Stand up and speak: With accountability and love, Alaska can make progress against suicide, abuse

A year after my youth group from Tanana made the presentation at the 2014 Alaska Federation of Natives annual conference that went viral across Alaska and beyond, I asked the children, "What has changed since we walked on stage and brought forth the issues of child abuse, molesting, alcohol, drugs, losing hope, lack of family and suicide?"

They didn't answer right away. Then they slowly answered, "NOTHING!"

By speaking out, our children are the change. It has taken 50 years for us to get this dysfunctional, and it doesn't change overnight. I told the kids, "YOU are the change! YOU won't beat! YOU won't abuse! YOU won't drink with a baby in you! YOU will protect your children! YOU are the change we've been waiting for!"

Growing up in the village, there was dysfunction, but nothing like today. People and families worked together. You had a purpose; you were an important part of the family; you packed water, wood, cut fish and moose, fed dogs and hunted together. Everyone had a role as the family worked together to survive. We all had a purpose and self-worth.

I remember in the early '70s, I woke up to find my dad at the table. He looked sad and puzzled. I asked him what was wrong. He was quiet, pondering how to explain something from the adult world to his young daughter.

He finally said, "Last year Momma and I got a letter from the government, telling us we have to start taking this thing called food stamps at our store." I asked him what food stamps were, thinking of it as a simple thing. But it was more than that.

He said, "We ignored that letter, and now we have a second one, basically forcing us to take the stamps, because we have the only store in the village."


I was unsure and asked why he did not want to take them. He said, "It will take people off the land and from their homes and it will destroy us."

Looking back now, I could almost immediately see our subsistence lifestyle begin to fade then. Families would go to seasonal camps to hunt, fish or trap. That subsided. Our small store would overflow with furs. That was gone. The food stamp program that was supposed to help people during the hard times has made us dependent on the government.

That was when we began to lose our self-respect, our love of our homes and our families. The family dynamic immediately changed; people's purpose was harder for them to see. Government homes came along, then fuel subsidies and so on. It isn't the government job to build our homes and put food on the table, that is my responsibility. No matter how much government money is spent, it cannot pay us to be a good Mommy and Daddy.

For change, it has to start within us and in our homes.

I know, we need some funding to survive in Alaska. Food and fuel prices are outrageous in many communities. And I know there are times in people's lives when we need some help. That's what these programs were intended for, but we need accountability. We foolishly spend millions. Grants have been given, but then nothing is put in place and nothing is left to show for the money. In some programs, these grants do not reach the ultimate beneficiaries, our children. For what? No sustainability. Once the grant is gone, the work stops.

Along with helping people should come accountability. People should be required and willing to put in some effort. I always thought if you were receiving some sort of welfare or subsidy you should work for half and the government could match you. I'll tell you what, we would feel a lot better about ourselves and so would our children.

Things will never be the same. We all seem to remember the past through rose-colored glasses. But I believe tough times are coming and we will be forced back to the land, to our homes and back to the table, as a family. It will be survival of the fittest but it will bring us together. This is the missing key ... family. Kids only want to feel like they have a purpose, that somebody loves them and expects them to love back. It's simple. I would give up all government money to have the pride and self-respect back of our communities.

Some days I feel beaten. I, too, ask myself, "Am I making a difference" by helping our children find their voices and empowering them to speak up, to break the silence? It's a slow process and it angers me when I so badly want immediate change.

Today, one of my most frustrating issues we deal with is molesting. Absolutely nothing is being done to protect our children. The predators get a light jail sentence and come right back to the playground. We need stricter laws and to make examples out of these sick people. Children are our most precious resource, so why are we letting these predators prey on our children?

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes one pervert to destroy us. They break our children, who have to fight for life after their innocence is taken forever. Everyone has a story of sexual abuse, suicide or violence. We have an epidemic and not enough of us care. We need to change the social norm; this is absolutely unacceptable.

We need to start standing up against all abusers, even if they are related to us. Most predators are in our homes, not strangers. It's hard in small communities, because we are related, but we should NOT be serving these individuals at a potlach or treating them as respected elders. Every person knows someone who preys on our children, and we turn our heads. Why? Come on people, stand up and fight for our children. They are our future.

I always had a safe home for my children and tried to be a good mom, but it took a rash of six suicides to slap me into reality. Looking at a young boy who had killed himself, getting the phone call of a friend's hanging, hearing children and moms crying. That was enough for me; it was time to change. I was afraid for my children, my grandchildren.

What is our future? I am scared. I have hope, but truthfully, I am scared. The change that has happened in my lifetime is astronomical. It's something I would've never dreamt of 50 years ago. This would have been a mother's nightmare. Molesting, domestic violence, rape, suicide, and most importantly, the deteriorating family.

I am one person in a small village, one voice. I spend some time with the children, helping them to find their own voices, empowering the youth. The bottom line is, it doesn't take much money to make a difference. It takes someone who cares. We all need to do this. When you see something wrong, stand up and say something. Stand up and fight for the right. Don't walk away, fight! Every person does make a difference.

Cynthia Erickson lives in Tanana. She founded the nonprofit youth group "Setsoo Yeh, My Grandma's House" to battle youth suicide and encourage healthy activity.

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.