Thousands travel from around the state to attend the Elders and Youth conference and the Alaska Federation of Natives convention every year. The week is considered by many as one of celebration — this year was different.
After numerous discussions throughout the week about Alaska’s high rate of suicide, a man decided to take his own life in a very public way on the last day of the convention. Almost a week later, KTOO’s Jennifer Canfield is still thinking about that moment and what happened after.
I’ve been going to the Elders and Youth conference or the Alaska Federation of Natives convention off and on since I was in middle school. These two annual events are like holidays — a weeklong opportunity to celebrate with old friends and far-flung relatives.
It’s an opportunity for Alaska Natives to build consensus on issues and determine the AFN’s agenda for the coming year.
But there are also some very difficult and emotionally draining conversations.
Suicide is an issue, among others, that’s typically addressed in some way each year. This year John Baker, the musher, announced an initiative to address social problems in rural Alaska.
“When we look into the eyes of another person and can plainly see that their passion for life is missing, or lacking for some reason, we must ask, ‘How have we allowed this to become acceptable, or even commonplace?’ We must ask, ‘How can we help make things right?’”
Baker wants to recruit what he calls “wellness ambassadors” in every community across the state to offer help to those dealing with domestic violence, suicide, or drug and alcohol abuse.
The day after Baker’s announcement, something happened.
I’m going to tell you the story of how I experienced the suicide that took place at the Dena’ina Convention Center, not because I want to, but because I feel like I need to.
The first thing I heard was what sounded like a gun going off, and then cries. I was on the third floor preparing for an interview.
I ran over to the railing with everyone else to see what had happened. I saw a man face down on the first floor. I still thought he must have been shot, until I overheard someone say that he’d jumped.
A moment later, I turned my recorder on and pulled out my phone. I walked halfway down the stairs to a landing overlooking the scene below and took a picture.
Dena’ina Center and AFN staff went after a photojournalist, trying to take away his camera before a police officer intervened.
“Take the camera and the film! No! Take it!” a man yelled.
A few minutes later, another reporter told me that a woman had collapsed on the floor after the man had jumped.
I called my co-worker in Juneau and told him what had happened.
“Oh my god, it’s so f—ed up right now,” I told him
I asked for help writing the story about a man who’d fell from the third floor. I wasn’t sure at the time that he’d actually jumped, and I didn’t really want to believe it, either.
That night I visited with a few close friends, including one who was also there. She said she heard someone desperately scream, “No!” as the man mounted the railing.
Later, I watched the video of what was happening onstage at the time. AFN co-chair Ana Hoffman interrupted the speaker onstage to make the announcement.
“There’s been, um, a tragic accident and, um, let’s just stay very calm and if we can stand and have a moment of silence,” she said.
Hoffman then led the audience in prayer.
“Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.”
I returned to my hotel early that night. I had work to do, but instead I fell into bed with my shoes and jacket on and closed my eyes. I awoke suddenly a few minutes later, jolted by a dream that the man was standing in front of me — this man whose face I’d never seen, whose voice I’d never heard — and I worried that maybe he’d changed his mind a second too late.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline