Alaska villagers plead for help in preventing suicides

Kyle Hopkins
Arlene Pitka of Beaver speaks about the impacts of suicide at a listening session at the Egan Center in Anchorage on Tuesday. Julie Roberts-Hyslop of Tanana, right, gives her support. The discussion on suicide was held during the Bureau of Indian Affairs Tribal Providers Conference, which continues this week in Anchorage.
James Sipary Sr. says he's working to reduce the number of suicides on Nelson Island. Sipary said he wanted to give up when his adult son killed himself about two years ago.
Marc Lester

Rob Sanderson Jr. stepped to a microphone and introduced himself to a crowd of 400 or more Alaska Natives and two federal officials Tuesday in downtown Anchorage.

A Haida, he grew up in the Southeast Alaska village of Hydaburg. Population: 340.

In his lifetime, roughly 25 people have killed themselves in his hometown alone, said Sanderson, who is 45. "I've lost three of my best friends that were in my class."

A line grew behind him as villagers from across the state told similar stories. A man from Toksook Bay reported more than a dozen suicides -- plus two boys who died from inhaling gasoline -- during a recent two-year span in Nelson Island villages. A Huslia man said he tried to kill himself three times before he swore off alcohol.

The standing-room-only meeting marked the fourth of 10 conferences that the Indian Health Service and other federal agencies are holding around the country this winter. Their plan is to collect ideas for reducing steep suicide rates among Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

Similar "listening sessions" have already been held in Montana, Minnesota and Arizona. Tuesday's gathering was the only conference planned for Alaska, and the feedback will be used to plan a national conference on suicide prevention early next year in Washington, D.C., officials told Alaska tribal leaders.

That rural Alaska is racked with suicide is a familiar tale in the state's cities and villages. Despite decades of planning, research and talk, the problem has seemed unsolvable at times, with Alaska's suicide rate roughly twice the national average. The numbers are particularly high for Alaska Natives, with 15- to 24-year-old Native men seven times more likely to kill themselves than other Alaskans, according to 2000 to 2009 figures from the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics.

Despite a statewide dip in suicides in 2009, a string of deaths battered Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages earlier this year.

Here, Tuesday, was a chance to make vivid the problem to federal officials with responsibility for the well-being of Native people.

"I haven't seen this happen before," said Libby Watanabe, a health systems analyst for the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium in Juneau.


Watanabe called for sustained, long-term funding for social service programs rather than short-term grants that can launch suicide-prevention efforts only to leave them unfunded a few years later.

"It will be meaningful if it provides the money we need to operate our programs effectively," she said of the feds' suicide-prevention effort.

The meeting packed the Egan Civic and Convention Center as young people sat scanning their smart phones along the wall and adults sipped coffee and told of surviving suicide in their families and villages.

James Sipary Sr. of Toksook Bay said he has long volunteered to battle suicide and related problems in Nelson Island villages in Western Alaska. The region has seen improvement since a rash of deaths around 2004 and 2005, he said.

Suicide sweeps through communities like a disease, he said, but it can be healed with effort.

Still, Sipary wanted to give up when his adult son killed himself about two years ago. He cried with his other children, one of whom pushed Sipary to continue his volunteer work, he said. "That gave me the strength to keep on fighting."


The Obama administration is asking for specific suggestions from tribes: What laws should be passed? What programs are working and need funding?

The Alaska crowd called for more funding for people to travel for suicide-prevention services, and for more health care services and workers in individual villages that often can be reached only by plane, boat or snowmachine.

Others talked about the long-simmering problems that may be at the root of the high death rate -- such as the rapid westernization of Alaska Native villages that shifted from a subsistence life to a cash-based economy within a few generations.

Many also pressured adults to connect with their children and value them the way they prize their elders.

"A lot of our young people are really lonely, even with all of the modern technology and Facebook," said Janice Jackson of Ketchikan.

Jackson is grand president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, which made suicide prevention its top priority at a recent annual convention, she said in an interview.

Sanderson Jr. has moved from Hydaburg to Ketchikan, where he says as many as a dozen people have killed themselves in the past year. An unusual and perhaps unprecedented number, he said.

He said there's no need to wait for federal funding for village leaders to start making changes now.

"For years we've been talking about the issue, but I haven't ever seen no action," said Sanderson, who is second vice president for the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and says his single greatest accomplishment is never taking a drink in front of his son.

"The worst thing you can do is talk about it and take no action," he said.

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