Opinions

After all these years, Alaska treads water in wake of suicide

Editor's note: The following commentary was first published in the Anchorage Daily News on Aug. 12, 1986, under the title, "What good's a road when people can't bear to live." Its author resubmitted it after reading Harold Napoleon's Oct. 17 commentary and recent news items about Don Young's statements on suicide. He intends to raise questions about how much progress has been made to address this concern in the last 28 years.

The front pages of the papers these days are full of the foreboding news of a declining state economy and the proposals of political candidates for fixing that economy. Despite the current economic hard times, however, most people, at least those willing to stay in Alaska, seem to believe the economy will turn and once again we will have jobs and prosperity. We are not facing a long-term economic crisis.

A story of deepening and potentially long-term crisis, however, is occurring on the back pages and usually not at all in the pages of our state's larger newspapers. It's a story that's been around for some time and often now is only reported as a short item of interest in the local rural newspapers. Here is how one incident was reported recently on a back page of a rural paper.

State Troopers said the body of a 25-year-old village man was found last week and the cause of death is under investigation. Troopers identified the man as Timothy B. Stanislau.

In my eight years in Alaska I have known many of the people appearing in these articles, notices really, of another death, another young person gone, of another village deprived of a small piece of its future. I knew Tim Stanislau and for a brief moment I would like to take him off that back page.

I met Tim when I was traveling as an Alaska Legal Services attorney. He was a student at the Catholic high school in St. Mary's, a village on the lower Yukon River. He heard I was in the village and he sought me out to talk about becoming a lawyer. It wasn't casual conversation. He had given the idea of a career as a lawyer considerable thought. He felt his people needed to know how to protect themselves through the law and by becoming a lawyer he could help them. Tim graduated from high school and went on to the University of Alaska, but not for long. He returned to the village, his attempt at higher education apparently unsuccessful. I became the city manager of St. Mary's, and it was in that role I became reacquainted with Tim. He had not given up on the idea helping his people. He became involved with city government in his village and was elected to the city council. I would see him at regional meetings and occasionally he would call to talk about some issue facing his city. He also became a bilingual instructor at his village school. Tim remained eager, many people I knew thought of him as a future leader in the region.

I moved away from the Bush about a year ago and had not heard from or about Tim until friends told me something happened and I saw the notice in the paper.

It appears Tim took his own life. Now, like so many Native young men and women he has become part of an all too familiar statistic. Hearing about Tim's death threw me back to the village. It is easy living in urban Alaska to forget how different life can be in the village, how different reality can be for a young person growing up in rural Alaska.

I will not speculate on the reasons why Tim took his life, but it troubles me deeply that something became so dark that he could no longer bear living with it. As a rural city manager I became familiar with senseless death and suicide among the young. Each time I attended a funeral of some young person I could not help but feel my work to make local government viable and responsive to the people of the village was useless. What good were roads and public services if something was so wrong that young people could not bear their lives in the village? It was possible to continue only because of young people like Tim who seemed to believe life could be better and that the law or government could help make it better. Now, Tim is gone and others like him continue to go in the same way.

I contrast this story about Tim with the story of our economy in this election year because for me hearing about his death has made the latter seem so superficial. The economy and jobs are important to Alaska's villages, but villages can survive the loss of a few jobs; they can't survive the continuing loss of all these young people.

As I survey the field of those who seek my vote and contribution for governor, senator, representative or whatever, I see many who wish to be seen as straight-talking businessmen or businesswomen. The economy is their platform and a business-like, and business-liking government is their promise. I see few, however, who convey to me a sensitivity appropriate for confronting a problem like suicide among young rural Natives. I don't expect government to provide the antidote, but I do expect those who seek to run the government to appreciate the genuine gravity of the situation.

We will probably survive this economic downturn despite our elected officials. So for me, my vote is better spent on those candidates who can bring a human face to government. Government is so much more that a business and it takes so much more than a business person to confront our most elusive social problems. Senseless death among our Native youth is a real problem. If young people like Tim who are among the brightest and most promising of his generation of young Alaska Natives cannot find reason to hope, then I fear for the future of this state.

By now a new baby has been born in Tim's village or one nearby. This baby was named after Tim. In the tradition of his people, Tim will live on in the person of the child who bears his name. I only hope that by the time Tim once again reaches the age of 25, he will have more reason to live.

Tim Troll is executive director of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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