It's 5:45 p.m. The single-engine plane bounces to a landing on the hard packed snow-covered runway in a remote Alaska village. It is 15 below zero. There are no trees, just a vast frozen ocean, ice, snow drifts, small hills in the distance, and what would look like a suburb of homes if it were not in such an isolated location. The land and horizon are majestic and still. The bounty of sea and land animals have provided for generations. And for a moment I feel the relief of being away from the stresses of city life, of being home on the land.
But as the plane slows to a stop on the runway and the snowmachines pull up, my mind is drawn back to my mission: healing, wellness, prevent suicide.
Although we deal with many kinds of losses, suicide is one of the hardest tragedies to face, because there is rarely a straightforward answer to the question: Why? What brought them to decide that suicide was an answer? Unlike many tragedies, suicide is not an accident. It is not forced upon someone. And it is clearly preventable.
Suicide is a reflection of social suffering. The pressures and complexity of life indigenous people face on a day-to-day basis are astounding. We often navigate personal trauma, communal dysfunction, unresolved grief, family losses, and addictive behaviors, while having to also deal with oppressive and assimilative parts of imposed systems (governance/education) and behaviors (racism/indifference) from a dominant culture. After generations of intentional actions to break down a people's spirit and take control away from them, it is no surprise that social illness takes hold. Even though there is cause for hardship felt by so many indigenous people, this is not the end of the story.
Many people positively face their inner discord, the traumas of their lifetime, and deal with the current context in which they live. They choose the challenging path of healing. It requires an awareness and acceptance of the truth, the daily reminder that life is a blessing, full of challenges, yet ours to live as we choose.
This path of healing also requires support from others. It is more than "me against the world." It is "together we will prevail."
There is great power in reaching out to another person in your community. In the village, a friend shared that she baked a couple pies for elders because she used to do that for her grandfather before he passed. She was sad, missing her grandfather, and thought she would turn her grief into caring for others. She made her teenage daughter come along as she brought the pies to elders' homes. Her daughter was surprised at how happy the elders were and how good it made her feel as well. The next week was consumed with making pies and bringing them to all the elders in the village!
When we act in kindness, ask someone how they are doing, or share a compliment, we can help shift the course of a person's day -- or even a person's life.
When we combine a healthy, positive lifestyle with outreach, we begin to bring wellness back into our communities. Many of our people simply need someone to listen to their stories and not judge them for what they have been through. I am grateful for all who are there for others in their families and community.
I spend a day with about 50 7th-12th graders in the gym. We play games, draw pictures from our lives, and learn the history of our people. We talk about the rapid cultural change we are experiencing, tell stories, and discuss the many challenges we face. They are happy to share their knowledge, concern -- and also laugh with one another.
We all need someone to talk to, not just those we think need help. Please find a trustworthy person if you need support. There is no shame in feeling the support of others. Let's all be a part of the solution by reaching out and coming together.
Evon Peter is manager of the Suicide Prevention Strategy for the Arctic at the Maniilaq Association and the owner of Gwanzhii LLC, a professional consulting firm committed to support sustainable well-being. He is the former chief of the Neetsaii Gwich'in from Arctic Village.
By EVON PETER