Tears were shed, vows were made and stories shared as dozens of tribal leaders and villagers gathered in Anchorage last week for the 13th Alaska Tribal Leaders Summit.
This particular gathering focused on suicide. And over two days, there was much discussion on the causes, and possible solutions, to the loss of life happening statewide, particularly amongst Alaska Natives.
Alaska has the highest suicide rate per capita in the country, and Alaska Native men are most likely to take their own lives. Between the years 2000 and 2009 the state had nearly 1,400 suicides, according to the state›s Suicide Prevention Council. Suicide is often a consequence of depression and hopelessness brought on by loss, alcohol, violence, abuse, neglect and boredom. Or all of the above in some cases. And finding a solution is even more daunting, perhaps, than realizing the cause.
But one message surfaced over and over at the summit.
“A little bit of love goes a long way,” said Ed Johnstone, a fishing rights activist from the Quinault Nation in Washington State and one of several keynote speakers at the summit.
And that love and nurturing needs to start at a young age, added Bethel Elder Daniel Bill. “From a traditional point of view, every one of us would have been taught the urge to live and succeed at whatever we do,” said Bill, who has been addressing the issue of suicide through his work as the youth services director for the Association of Village Council Presidents for decades.
Building a good foundation through communication at a young age is key, he added.
“The younger, the better,” he said. “That means getting involved even before school starts talking to them about alcohol … And
learning to celebrate life.”
Helping young children and adolescents understand what it is to be an Alaska Native was a common thread in the discussion about causes and prevention of suicide. Teaching young people how to hunt and fish and gather — explaining their history, language, heritage and the land they live on — are all important, positive aspects of life that parents, grandparents and community members can use to help engage the younger generation. Alaska Dispatch