A PEOPLE IN PERIL: A culture in crisis, a people in peril

Originally published Jan. 10, 1988. First in a series. The series was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

If it happened in any city in the country, it would make headlines nationwide: a rash of suicides and violent deaths punctuated by rapes, beatings and child abuse.

But the crisis in Alaska's villages is a quiet crisis. When hope dies, it dies silently. And the epidemic of despair that is robbing an entire generation of its birthright happens far from city lights.

Today, the Daily News begins a series that will detail that crisis. These stories run not as a criticism but as a warning to us all. The Native culture that is the heritage of all Alaskans is endangered, threatened by alcoholism, helplessness and despair. From Fort Yukon to Kake, Alaska Natives are dying in vastly disproportionate numbers.

The causes are complicated and varied, but one constant appears over and over again: booze.

In rural Alaska, alcohol is misery's mask. One hundred economic and social problems may lie behind it, but until the mask is laid aside no one can see them clearly.

Make no mistake, Alaska's predominantly white cities offer their own share of grief. Violence born of liquor is no stranger here. But the the statistics gradually emerging from the Bush point inexorably to an entire culture in peril.

* Alaska Natives are four times as likely to commit suicide as other Alaskans;

* Alaska Native men between the ages of 20 and 24 are 10 times more likely to kill themselves than nonNatives nationwide;

* Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, where a pregnant woman's drinking damages her unborn child, is 21|2 more times more common among Native women than nonnatives;

* Natives comprise only 16 percent of Alaska's population, but make up 34 percent of its prison inmates;

* While the official U.S. Department of Labor unemployment figure for the Yukon-Koyukuk region is 15.5 percent, experts say that if “discouraged workers” those who have given up were included, that figure would be two or three times higher; and

* Even when they come to the cities in search of jobs or a new life, Natives in Anchorage are three times more likely to be raped, four times more likely to die violent deaths than non-Natives.

Yet the numbers remain cold and impersonal. One cannot remain impersonal in the Bush. There are no statistics in the villages, there are husbands and wives, cousins and neighbors entire families whose potential is lost and whose despair passes from one generation to the next.

Gradually, though, the code of silence is being broken and the people themselves are talking, exploring ways to break the cycle. By confronting the hegemony of the white culture, they hope to retain their own. It is a sobriety movement born of pain, and it is the best hope for village Alaska.

We talked to many villagers in preparing these articles, including a woman who has lost two sons to suicide. Adeline Edmund's son, Louis, was 22 and a former Alakanuk honor student when he shot himself in the heart on the tundra behind his village. Louis' brother, Benji, was 21 when he killed himself 14 months later.

"Write it down, " Adeline Edmund said, so others can learn. In that spirit, we have.

Other articles in the series:

A generation of despair

Alakanuk’s suicide epidemic

A river of booze

A youth’s despair erupts

Haven for bootleggers

“Damp” doesn’t work

Fighting a frustrating war

A curse upon the unborn

Alaska’s biggest village

The ever-vigilant Venetie

Healing the old wounds

A willingness to take risk

A revolution of hope