Originally published Jan. 10, 1988. Part of a series.
GLENNALLEN — Almost everyone had a horrible story to tell, stories of suicides and despair and deaths that shouldn’t have been. These were the kinds of things people talked about openly. More discreetly, they whispered of sexually abused children and women beaten by husbands and boyfriends in bursts of drunken rage.
People in the villages of Alaska are like a man being pulled under by the currents of a river, said Walter Charley, a 79yearold Athabascan from Copper Center. The people sitting around him Indians, Aleuts and Eskimos from all over Alaska knew exactly what he meant. Some nodded as he spoke.
"We're struggling for our lives," Walter Charley said.
Here, on a dusty baseball diamond beneath the Wrangell Mountains, the roots of a revolution were quietly taking grip.
For five days last August, a couple hundred Alaska Natives gathered to discuss the problems facing people in the villages. A few were counselors, social workers or political leaders, but most were just regular people many of them former alcoholics or drug abusers trying to live a decent life, worried about the future and eager to visit with people from other places struggling with the same issues.
They shared their experiences and talked about solutions. They danced to traditional music, and boogied to a Native rock band. In aceremony at the end of the retreat, they vowed to stay sober, respect the people they live around and work toward improving life back home.
The gathering was one of the most visible signs of a movement percolating in dozens of villages over the past two years. Known as the "sobriety movement," its goal is a Native world unimpaired by alcohol or drugs, one in which widespread alcoholism is no longer considered normal.
The aim of the movement goes well beyond that, though, and includes reshaping Native communities and culture all over Alaska, places where people are being destroyed by changes and forces they don't understand and haven't been able to control.
GLIMMERS OF LIGHT
It is a long, slow, extreme uphill struggle. The movement is so new it's difficult to tell how much of an effect, if any, it is having.
The problems are so complex that there's no single, proven way to solve them. Villages are trying dozens of approaches, from Alcoholics Anonymous to traditional Native spirituality and ritual, from legal sovereignty to estlike "personal growth" seminars.
"It's not the kind of thing you can look and see big dynamic successes," said Mary O'Connor, health educator for the North Slope Borough in Barrow. "You can't say, "Yep, it's working. We're real successful.' You're dealing in people's lives. It's an overtime kind ofthing."
What the sobriety movement has stressed above all else is a philosophy that it must be the people of the villages not health agencies, not the government, not the regional corporations who take responsibility for their own wellbeing. With that comes pride, unity with others doing the same thing, and increased control over their lives.
"You've got to start someplace," said Doug Modig, director of the alcohol program for the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, astate and federallyfunded social service agency.
"We started with the idea that people are impaired by alcohol and that has to stop if you're going to deal with these other problems. . . . As long as people are drinking, they don't have a choice. When they stop, they do.
"We're not just talking about alcohol. It's a real broad thing. We're talking about suicides, and sexual abuse, and domestic violence. We're talking about economics and ineffective local government.
"We're talking about personal responsibility that results in selfdetermination. . . . It suggests a unity, that people aren't doing it alone."
Modig, a Tsimshian Indian from Ketchikan, runs the only statewide alcohol program in Alaska, and has been at the center of the sobriety movement from its beginnings. Two years ago, RuralCap banned alcohol from its functions, a move since followed by several regional Native corporations.
Since then, Modig and his associate, Amy Lohr, have traveled to more than 20 villages, been invited to 25 others and worked with more than 90. They say they listen to what communities want, then help establish appropriate alcoholism and development programs.
"The approach from the agencies in the past has always been, "We'll come help you.' What we're saying is, "You got to help yourself. We can maybe help you do that, but you've got to be the one to do it,' " Modig said.
Some regional health corporations and government health agencies have begun to tailor programs to the needs and wishes of specific communities rather than use a single model for all. For example, rather than rely on a single psychologist to make infrequent visits to avillage, there have been efforts to train residents to counsel one another.
"Nobody can come in from outside and solve the problems," said Carla Bonney, director of the tribalrun health department in the village of Tanana, in the Interior. "But for so many years, people, Native people, have been told they're not capable of solving their own problems. There's been an erosion of selfesteem that goes back to the missionaries.
"It's not a big flow, something huge that's happening everywhere. It's little glimmers here and there. We'll hear that somebody somewhere else has similar ideas and it's a very positive thing."
Some people in some villages have stopped drinking. Others have voted to ban alcohol and set communitywide goals for living without booze. Progress is slow, but there are small signs of it.
In Alakanuk, a Yupik village in which eight young adults killed themselves in 16 months, an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was held for the first time last fall. With eight people attending, it was believed to be the largest AA meeting ever on the Yukon River. Regular meetings have been held since.
On the North Slope, perhaps the most affluent local government in Alaska, young adults who have given up booze have gone on boroughowned television to talk about it.
Attendance at statewide gatherings like the one in Glennallen has increased steadily.
While some communities have tried banning booze with varying degrees of success there are no examples of Alaska villages that have successfully gone from rampant alcoholism to widespread sobriety. Sobriety advocates hope that, over time, some communities will emerge as examples of what is possible. That will take years, they admit.
TO SHOW THE WAY
More than anything else, Alaska's sobriety movement has been influenced by Alkali Lake, an Indian village in British Columbia that through the will of its people went from 100 percent alcoholism to almost complete sobriety. It took 15 years.
Alkali Lake's struggle was depicted in the film "The Honour of All," with residents of the town portraying themselves as the drunks they once were. Cassettes of the movie have circulated extensively throughout rural Alaska for the past year, with demand increasing as more people learn what happened there.
"It's been real influential," said Modig. Dozens of villages in Alaska have problems as bad or worse than the old Alkali Lake, he said. "It's a vision of hope. People see it and say, "If they can do it, maybe we can do it.' People look at that and they see real live Native people. It's not a Hollywood thing."
Over the past couple of years, people from Alkali Lake have made several trips to Alaska to talk about what happened there, as have people from Four Worlds Development Council, an Albertabased Native organization that has worked extensively on Native alcoholism in Canada and the Lower 48.
"When things get really desperate, when a whole community is ready to go down, when things get really bad, it's time to do something," Lloyd Dick, a 23yearold from Alkali Lake, told participants at Glennallen. He told of losing family members and friends, and struggling with alcohol and drugs himself.
"I used to do about five hits of acid in one night," he said. "Really get stoned. I'm really grateful for being alive. I travel maybe thousands of miles, and talk a little bit, maybe one or two, it would be really nice if you'd listen and recognize what's happening with this alcohol. . . . You can't hide a lot of stuff that happened, can't keep it inside. You stand up and share."
Later, David West, a huge man with long, dark braids who leads the Fairbanksbased Crossing Paths drummers, sat in a circle ofsingers around a big drum in right field. He slowly pounded a beat and, in a high, strong, ghostly wail, sang a traditional Sioux chant. Others also beat the drum and answered his chants, or danced slowly around it.
Between songs, West spoke:
"We share the dream of the people of Alkali Lake, that we can kill this enemy. It's been a prayer of ours for a long time, that it would be the Native people that would show the way out from under the disease of alcoholism, for this is our country. We were put here, we're from here.
“It should be us that has the strength to show the way.”