Alaska News

Tanana 4-H girls tell of dysfunction -- and hope for better way

It's been a year since the girls from Tanana first went public in a big way with some of the most toxic parts of their lives.

Sexual abuse. Violence in the village. Parents wrecked by drinking. They told their stories last year at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Fairbanks and to the gathering of youth and elders that went before.

Now they are in Anchorage and in the spotlight again about what destroys their friends, family members and neighbors -- and what heals them.

Wearing camouflage kuspuks that some made themselves, seven girls from the Tanana 4-H Club commanded attention Tuesday at the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference.

They told of heartache but also of the good parts of life -- fishing and hunting, berry picking and sewing. They challenged a crowd of hundreds to do the right thing, to do better than the adults who have failed them. On Thursday afternoon, they'll stand up before an even bigger group at the AFN convention. Both conferences are taking place this week at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center.

"Remember the children are watching," Violet Erhart, 12, told the crowd. "They become you."

On stage, the girls stood together and recited their pledge: to protect themselves, to love their lives, their families, their village. To not kill themselves.


And each had her own powerful message, too, Elizabeth Medicine Crow, First Alaskans president, noted.

"Some of these topics are things we know and live every day in our communities," Crow said. "But they are hard sometimes. ... Sometimes they open things up for us."

If anyone needed to talk about their feelings, a counselor at the conference was available, she said, pointing him out in the crowd.

One of the Tanana kids, Ashley Nicholia, 17, spoke on stage about being a victim of sexual abuse in a voice that broke, then grew strong. She said later that she wanted her story told, hoping to empower others, and gave permission for her name to be used.

"Let me tell you something," Ashley said. "I am not alone." Other girls in the village were molested by the same man, who baby-sat her when she was little. She was 11 when it happened and for three terrible years, she didn't tell anyone. She worried she would get in trouble. It ate away at her.

"And people wonder why our suicide rate is so high," she said.

When she learned of another girl molested three years after it happened to her, she said, she knew she had to tell.

Ashley wasn't part of the 4-H group last year. She was lost to drinking and drugs, she said later, the world that she now is trying to protect other children from.

When she finished talking, the other girls circled around, crying and hugging her.

Tanana is a small Interior village of about 250 near the junction of the Tanana and Yukon rivers. There, Ashley found her safe place where so many kids have, at the village store owned by longtime Tanana residents Cynthia and Dale Erickson.

Four years ago, Cynthia Erickson, who is originally from Ruby, started the Tanana 4-H Club as a way to create a healthy activity, a way to prevent suicides. She was worn down by people killing themselves, seven in Tanana and nearby villages in the time before she started the club.

Now the kids hang out in her home above the store. They crochet and sew and make crafts. Boys are part of 4-H too. They go sliding on snow. They swim in the summer. Most kids in Tanana come by at least every now and again.

"Between all the swimming and the sewing and the beading -- we all sewed our own kuspuks -- in between all that, we talk about what are our problems," Erickson said Tuesday.

On stage, Natawnee Wiehl, 15, talked about the adventure and joy of traveling to Bethel this year with a small group of the 4-H kids to share their stories and work during the Cama-i Dance Festival. They met Paul O'Brien, whose son killed himself and who created a foundation that works to prevent suicide.

Mainly, it was great to meet "kids just like us," Natawnee said. Some were broken in spirit. Others were empowered.

Not everyone makes the right choices, not all the time, her sister, Teionna Wiehl, 11, said on stage.

"We don't do that much family things no more," she said. She talked about missing berry picking. But this year, the family went moose hunting and it made her happy.


Her sisters protect her when she's scared, she said.

Later Natawnee said her parents drink alcohol, but after the girls started speaking up, "they don't drink as much."

Some of the girls also spoke of loving families, of active lives.

Gladys Erhart, 14, said her family had overcome obstacles. She said she liked basketball and running, sewing and skiing, learning to cut fish and making half-dried strips. She challenged everyone to do good things.

Her cousin, Violet, asked everyone to remember the two troopers killed on duty this year in Tanana while trying to protect village residents. The 4-H girls sewed trooper patches onto their kuspuks in honor of Sgt. Patrick "Scott" Johnson and Trooper Gabriel Rich of the Alaska State Troopers. The girls were still shaken by that day, being on lockdown, not knowing where siblings were, the terror of killings right there.

"Don't be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good," Violet urged.

The girls also took a stand against the marijuana initiative, urging a "no" vote on Ballot Measure 2. Linda Nicholia, 15, said money for marijuana "takes food from a child's mouth."

Some of the girls said nothing had changed in the last year but improvements may be hard to see when you are living it. Erickson said she didn't think there had been any suicides in Tanana since the 4-H Club started. The children's stories put attention where it needs to be, she said.


Ashley urged other kids to report abuse.

"This needs to stop because I'm scared for my brother, my 3-year-old niece, my 6-year-old cousin."

She also questioned whether the system's response is good enough.

"They still send abusers back to villages to prey on us," Ashley said.

The male babysitter convicted of abusing Tanana girls is scheduled for release from prison next week. Erickson said she believed he would have to serve his probation in Fairbanks but would eventually return to the village.

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.