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A PEOPLE IN PERIL: Alakanuk’s suicide epidemic

  • Author: Sheila Toomey
  • Updated: September 13, 2018
  • Published January 10, 1988

Originally published Jan. 10, 1988. Part of a series.

ALAKANUK -- In March 1985, a young man walked out onto the tundra behind this Yukon River village and carefully, neatly shot himself in the heart.

"I guess I've always looked for a reason to do it, " said the note near Louie Edmund's body. "And I found it."

The sound of the shot rolled across the flat delta land, through the supper time darkness of a cold spring day. It breached the walls and windows of the wooden houses, marking the moment as a beginning, for Louie Edmund began a 15month suicide epidemic that ended the lives of eight young villagers.

In a community of 550 people, eight suicides is the equivalent of more than 3,000 in Anchorage. It is an unimaginable tragedy.

In a community of 550, every name on the roll of the dead is someone you know: Louie Edmund, 22, Melvin Tony, 23, Steven Kameroff, 19, Jerry Augline 21, Karen George 17, Benjamin Edmund, 21, Timothy Stanislaus 25, Albert Harry, 29.

"I never went through this before, " said Louie's mother, Adeline Edmund, who lost two sons before it was over. "My whole body hurt. . . . I never did get mad at God (before) but I find myself getting mad at Him."

Alakanuk had known many unnatural deaths, yes. Too many. From violence and recklessness, on land and on the river. Most of the victims were drunk when they died. But none officially labeled suicide. Other villages had suicides but not traditional, Roman Catholic Alakanuk.

The village looked for a reason for Louie's death. He was exceptionally bright, an honor student when he graduated from high school in 1982. He had gone to college in Fairbanks and planned to go back. But there was another side to Louie, one shaped by a childhood of alcohol and violence.

"We were a team of abused children, " he wrote in his suicide note.

He was suspected of stealing. "I left a wave of uncaught crime in my past, " the note said. "The future is shit. I've been clashed into a rapidly changing culture. Tried my best to keep up, but we're losing and the past histories of Americans (is that) Natives have lost all. And it's happening again and I don't want to see it when them land claims (illegible) breaks us apart."

Was Louie involved in a store burglary the night before he died, as suspected? Was he afraid of arrest or jail? Or just depressed by the suspicion? There seemed to be "reasons" for Louie's suicide and people were prepared to accept it.

"Being the first one, it was an oddity, " said Sister Ann Brantmeier, a Catholic nun who has lived in the village for five years. "It was like, "I can't believe he did and I don't know why he did it, but that was Louie and it just happened.' "

Nothing happened for seven months. But a new idea had been born, a new door opened. On Oct. 2, Melvin Tony shoved the muzzle of a shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger. Melvin was a quiet, pleasant man who rarely drank, but he was blackout drunk when he died. His blood alcohol was .35, three and a half times the legal limit for driving. He had spent the day drinking himself into a despondent stupor over a broken love affair and a baby lost to abortion.

Suddenly the village that never had a suicide had two.

After Melvin, the deaths came fast. At one point, five in 14 weeks, and as many as 40 attempts, ranging from gestures that were clearly imitative cries for help, to one where a father found his son hanging but was able to cut him down in time.

Grief flooded the village. And fear. Alakanuk families are all related, by blood or marriage. Few were left unscarred. Three of the victims were first cousins.

"I never heard of anybody killing themselves before, except for those big movie stars like Marilyn Monroe, " said Valentina Black, a high school senior who lost two cousins and a close friend. "After Melvin killed himself, I thought maybe they were copying. . . . It sounded and looked so crazy, all those people killing themselves, sometimes for no reason at all."

"It had a life of its own, it seemed, " said Ralph Baldwin, a high school teacher.

Each death stretched out for weeks as the bodies were taken from the village to Anchorage for autopsies. Before the mourning for one was over, someone else was dead.

"Some parents were openly asking their children to stop this, right on (CB) channel 11, " said former Mayor Elizabeth Chikigak. "Like a plea."

