It was a day in 2010, after the sweet, chubby, 20-something kid from her village shot himself, after she talked to his mother, after she helped clean up his body the best she could, that Cynthia Erickson found herself behind the Catholic church in the village of Tanana, throwing up. Then she started to count.
How many suicides had there been in her 300-person Interior village and the Yukon River villages in the region? Stevens Village. Minto. Ruby. Galena. Six in her recent memory. One of them was her brother-in-law. He hanged himself.
"I was traumatized," she said.
She couldn't listen to another conversation in the village store where she worked. "Did you hear what happened to so-and-so?" Casual talk about wrenching losses. They'd become numb. It was like they lived in a war zone. She had to do something, she said, to make it stop.
"I was like 'What the hell are we doing?' " she said. "I'm afraid for my babies."
What Erickson did seemed small at first. She started a 4-H Club for children in Tanana. It was the 4-H motto, "Helping Hands, Healing Hearts," that spoke to her, she said. She taught the kids, from toddlers to teenagers, to crochet and sew, to cut moose meat, can fish, make jam and skip rocks. Soon the children started to talk about things happening in their families. Some of their stories were disturbing. Everything went back to alcohol, to their parents' old wounds, to their parents' mistakes, and to suicides.
How did those people feel? The ones who killed themselves. What broke their hearts? she asked the children.
One by one, she assigned the children to write about it and share what they had written.
They came back with essays about their own lives. About the parents who grieved losses in a family by drinking and then forgot to get wood until the house grew cold. Or about an uncle's death in alcohol- fueled accident. Or a father's suicide. Or about being molested by a family friend and being afraid he would hurt others. They wrote about people demanding respect for elders even when elders' behaviors were hurting people.
These were uncomfortable things, but needed to be spoken.
"I'm not going to tell them they can't think and say that, because they hurt," she said.
Together they took a pledge that they would not kill themselves.
"I pledge to live, honor, and protect myself from any harm, to love my life, my family, my friends and my village," they said.
The 4-H was invited to make a presentation at the Elders and Youth Conference that precedes the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Fairbanks two weeks ago. They raised money selling things they'd made. They sewed camouflage kuspuks for the event. They brought their essays and made signs to illustrate them.
They were nervous before going onstage. They were about to call out people in their families and village. Erickson prepped them in advance. She told them they were taking a risk. If people reacted with anger, she said, she would stand by them.
"I kept saying 'David slayed Goliath and he was only 12,' " she said.
And so the children spoke their truths. And in the end, no one was angry.
"They were hollering, 'We love you,' and clapping," Erickson said.
"The next morning, they woke up and said, 'I feel light. I'm happy.' "
Next, the children were invited to present to all of the delegates at AFN. That is where I saw them. Several days had passed between their first presentation and their second. Enough time for some of them to get word that some family members were embarrassed. Some of the children toned down their essays.
They stood on the stage in a line. Their signs were sobering. "My Dad's Suicide." "Family death." "Molestation Rape Disrespect." "Bullying."
Of all the things the annual gathering of Alaska Native people should focus on, children should be the priority, Erickson told the arena.
"Our land, subsistence, our language? What good is that when we don't have healthy children?"
The children told their stories, tears streaming.
A boy wrote about an uncle who died after a long struggle with addiction.
"If I'm chilling inside my house by myself, I hear things," he said. "I get a feeling that he's chilling with me too."
A girl talked about feeling her parents weren't taking care of her.
"I would cry myself to sleep whenever they were drinking," she said.
A teenager girl talked about a sexual predator who sometimes stayed at their house.
"No more violence, emotional, mental or physical," she said. "Rape and molestation stops today."
When they finished, the room filled with whistles and cheers. A woman put a $100 bill on a scarf on the stage and asked others to do the same. An enormous line formed.. Within minutes, $9,000 in cash sat in pile on the stage. As Erickson and the children climbed off the stage, people circled them, offering hugs. Many also shared similar stories with the children.
"I (told the children) remember when I said you are the faces of all these villages. We live in a very sad, abnormal, dysfunctional world," Erickson said.
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich was next up on the stage after the children. He told them they were brave. Last week, Sen. Lisa Murkowski mentioned them on the floor of the Senate as she introduced legislation that would create a commission to study the lives of Native children.
I reached Erickson on Thursday in Fairbanks. She told me that all of the children had returned home. Even those who had said things that embarrassed their parents were eventually welcomed back.
"One of the moms said, 'I was surprised but I love my girl and I know what I did as a parent and I have to support her,' " Erickson said.
I mentioned Murkowski's speech. She said she hadn't heard about it. So much money has been spent on talking about suicide prevention, she said. It was a waste. People need help before it gets to that point. They need to know how to deal with trauma. They need parenting classes. Any change had to come from in the village
"The door is open. The children have spoken. What are we, as a community, going to do?" she said.
"If we continue to bury our head in the sand, we're going to continue to bury our children."
Reach Julia O'Malley by phone at 257-4591, email her at email@example.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.
Anchorage Daily News