Addressing suicide means new direction

John Tetpon

It was a story that begged to be told. It was 1987. That year, Anchorage Daily News editor Mike Doogan noted that an alarming number of obituaries were coming across his desk without listing a cause of death. That meant only one thing; these were victims of suicide. Self-inflicted deaths. And most of them were Alaska Native young people.

More compelling than numbers was the fact that no one seemed alarmed. People didn't talk about it. What was abnormal had become normal or so it seemed.

One day the newspaper announced that we would look into the voice vacuum to find out if there was anything there. Our task, as reporters, was simple; put a human face on suicide among Alaska Natives, and then perhaps, it would get people talking.

In roughly six months, 17 of us reporters and researchers uncovered what seemed like mountains of information. Sad and tragic stories. Many had a singular thread running through them -- that of alcohol and drug abuse.

The end result was a 10-day series called People In Peril. The work opened our eyes and brought the subject into the light of day. Slowly Alaska Native people began to dialogue among themselves and others. Soon, state and federal agencies and Native nonprofit organizations alike began to tackle the problem. Millions of dollars began to pour into the state and go to outlying regions. Hope was in the air.

The series won a Pulitzer Prize. That was more than 20 years ago.

This year, new stories with similar tones began to emerge. Suicide among Alaska Native people has, once again, become epidemic, news headlines said. This time, it is also pointed out that even after millions of dollars in state and federal funds and 20-some years, nothing has changed. In fact, the situation has become worse. Even more alarming is the fact that Alaska Native elders are now taking their own lives.

In light of utter failures over the last two decades, it is clear to me that we need to change direction and adopt new strategies. We can no longer enlist old and tired programs that produce nothing more than pages of useless paper.

There's a new door of opportunity at hand. This is our moment. This is our time; people gathered together around a common ideal, to stop the scourge of suicide among our people -- once and for all.

A silver bullet doesn't exist. But we can now look for causes and ask the question: Why? I'm sure there are many reasons for the continuing demise of our people. But a couple of them do stand out.

As I look around, I can readily see that for most of us, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 has been an utter failure in terms of providing jobs for shareholders. After 40 years, 10-percent Native hire isn't good enough.

I can also see that rural school systems have failed miserably. Some are so desperate to assign blame that they have even laid plans to put parents in jail and assign thousands of dollars in fines against impoverished Alaska Native parents because children don't want to be in school.

The creation of schools that children are excited to go to remains in the hands of teachers and administrators. That is their responsibility. And they should be held accountable.

These three tasks; one, stopping the epidemic of suicide; two, our Alaska Native corporations hiring their own shareholders rather than outsiders; and three, Native parents taking back their schools, will do much to stem the tragic tide of self-destruction among our people.

A few of us have begun. A grass-roots effort is off and running. In the months ahead watch for news, information and updates about our people-to-people discussions on Jeanie Greene's "Heartbeat Alaska," one of rural Alaska's most popular television shows. This time we hope to do what no one else has been able to accomplish -- overcome the impossible with the possible. Join us on this epic people's journey home and toward a better tomorrow.

John Tetpon is a longtime Alaska resident and former reporter and columnist for the Anchorage Daily News. Now retired, he is also the former director of communications for the Alaska Federation of Natives. He can be reached at