Routine death, or what passes for routine death in rural Alaska, didn't stop during this time. Four people drowned, a young woman was raped and beaten to death, one died of illness, an unarmed 20yearold village police officer was murdered.

"We hated to hear the CB, " said Kitty Curren, who has taught in Alakanuk for 12 years with her husband, George. "We hated to hear a late plane. It meant an emergency. It meant death."

Then, in the summer of 1986, the suicides stopped. The epidemic was over and Alakanuk began to heal, slowly. But it was not the same village it had been. The people had learned things about themselves and their children, things they hadn't known before. This fall some villagers agreed to talk about their experiences.

"We have to try to help other villages, " said Mary Black, Valentina's mother.

PEOPLE KNOW THE ENEMY

Alakanuk is 15 miles from the Bering Sea, strung out for four miles along the banks of a Yukon River slough. People get from one end of town to the other by threewheeler, by boat or by walking along one of two rutted dirt roads. The villagers live mostly in the standard wooden Monopoly houses that dot the Bush, up on stilts here to protect them from flooding.

Twentieth century technology is the norm chain saws and outboard motors, stoves and freezers, CB, cable TV and a Laundromat. In addition to more than 50 paying jobs, many families fish commercially. But the men still hunt seal, standing in flatbottomed boats to hurl their spears. They hunt to put food on the table and to feel right subsistence is both a responsibility and a religion.

Because of its location so far down the Yukon, problems caused by the intrusion of Western culture came late to Alakanuk. But they did come. Ask the villagers to name the worst problem and they'll tell you:

Alcohol.

Not just in Alakanuk, in many villages.

Ask why husbands beat their wives, why men are shot. Ask why women are raped and children hate their lives. Ask why love drowns in anger and guilt. The answer is always alcohol.

Alakanuk is officially dry no importation or sale of liquor is allowed. But the law has little relevance where the drink of choice is brewed from sugar and yeast in fivegallon plastic pails.

Alcohol shapes most of the death and all of the violence in Alakanuk. Sister Ann estimates that about 85 percent of the adults abuse alcohol or marijuana or both. Many individuals are sober, alcohol counselor Arthur Chikigak said, but he couldn't think of a single family where everyone is sober.

Johnson Katchakoar, 81, remembers that alcohol first came to Alakanuk in the 1950s, brought downriver by cannery workers and soldiers, a "traditional" feature at Fourth of July picnics.

"Remember how them Indians were in earlytime history, " said Mary Ayunerak, translating for Katchakoar, her father. "They take the whiskey, drink it like it was juice. That's how (the Yupiks) were . . . They drink it foolishly."

In the 30 years since, alcohol has laid waste to many villages. Elizabeth Chikigak, the former mayor, can list 38 alcoholfueled deaths in Alakanuk since the late 1970s. But the effect of alcohol is much more complicated than people getting drunk and falling in the slough. Or beating up their parents. Or killing their neighbors. It is destroying the family, once the strength of the Yupik people.

Alcohol loaded the gun or knotted the rope in only four of the Alakanuk suicides, but nearly all those who died came from drinking families.

"I REALLY HATE MYSELF'

Steven Kameroff, 19, was the third to die. He hanged himself in an empty dormitory at the boarding school in St. Marys. It happened Jan. 22, shortly after Steven returned from a Christmas visit home. At his inquest, a witness said he was upset by his family's drinking during the visit, although he had gotten drunk with them almost every night. He had been expelled for a while from the boarding school for using marijuana but had asked to be let back in. He had no drugs or alcohol in his system when he died.

While he was home, Steven said he was going to kill himself when he got back to school. But he was drunk when he said it, so the threat wasn't taken seriously.

Most people saw in Steven the nice boy he was, shy and self conscious. His friends at Alakanuk High dedicated their 1986 yearbook to him. "A fun loving, joyful person, " the dedication says.

