Alan Boraas: Exploring rural Alaska's suicide rates

Alan Boraas

Suicide is a tragic and accurate indicator of social problems. If suicide rates are high, something is wrong.

The suicide rate in Alaska is twice the national average. Much of that is because of the magnitude of suicide in parts of rural Alaska. In the Northwest Arctic Census Area the suicide rate is six to nine times the national rate. In the Bethel Census Area in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta the rate is two to six times the national rate.

The cause of suicide in rural Alaska is not winter darkness or isolation. The surface cause is overt or covert assimilation practices by educational, government, religious and corporate institutions, each with their own agenda. But the root cause is the lack of freedom to practice subsistence (culture) in a traditional manner resulting in a hopelessness that spawns high suicide rates.

Mental health issues that might lead to suicide are easily measured in the villages. A full freezer or two and a big wood pile are the sign of a healthy household. If not, something is not right.

Suicide is not rampant everywhere in rural Alaska. In the Nushagak and Kvichiak villages of Southwest Alaska suicide rates are low. During the ten years between 1999 and 2009 in the Dillingham census district there were a total of 26 suicides in a population of 5,000. For all but one of those years the rate was too low to be statistically valid. During the same ten-year period in the Lake and Peninsula Borough there a total of seven suicides in a population of 1,500 people; again, a rate too low to statistically measure. Meanwhile just to the north in the Kuskokwim drainage villages, the suicide rates are among the highest in the state. Why?

Certainly programs supported by organizations like the Suicide Prevention Council have an impact, but these are statewide, not just in the Nushagak and Kvichak villages. There are two factors that make this Yup'ik and Dena'ina region more resistant to suicide than their Native brethren in other areas of Alaska: strong, healthy subsistence and a Christianity that embraces indigenous beliefs.

Unlike the Yukon and Kuskokwim areas, the king salmon runs on the Nushagak River remain strong, contributing to the best diet in the world. Many of the subsistence fishermen from the Nushagak villages also fish the Bristol Bay commercial fishery, providing the cash to live a subsistence lifestyle. Many live a preferred lifestyle of fishing, hunting, gathering, and wood-cutting that is the envy of every Alaskan. (Well, maybe not every Alaskan.) With enough cash to buy gas and occasionally replace the four-stroke Yamaha, the subsistence fishers and hunters put up enough wild food to live a very comfortable, family-based, lifestyle.

Moreover, the subsistence hunters, fishers, and gatherers are in control of their own destiny. Having the freedom and accompanying responsibility to exercise the practices your grandfather taught you in the land of your ancestors is a very empowering thing. Control of your own destiny is an antidote to the malaise that causes suicide.

And on Sunday the people of the Nushagak and Kvichak villages go to the Russian Orthodox Church where a Yup'ik priest holds the service in Church Slavonic, English, and Yup'ik. The people continue to practice a version of the first salmon ceremony and every January they participate in the Great Blessing of the Water, sanctifying the waters for the return of the salmon.

The villages of the Nushagak and Kvichak have successfully made the transition from prehistory to now. The keys are strong salmon-based subsistence lifestyle and a religion that embraces the old beliefs of sacred water and sacred salmon. Consequently, suicide is negligible.

A state policy supporting strong subsistence rights in all of Alaska would go a long way to creating a healthy Alaska. We should act on Gov. Egan's 40-year-old promise and institute a subsistence priority for rural Alaska:

Let me assure you (Native leadership) that the state's commitment to preserving subsistence capability in our fish and game resources is of the first priority and will continue to be. Continuing attention to the Native for maintaining subsistence capability is an integral part of the state's overall fish and game management program. It always has been, is now, and will be so in the future.

-- Gov. William Egan, 1973

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at the Kenai Peninsula College.

Alan Boraas