Rural Alaska

Village addiction recovery program focuses on subsistence skills

EKWOK — Behind the Ekwok Lodge, the smells of soured salmon and pig muck hang in the air. Despite the odor, Ben smiles shyly as he points out the nails in wooden boards that surround the pen, which stick out to deter bears.

"We feed them fish and other leftover foods. You hear their squeals because they're being picked on," he says as one pig lets out a shrill squeak when a bigger pig muscles it out of the way. "I don't know why," he adds, clearly sympathizing with the smaller pig.

For the past month, this 22-year-old who grew up between Ekwok, Dillingham, Togiak and Anchorage participated in an addiction recovery program that teaches subsistence skills as part of the regimen. All the graduates are Alaska Native, and the idea is that cultural activities can be integral to recovery.

While raising pigs might not be a traditional subsistence activity in rural Alaska, these nine smelly animals gave the participants ample opportunity to practice one that is: fishing. They set nets every day to bring in enough fish to feed the pigs. For two men, including Ben, this was their first time doing subsistence fishing.

The three men graduating from the program helped daily with construction and maintenance on the lodge, which has been out of use. They chopped wood and carried water up to the lodge from the river. They fished for salmon to feed to the pigs and to cut and smoke for themselves. They took a maqii every night, cleaning themselves in the steam bath.

"It's fun picking berries, making akutaq from the berries that you picked, and taking a load off with cutting up fish. It was nice labor," Ben says. "I'm slowly, slowly getting used to being clean and sober and looking forward to keeping it that way."

Friday, July 21, was graduation day. More than two-dozen people, including family members and the local priest, gathered to celebrate the month the graduates have spent in recovery.

The mood was relaxed and celebratory in the main building of Ekwok Lodge. It is a big room with large windows and wooden walls decorated with trophy fish. Children ran along the sides and between couches and wooden chairs as the graduates stood up to receive their diplomas. The program's leaders and community members congratulated each one individually. Several coordinators spoke of their own recovery from addiction. The graduates themselves spoke warmly about the program and about their commitment to sobriety.

Ekwok Natives Limited masterminded the program and put up the funds, which were substantial. Jimmy Hurley Sr., president of ENL's board, estimates that the village corporation spent about $100,000 to cover the costs for all participants and to bring in Tutan Recovery Services, a private business from Anchorage, to run the program.

"Everybody used to put up fish, but the subsistence part, it brings pride in the people," says Hurley, explaining ENL's investment in the program. "If you're a Native and you don't know how to put away salmon, I think there's a lot of embarrassment. That should be a part of every recovery, bringing culture into it. Culture is really strong. We've lost so much of it."

Getting this program off the ground was not without obstacles. The power and water both went out at the lodge at points during the camp, and at least one person enrolled did not complete the program.

Overall, however, word from coordinators and the graduates was positive.

"At the end, they're able to take some of their product home with them, and this will help sustain them when they're looking for jobs," Hurley says. "They'll remember the camp, the sobriety they had here. They've got enough confidence in themselves right now that they could really go and take on a feat."

This is Tutan Recovery Services' first time operating outside Anchorage or incorporating subsistence as a component of the recovery program. At a time when the governor has declared the epidemic of opioid use in Alaska a crisis, many are looking for more effective means of combating addiction. Relapse is always a concern in programs that address substance use disorder. Eydie Flygare, the program director, anticipates that the subsistence component will be a help as the clients return home.

"When you find out where you came from and then you start doing some things you did when you were a kid, you're just like, 'OK, yeah! I got it!' The fact that a few of them are going back to do subsistence again, and that includes the spiritual aspect, I think absolutely it helps," Flygare says.

As for Ekwok Natives Limited, Hurley says that the corporation board has been supportive of this year's pilot run of the program. However, the price tag is too large to continue without grants or outside funding. In the coming months, they will explore their options for continuing the wellness camp.

The graduates have all flown back to their homes in Anchorage and in Bristol Bay to hopefully continue their journey with sobriety. They left with smoked fish in their bags for this winter and the skills to do it again next summer.

This story has been republished from KDLG in Dillingham with permission.

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