Here, from the last entry in his private journal, written a week before he died, is how Steven saw himself:

"I really hate myself. I really wish I had a pistol right now so when I feel that feeling again, that funny feeling, that way I act and the way I am. I hate it. I wish I was a bird in the air and get eaten by my parents. The way I feel right now, I'm going to commit suicide for sure. I took one full bottle of aspirin. Then I took it again. Didn't succeed. Try again asshole. You're too chicken, Kameroff. Eat your heart out or take two boxes of pills this time, you scar face. . . . The way your life is going, you need help badly and quickly, before it's too late."

FROM FATHER TO SON

"Nobody suddenly commits suicide, " said Tim Sergie, once a drinker and village drug dealer, now a city council member and minister of the Assembly of God Church in Alakanuk.

"It is not spontaneous. No one gets to hate their life instantly. No one loves instantly. It's a growing process that we walk through day by day."

Sergie had just finished Sunday church services. Outside, low gray clouds dropped early snowflakes into the thickening river. Inside, he remembered his past.

"My mother and father used to drink a lot, " he said, "and I started drinking at a very young age too."

"The most awful experiences for me . . . would be my father beating on my mother. . . I used to say to myself, "I'll never be like my family, I'll never be like them.' And I became like them."

His parents eventually stopped drinking, but too late to save Sergie, now 34. He believes God is the only reason he survived his youth.

"It got to that point where I started hating my life. I wanted to quit (drinking) but I was incapable of quitting. . . . I became like my father. . . . I got to where I didn't love any more. I hated everybody. I hated what I stood for. I hated my life. I hated what alcohol was doing to me. I hated living. . . . And after one especially hard night, I almost committed suicide.

"I remember. I wasn't drunk to the point where I didn't know what I was doing."

"(T)hat particular night, when I was really high, we ran out of dope. We ran out of booze. I was dry and I wanted some more. And I was angry, and the first person who happened by was my wife . . . I hit her and I beat her and I threatened to kill her.

"And she said, "It's OK. Go ahead and kill me.' So I took a shotgun. I loaded the shotgun and I pointed it right on her head . . . And I said, "I'm going to kill her. And then I'm going to kill myself.' "

"And what she said "Go ahead. We don't have any life.' And I realized . . . there was no meaning to what we were doing . . . There was no happiness, no love for each other, no caring. It was just existing. . . . I took the gun off from her head and pointed it at my head and I was going to . . push the trigger."

"It's easy. It's easy. I've tried many times . . . after the incident, while I'm out hunting, just to see how stupid I was. I'd go like that, and the trigger's right there. I could see it. I could push it.

"And I said, "How did I not kill myself that night?' "

CRIES IN THE NIGHT

The fourth young man to die was Jerry Augline, two months after Steve Kameroff. Jerry was 21. He was big and would fight if he thought he had to, but he was also very shy. He made the cross for Louie Edmund's grave.

Jerry had lived for a while with Paula Ayunerak, then the village health aide, now regional health supervisor. "I practically raised him when his mom and dad used to be drinking, " she said. "Pretty soon, Jerry never went home any more." In high school he lived for a while with the Currens.

After he died, some people said they had heard Jerry sobbing that night, inside a dumpster. They found him the next day, by a pond out on the tundra, still alive. He died 10 minutes later. He had shot himself in the heart.

Jerry's blood alcohol was .08, not legally drunk, most likely left over from heavy drinking the night before. A friend told police Jerry had been drinking a lot lately and talking about killing himself because he thought his parents didn't want him around.

OUT OF CONTROL

"Sometimes I used to be scared, when I was young, 12 years old or 11, " said James Tony, brother of Melvin Tony, the second suicide victim. James and Melvin's parents don't drink anymore, but they used to. James is 21 now, but he remembers.

"I didn't like those years, on weekends, 'cause everything used to go out of control. If I have kids, I don't ever want them to see me high, not ever, not once in my life."

Scared. Out of control. He left out angry. And ashamed.

"Young people bottle up their pain, " said Arthur Chikigak, 30, the alcohol and drug counselor. They drink, like their parents, "to kill the pain that's inside. . . . probably from their past, the abuse they had from their parents."

