from left to right are back row standing: Andrea Joseph-Tuntutuliak, Arlene Tulik-Chefornak, Mary Friendly-Kwinhagak, Amanda Lewis- Chefornak, Allison Lewis-Chefornak, Curtis Jung-Napakiak, Michelle Kaganak-Scammon Bay, David Tunutmoak-Chevak, Jared Black- Kongiganak, Cherene David-Kongiganak, Harry Albert-Newtok, Tristan Paul-Kongiganak, Isaac Mute-Chefornak, Nastasia Hunter-Tuntutuliak, Jonathan Billy-Napakaiak, Julia Stone-Kipnuk, Sam Anaver-Kipnuk, Jolene Nash-Chevak, Alvina Peter-Chevak, Geral Tom-Newtok.

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Yvonne Jackson, age 22 from Kasigluk, AK is one of three Miss Camais’ Cultural Ambassadors for Alaska Native Youth in the YK Delta. Her mission is to build leadership and community involvement in Alaska Native Culture and Traditions among Alaska Native Youth.

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