In rural Alaska, suicide taints future

I am writing a letter with sadness and concern. Many of you have heard of our rash of suicides in our Alaskan villages, all young men and many our friends and dear family members.

In the villages, you see these baby boys grow into young men and they are part of your everyday life. This is a serious epidemic in all rural Alaska villages; we need to do something immediately.

We need to start talking about it. Everyone needs to step out of their comfort zone, stop being self-centered and selfish. We need to go beyond the call of duty to help our children and villages to survive this disaster. There are many people who should be doing something, but they are not. We as individuals, moms, dads and concerned community members need to bring this demon to light, and the time is now. Actually, yesterday was the time.

Our family has been part of the Iron Dog snowmachine race, a group of wonderful, hard-working young men who many of our village boys look up to. They come to the store to pore over the Iron Dog Racing Pamphlet. They pick out their favorite racers, get to the computer to follow their teams, and run to the riverbanks to meet and greet them.

These racers are celebrities among the children in the rural communities. They look up to these men as heroes. I approached last year's Iron Dog champions -- Tyler Huntington of Galena and Chris Olds of Eagle River -- about this issue of suicide. These two young, aspiring athletes are willing to take on the huge task of educating and bringing awareness to the prevention of suicide.

I am, too, in the early stage with the boys, developing a strategy to attack this huge problem. I am wishfully thinking, dreaming, kicking around ideas and talking out loud to you about a plan I foresee to help with this cause.

Let's establish a bank account for donations, get the boys' sports cards with their pictures on the snowmachines and "Team 10" on the back, with a catchy phrase such as "Take a ride to prevent suicide!" Let's include prevention hotlines and phone numbers for crisis centers in Alaska or whatever is appropriate.


We can have the boys hand out the cards and talk in villages during their layovers -- McGrath, Galena, Ruby, Unalakleet, Nome, Tanana etc. We should go to all the newspapers statewide (Nome, Bethel, Barrow etc.) and publicize this.

I would like the funds raised for the awareness be used for a huge Educational and Awareness Summit in Galena. I've chosen Galena because 1) It's Tyler's hometown; and 2), there are 200 rural youth from all over Alaska at the Galena Interior Learning Academy, plus there is another school nearby ranging from grades K-12. Galena is also surrounded by many villages in the Yukon-Koyukuk region that is plagued with this epidemic. This reminds me of the Iditarod race, where people are dying and we all need to work together to get the medicine to our villages to save our children.

What is the future of our villages when we have no young men to lead us? No elder Native men to guide, love and nurture our children? Our future looks dim today. It's very sad. I believe this gathering should bring our problem to light. Families are a key and foundation and they should be included. We need professional people -- counselors (especially family counseling), inspirational speakers and young leaders who have succeeded to tell their stories.

Initially, our Native people were the toughest of the tough -- made to go an extra mile to survive the harshest environments, but look at us today. We are in a slow, downward spiral. Our children are dying and we are walking away as they cry and need our help.

I would like all of you to seriously read this, pray and ponder it. Do some soul searching; find what you as an individual can do in your corner of the world. Let's band together to follow this mission through. Please e-mail me -- scoogha(at)hotmail.com -- if you can contribute to our mission.

Cynthia Erickson is Athabascan Indian and originally from Ruby. She's owned a small general store for 25 years in Tanana. She is married with three children.