"A lot of the hurt they're going through, I feel it because I felt it too. . . . I grew up in an alcoholic environment. My parents drank a lot by the time I was in elementary. . . . When they were high and talking bad about me, I'd leave and walk in the trees. . . . The hurt would still be there, but it would make me feel a little better, just walking."

Once Chikigak drank and used drugs himself. Once he took his boat out on the river and tried to flip it, a suicide attempt that probably would have been called an accident if it had succeeded.

"I had been hollered and screamed at 'til I felt really small."

"I didn't go around telling people how I felt inside." he said. "I'd put up an act, like there's nothing wrong. I think a lot of the students are like that today. We're trying to reach them now. There's a lot of people who are willing to devote their time to help."

THE BEST AND BRIGHTEST

"Hey! Happy 1986, " Karen George wrote to a friend on New Year's Day. "My year has finally come."

Queen of the prom, president of the student body, valedictorian of the class of '86. Pretty, selfconfident and popular. Karen at 17 was Alakanuk's brightest star.

By May 1986, seven months after Melvin Tony's death, some people in the village understood they had a suicide epidemic on their hands. Sisters Susan Dubec and Ann Brantmeier; Paula Ayunerak; public safety officer Willie Smalley; some school staff and parents were watching for danger signs. But Karen George wasn't on anyone's endangered list. Drugs and alcohol were used in her home and she had what one teacher called "a small alcohol problem, " but she was successful, a leader.

Karen's father had drowned several years earlier, another drinking death. In her valedictory address, she choked up when she spoke of him, telling the audience how proud her dad would be if only he could see her now.

Two days later, shortly after midnight, Karen walked out on the tundra behind her house and shot herself. Twice. She used a stick to push down the trigger of a shotgun. She shot herself in the shoulder first, then tried again and shattered her heart.

Because of the two wounds, police initially wondered if it might have been murder, but Karen's mother was able to settle the question. She heard the first shot, she said, and looked out a window in time to see her daughter fire the second.

Karen killed herself over boyfriend trouble. She acted impulsively and with little understanding of the finality of her act. The notes she left behind make that clear. Romantic, silly notes. Teenage dramatics. "Bye everyone. . . . I miss you a whole lot. . . . But I've got to go."

Unfortunately every suicide leaves blame and shame in its wake. Karen's boyfriend was Benjamin Edmund, 21, brother of Louie Edmund, the first suicide.

Everyone knew Benji was going to kill himself. Some people tried to get him shipped out to a hospital in Bethel or Anchorage, but somehow they couldn't arrange it in time. His family and friends posted a 24hour watch on him, but he told them, "If I want to kill myself, no one can stop me."

He was right. Five days after Karen died, he slipped away and shot himself.

Now every parent was frightened. If kids like Karen and Benji could act so crazy, whose children were safe?

"It was scary, " recalled Chikigak, the alcohol counselor. "You never knew who was going to be next. It was frightening, a feeling of not being able to do anything about what was going on in the village."

After Karen's death, one of her teachers said she had made no real plans for her life after school. Maybe she would go to a training program, she had said, maybe not. Maybe she would get married and have a baby, a friend said.

But maybe she would become just another bored and aimless village youth.

AN EARLY WARNING

In a 1964 article, anthropologist Seymour Parker described an Alakanuk in the first stage of acculturation. Villagers were borrowing Western technology but adapting it to Eskimo needs. Children wanted to become hunters or housewives. They could be what they wanted to be and were respected for doing so. They were successful in the eyes of the community and in their own eyes. They had selfesteem.

But, unless something was done to avoid it, Parker warned, Alakanuk would soon find itself in the second stage of acculturation. The youth would begin to adopt Western values. They would look at themselves, at their parents and their lives through Western eyes and find it all of little value. They would aspire to professions Westerners valued, but wouldn't be able to compete successfully for them. They would come to despise themselves and their world. They would have no selfesteem.

Village kids love their parents, said Kitty and George Curren, the teachers. "But they don't admire them."

