Drug abuse and sexual assault took center stage at the Alaska Federation of Natives on Saturday, as the state's largest Native organization called for stronger laws and efforts by governments and communities to stop the scourges.
During an emotional floor discussion, AFN passed a measure calling on agencies and local governments to increase enforcement, penalties and treatment to rid communities of methamphetamine, heroine and opioids.
Delbert Rexford, chief executive of Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation, broke down as he told hundreds about the death of his son, Tunik Rexford, involving drugs. He urged AFN to pass the measure, and apologized for crying.
Rexford's son, Tunik, killed himself in 2016 after using meth, leading to community remorse and calls in his hometown of Utqiagvik that people stop using drugs, according to The Arctic Sounder newspaper.
Delbert Rexford told a reporter after the vote that his son was drinking but did not do drugs. He said his son's drink was laced with drugs.
"He was out of control, jeopardized his family, and shot himself," Rexford said.
Tunik's death was devastating, said Rexford, a whaling captain.
"I had trained him all his life to become a whaling captain, to succeed me," Rexford said, covering his face and in tears.
"So it's hard. Very hard."
Rexford played a key role in creating the resolution, sponsored by UIC, the village corporation in Utqiagvik. It was one of several passed by AFN, on the third and final day of its annual convention at the Dena'ina center in Anchorage.
Rates of drug use by Alaska Natives and American Indians are disproportionately high, the resolution said.
"It's an epidemic on the North Slope," Rexford said. "We need more facilities, resources and programs in place to help those that are addicted to opiates. And to find a safe haven for them."
Other resolutions called for the military to identify and quickly clean-up former, contaminated sites in Alaska. Another sought more job-training opportunities for Alaska Natives.
The resolutions passed at the convention are nonbinding calls to action. Politically influential AFN uses them to advocate for change.
Three resolutions passed to fight the epidemic of sexual assault and domestic violence against Alaska Native women.
One seeks an independent investigation into the Alaska justice system for what the proposal says is "disparate" treatment of Alaska Native offenders and women who are victims.
Another calls for Alaska Natives to lead the state in breaking the silence around child sexual abuse. It seeks increased training for investigators, and more support for victims and families.
Elsie Boudreau added an amendment to that proposal on Saturday. The measure now says more than 300 Alaskans have come forward to say they were victims of sexual abuse by clergy.
Boudreau, of St. Marys, settled a lawsuit with the Roman Catholic Church in 2005, after she was the first to come forward accusing Rev. James Poole of molesting her in Nome in the 1970s.
"It's important we as Alaska Native people acknowledge how child sexual abuse has played into our reality today," she told a reporter afterward.
"It is our responsibility as adults to protect our children," she said.