Alaska Cultural Connections: Dying In Rural Alaska

According to the Pilot Station Traditional Council, in 2011, community members spent more than $764,000 on Bingo, pull-tabs and raffle tickets. After paying out prizes and buy supplies, the tribe has $57,000 left for the community support fund.

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They use that money to help families pay for medical bills, unexpected expenses and funeral costs. Mayor and tribal council member Abraham Kelly says that death brings the community together.

“We comfort a family for 40 days as a community. We bring food to the family. The whole community brings food and support and we help each other out with food, a lot of food,” Kelly said.

But they also support each other’s decisions, even if they are unconventional.

“Did you say hi?,” Palassa Beans says, sitting with her granddaughter at the kitchen table.

“She’s really quiet.” “She doesn’t talk much?” “She talks a lot. She’s just trying to be shy.”

Beans was shy too, when she first saw her future husband at a dance 30 years ago.

“Well I couldn’t believe he existed because I dreamt about him when I was ten. When I lived in Aniak,” Beans said.

She was 14 when she met him in Pilot Station.

 “When did you finally get the courage to talk to him?”

“When I was 16.”

“What did you say?”

“I think I’ll keep that private.” (laughter)

They were married for nearly 25 years when he died in 2010.

“He was going up to his fish camp to light the smoke house, probably something under the water, he got thrown out of the boat and drowned,” Beans said.

Her husband was alone the day he died and no one saw exactly what happened. When he didn’t return home after about 36 hours, his son and nephew went out to look for him. They found his empty boat. Searchers dragged the river the next day and pulled up his body.

Typically, if a person dies unexpectedly and without witnesses, the body must be sent to the medical examiner’s office in Anchorage. State Medical Examiner Katherine Raven explains that her role is to make sure the family and the state know the exact cause of death.

“You have to have someone with medical background who’s qualified to determine does this look like a poising, is this a gunshot wound? We’ve had several cases come in that looked like drownings that were homicides. Several cases that looked naturals that were homicides. Several cases looked like homicides that were naturals,” Raven said.

She says that families are more likely to request an examination than to refuse it.  Having bodies examined can also reduce public health risks. If a person dies of a contagious disease, the examiner will catch it and make sure everyone in contact with that person is treated.

“There is a reason there’s a corner-medical examiner system in place. It’s a huge reason. And without that and not having cases come in and be looked at and have the cause of death proven, we’d really be going back to medieval times,” Raven said.

Raven says it’s just not possible to have medical examiners at all of the regional hubs. When the examiner’s office requests a body be sent to Anchorage, they will pay for the transportation costs to and from the place of death.

That didn’t matter to Polassa Beans: she refused to let her husband be removed from the village.

“Just think of the pain of how you have lost your loved one and to put on top of that, if they had to take them away. That’s another extra burden of pain,” Beans said.

Though community members were told not to wash his body or move it back to Beans’ home, they decided to support her decision. And when the medical examiner could not issue a death certificate without seeing the body, the tribal council decided to design and issue its own.

“We agreed that it didn’t have to look exactly like a state death certificate but we would have witnesses sign that saw his body and say he was gone,” Beans said.

Pilot Station is the first tribe to create its own death certificate. It is not recognized as a legal document by any state or federal agencies.

A statement issued by Alaska’s legal department says that they cannot recognize tribally issued death certificates because a body needs to be examined by a medical professional.

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After being told innumerable times that maybe she asked too many questions, Anne Hillman decided to pursue a career in journalism. She's reported from around Alaska since 2007 and briefly worked as a community radio journalism trainer in rural South Sudan. ahillman (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8447  |  About Anne

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