FEW JOBS, LITTLE TO DO

"There's nothing to do but only drinking, " said James Tony, brother of the second victim. "They think drinking will make them have fun." James used to drink and smoke marijuana, but says he doesn't do it anymore. "Everybody's emotional feelings would pour out, " he said. "Some people would get into fights."

After kids graduate from high school, there's not much for them to do in the village. James is luckier than most. He has a parttime job giving fluoride treatments to Head Start children. But in general, few local jobs are available to people his age. He helps cut wood for his father's sauna and is trying to organize a youth club, but in his eyes, that's not a life.

There are also few ways for kids to have fun in Alakanuk no community center, no place for dances or concerts, no bowling alley, movie theater, hamburger hangout, no library. But there's always a bucket of home brew around, to dip a cup or two or six from.

James has plans for his life, but to have plans, he must leave Alakanuk. In preparation, he has been to Mountain Village four times for computer courses, to Anchorage for a vocational program called RSVP, working for two weeks as a clerk at the state human rights commission. A bright, ambitious young man, he feels he has learned a lot that will serve him in the future.

"I learned how to use the streets, how to use the bus to get on and off, how to ask for help. I learned how to use a postage meter."

Like many others his age, James wants a future more like the life he sees on television. He wants to move to Anchorage and get a job.

"I would do anything to live there, " he said.

NEW SURVIVAL SKILLS

Alakanuk High School sits above the beach, around a curve in the shoreline a big, yellow Pandora's Box. Yupik children go there and learn things their parents don't know in a language their grandparents don't speak.

"We're the major change element here, " said Principal Mike Hull, a 10year veteran of Bush education. "From 8:30 to 3:30, we are the value system. We set the standards for whether they succeed or fail, which may be different and not always in harmony with what's going on in the village."

The school raises expectations, then sets the children back down in an environment where their hopes cannot be fulfilled. "We're part of the problem, " Hull agreed.

Even so, he believes school is the Eskimos' best hope for survival. Yupiks must master the skills of the invading culture, he said, then turn around and use those skills to fight the invaders, to keep from being destroyed.

"For the Yupik nation to survive, it has to become Anglo so it can defend itself . . . defend its right to live the way it wants. . . . They have to take our culture and come back."

In the process, "some people are going to be lost."

Longtime teachers George and Kitty Curren agree with Hull. Two of the suicide victims sought refuge in their home, lived with them for long periods. Four of their five children married Eskimos.

Nothing angers George faster than a suggestion that Eskimo villages are economic dinosaurs, doomed to extinction. A town of 550 people can support any number of small businesses, he said. A barber, a bakery, an optometrist. A family can combine a small business with subsistence hunting and fishing and make a good life.

The school prepares kids for more education. Never mind that few actually go to college and fewer graduate. The school does no vocational training or counseling, nothing to help kids make successful lives in the world right outside the door.

"You tell kids to graduate from high school. Then they graduate and so what? I think the poor kids are batting their heads against the wall. Is that the only choice? To sit in your house and drink and watch TV?"

The Currens teach a business course in which high school students run a snack store every day after school. They learn to order stock, keep books, make change. George hopes one day to help graduates set up successful village businesses.

SOBER AND LONELY

On June 25, 1986, the night he hanged himself, Tim Stanislaus wore a Tshirt that said, "I got drunk and lost in Alakanuk, Alaska." Which was just about right. His blood alcohol was .23.

Tim's death puzzled people even more than Karen George's. He was so very bright, a success, the Yupik teacher at the high school. But those who knew him well say he was two people: During the week, an impressive achiever, but on weekends and during the summer, a staggering drunk and drug user. He wanted to be a leader and sober, but he needed his friends, and they drank.

"He couldn't walk that line, " George Curren said.

Walking the line means staying sober and off drugs when your friends are drinking and smoking. Fredrick Joseph walks that line every day. He is part of a budding sobriety movement, encouraged by the Catholic sisters, by Paula Ayunerak, by Chikigak, the alcohol counselor, and others.

