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Alakanuk gives Alaska villages fighting suicide a role model and hope

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder
Stephen Nowers illustration

Located on the Lower Yukon River, the village of Alakanuk isn't without its problems. But for the past decade or so, suicides in the village have dwindled thanks a community-wide effort to unite its people.

Tribal administrator Ray Oney spoke at the 13th Alaska Tribal Leaders Summit in Anchorage last week. The focus of the summit was suicide in the state, especially in Alaska Native villages.

In the mid-80s, the village of around 550 saw eight suicides in less than two years. And just over a decade later, in 2005, Alakanuk became one of the first Alaska Native villages to take part in the Qungasvik Project, a strategy through the University of Alaska Fairbanks that focused on tradition, sobriety, unity and healthy choices. Alakanuk has since branched off on their own to figure out what will work for engaging youth and thus preventing suicides.

"For a project like this to work, it takes the whole community," said Oney. "We need to rely on our Elders to create lesson plans for the youth.

"We are teaching our youth and young adults about our traditions."

Keeping young people busy with traditional activities like hunting and fishing, as well as developing plans for youth that involve language and history lessons, are just a couple ways that the village has turned itself around and seen the number of suicides drop dramatically.

Community members including Elders, parents, tribal leaders and educators all take an active role in making up the lesson plans for the young people, Oney said.

"We're always getting ready to harvest our resources that are made available to us and we use those Yup'ik values in the teachings," he said in front of 100 or so participants at the summit.

It was difficult in the beginning, Oney said. Mostly because of the language barrier between the youth and the Elders who were trying to teach them.

"As a result of our work, we are reaching out to other communities who want to learn from us," he said, adding that there are four nearby villages who have showed interest in following Alakanuk's lesson plans. On average, seven or eight local Elders meet on a regular basis to discuss teachings and upcoming trips.

"It's an ongoing process," Oney said. 

The local Native corporation, as well as for-profit agencies help provide funding for the continuing efforts.

Though this method might not work for every community, especially the more-populated villages, the message of traditional values and culture is something that any community can benefit from.

"Each community should decide what that looks like for itself," First Alaskans Institute fellow Warren Jones offered. "We need people in every community to take these concrete steps toward combating these problems."

Kisha Lee, 19, from the Yup'ik village of Kwethluk, said she had hoped more youth would have been at the two-day summit to hear inspiring stories like that of Alakanuk.

Overall, she said, she feels optimistic just knowing that there are many others like her who want change and want to learn how to facilitate that positive change.

"It helps just knowing that there are other people who care and are trying to make difference," Lee said, adding that it was helpful to hear the different ways that people heal.

"I lost one of my best friends to suicide and I believe that every village should be a family and help support each other."

The preceding report was first published by The Bristol Bay Times and is republished here with permission.