Joseph was a heavy drinker by the sixth grade. By ninth grade he was also smoking marijuana. Once he stayed sober for more than a year, then fell off the wagon, hard. "I guess I got crazy. I started not caring about anything. . . . My girl couldn't talk to me anymore, couldn't communicate with me anymore and I couldn't understand why. And it led to hitting her, slapping her. And . . . I broke her arm by kicking her. And then I tried suicide."

Joseph ended up at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute for a month. "I was too depressed, lonely, unwanted, not cared for. . . . I went through emotional stages, regretting everything I did." He returned to Alakanuk sober and determined to remain so.

The hardest thing about sobriety, Joseph said, is the aloneness of it. His old friends still drink. His girlfriend won't come back to the village with their two daughters until she is sure he is serious about staying sober, so he is alone. Each night he walks the village, counting the hours and killing them, visiting safe places the priest, the alcohol counselor, the police station, the Sisters.

"I try to find a job. I read the 24hour book (from Alcoholics Anonymous). I read some chapters of the Bible. . . . I feel a lot better than I used to feel. I think a lot more than I used to think."

Across the river, Sally and James Leopold have been sober for a year. It's a little easier for them because they walk the line together with the help of their children. Their home is clean and tidy, the atmosphere relaxed. Outside, a cold sleet blows in the wind. Inside, Sally washes dishes. On the radio, Willie Nelson sings, "San Antonio Rose."

Even in a story about eight suicides, Sally Leopold's family history is horrifying. One of her brothers beat up their father, who died. The brother went to jail. Another brother killed a village police officer. Her sister and mother drowned in separate incidents while drunk. Another sister was killed in one of the bloodiest murders in lower Yukon history. One of Sally's babies accidentally suffocated during a family drinking session.

Still, Sally and James didn't stop drinking until she almost died from an ulcer.

The Leopolds have eight children, from a little baby to a 19yearold boy. The older ones have vivid memories of their parents' drinking. Cecelia Leopold, 13, said she used to get scared when Sally and James would "fight, argue with each other. Loud. We used to go to our auntie's house. Sometimes we used to stay out until they sleep, then come."

"I hardly used to cook for them, " said Sally. "I never used to think of their stomach or clothes. . . . When we used to drink, they hardly used to come home from the school. Now that we quit, they listen to us more than they used to.

"Sometimes I think of the past, you know. It was living in the darkness. Now everything is so bright, it seems."

But not all is bright. In November, one of Sally's sons was charged with raping an old woman his aunt. For a few days after that, alcohol beckoned the Leopolds back to oblivion, but they clung to the light.

BREAKING THE PATTERN

"It's one thing to stop drinking, " said Sister Susan. "You stop drinking, the problems are still there. The parenting skills are gone, children still have a poor selfconcept. . . . Just like it took one or two or three generations to get to suicide and the problems we have now, it's going to take one or two or three generations to get out of the problem again." Fifty years, she estimated.

Maybe it doesn't have to take that long for everyone. Tina Black, 17, is one generation away from an alcoholic grandfather. "He got drowned, maybe by drinking, when he was in his camp, " said Tina's grandmother, Agnes Shelton. "One of my boys was drowned with him. It was very hard for me."

Shelton was a nondrinker who preached abstinence to her children and chose a nondrinker for her second husband. But for a while it looked like the familiar pattern would assert itself anyhow. Her daughter and soninlaw, Tina's parents, drank. Twelve years ago, Tina's mother, Mary Black, stopped drinking and Tina's father eventually stopped drinking in the village. In this family, the destructive cycle seems to have been broken.

Tina is a top student at the high school and president of the student body. She seems a sensible girl, having the usual teenage rough spots with her mother but close to her father. She drinks occasionally at parties, she said, but never in killthebottle bouts. She seems undaunted by the high school stars of yesteryear who are in the village, doing nothing much.

"Sometimes I think it's stupid, " she said. "They're just hanging in town. They can be anything they want. . . . I don't want to hang in the village, doing the things they do, partying."

THE END AT LAST

While Tim Stanislaus was hanging himself in Alakanuk, Albert Harry, an Alakanuk fisherman who spent his winters in Anchorage, was dying in a bed at the Alaska Native Medical Center.

About 2:45 a.m. on June 24, Albert went into the bathroom of his Anchorage apartment, sat down on the floor with his back against the closed bathroom door, and fired a revolver into his right temple. Three people, including his brother, were in the next room. He lingered for a day before he died.

A few weeks earlier, Albert had called his brother back in the village and said he was going to kill himself. Through the phone, his brother heard the mechanism of a gun. The night he died, Albert had been drinking heavily, vodka and beer. He left no note. One of the men in the next room was so drunk he slept through the suicide.

With Albert's death, the epidemic ended.

SILENT HURT

In the early morning the village is silent except for the crunch of feet now and then along the frosted paths. The air feels good cold and wet against the skin. More snow has fallen, but the river is still liquid, not yet an ice highway. Early risers smile, say hello. If something bad happened last night, it remains behind closed doors. If people are troubled, the trouble is hidden away. The village is silent.

But silence is an enemy. People don't talk to each other about their feelings and have little understanding that they can reach out and shape the future.

"They never talk to us, those young people, when they have problems, " said Agnes Shelton, the grandmother who has never been a drinker. "It's too bad. I just don't know how come they do that . . . Their minds get them scared to be alive sometimes after they do something wrong . . . Some always never have a good home. . . . Some always getting tired of moving around when the parents drink too much."

When people get drunk, "a lot of words pour out, " James Tony said, hurtful words. Guilt and shame are part of every hangover. Silent hurt radiates from those who have been abused.

Even healthy teenagers in healthy families have trouble talking. "It's hard to tell your parents that you love them, " Tina Black said, "to tell your grandparents that you love them. I don't know why."

Chikigak, the alcohol counselor, Sisters Susan and Ann, John Thomas, who runs the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and others are trying to get people to talk. Progress is slow, but it's there. Two years after Louie Edmund's death, members of the Edmund family have begun talking to each other about it. Last month, 15 young people showed up for an overnight retreat.

Adults in the village did not immediately rally around suicide prevention efforts. Few appeared at a suicide prevention workshop last year. Many people in Alakanuk seem to view violence and early death the way they view bad weather and poor fishing as natural disasters. As for shaping the future, how can you stop a snowstorm? "We'll just have to wait and see what happens, won't we?" one woman said.

"I QUESTION WHY'

It's late, nearly midnight. Adeline Edmund has stopped at the Sisters' house on her way home from work at the village sauna. She is a small middleaged woman with short black hair laced with silver. Sorrow animates her face. Her silence is intense. She has heard that a newspaper story will be written about the suicides. She lost two sons and has some things she wants to share.

"Some days . . . I question why, why could they, after they care so much for us. . . . There's some days it's really hard. You can't take it any more. . . . Some days it's really strong that I don't want to live no more. Then God comes."

"Write it down, " she says, for other villages to read and learn from. Stop all the hurting in the home, she says. "Stop all the blaming. Try not to get mad even when they get mad at you. . . . Love is the most important. If you're not loved . . ."

"THEY WANT TO BE LOVED'

Will there be more suicides in Alakanuk? Probably, say the people most likely to know. But not another epidemic. "I don't think our village is at a trigger point anymore, " said Sister Ann, "that if one happens, there's going to be five. I think we're past that."

"I think (the young people) see that the suicides didn't accomplish what they thought they would. Yeah, there was that glory of everybody over the bodies, but I think that's not there anymore."

Still, an empty space remains in the hearts of the young, said Sergie, the Assembly of God pastor. "They want to be loved. They want to be shared with. They want caring. . . . And if they can't find pleasure, love and caring in any direction, well, what's the use of living?"

"When I stayed with one who was going to commit suicide, " said James Tony, "I had to keep saying, "Come on, everybody loves you. They don't act like it, but in their hearts they love you.'

"They say, "Aaaagh, who loves me? Nobody loves me.'

"I say, "Well, I do.' "

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