HOOPER BAY — The kids poured into the small white city building in the center of Hooper Bay: middle-schoolers, high-schoolers and fifth-year seniors still working toward graduation.
They came to the youth and elders building one cold February night to dance, sing and drum, to be with one another, to save one another.
They call themselves the Native Survivors.
They are a youth group reviving old traditions and skills, a group born out of a desire to stop teens and young adults from killing themselves, to find peace through sewing and friends through dance. They are organized through AmeriCorps under the Rural Alaska Community Action Program.
The nucleus in Hooper Bay is the village's Wilma Bell-Joe, 35. In this chapter of the nation's 21-year-old AmeriCorps service program, the activists arise from the communities themselves.
Bell-Joe stepped up to launch the group after an unusually bad year for suicide in this Bering Sea village, a stretch of despair in a state where the rate of suicide tops or nearly tops the nation year after year. Among Alaska Native teenage boys and young men, the problem is far more severe, with a rate of suicide more than seven times greater than in the state as a whole.
In 2010, Bell-Joe said, at least eight people committed suicide in Hooper Bay, a community of about 1,100 at the time. (The population since has grown slightly to about 1,200.) One was the 15-year-old daughter of her now-husband. Even more attempted it.
Since the formation of Native Survivors in 2013, something remarkable has happened: No one has committed suicide in Hooper Bay.
"Because of us," Bell-Joe said quietly in a room ringing with the sounds of song, the beat of drums, the voices of young men. There were some suicide attempts but none were completed. "These kids are inspired and encouraged and even if they make a mistake, they are not discouraged."
That rough year drew in Bell-Joe, said Charlie Ess, one of Rural CAP's AmeriCorps program coordinators.
"She said, 'Enough.' And Wilma became a lion," Ess said.
Hooper Bay is a dry village but for some, alcohol (home-brewed and bootlegged) feeds emotional crises. Bell-Joe herself struggled with alcohol in the past but has been sober going on five years, and uses her experience along with that of other volunteers to show the teens the trouble it brings.
"You are slowly killing yourself," she tells them.
Around Alaska, there are 35 AmeriCorps members working through Rural CAP, mainly in villages.
Some focus on the environment through Rural Alaska Village Environmental Network, or RAVEN, in areas including recycling, energy efficiency and gardening, and others including Bell-Joe turn to health, wellness and prevention through Building Initiatives in Rural Community Health, or BIRCH. In Huslia, young people learned to race and care for dogs through a project run by Kathy Turco, the partner of the late "Huslia Hustler" George Attla. In Haines, the AmeriCorps leader connected with kids at the Chilkoot Indian Association's seal-hunting culture camp.
For kids and leaders alike, the benefits go beyond specific projects to the development of broad skills and gains in confidence as organizers look for ways to make a lasting difference.
"The program is her conduit to work miracles with them," Ess said of Bell-Joe.
Slipping into school
Bell-Joe grew up in Hooper Bay, the middle child of 13 children. When she was small, her family lived in a two-bedroom home, with her parents sleeping in one room and the children in the other. She was a teen mother who dropped out of school more than once. Ultimately, she graduated with a regular diploma after a sister convinced her that would provide more opportunities. Her oldest child, then 2 1/2, watched her graduate. She used her diploma to get jobs as an aide in community and behavioral health.
She's found her best fit in the youth group. Rural CAP leaders said she was offered a more lucrative job but she wanted to stick with the kids. AmeriCorps pays a stipend of $600 every two weeks but she's also earned an educational award topping $11,000. She might eventually go to college to study child psychology.
The Hooper Bay group started with just two kids and is now at 53 and growing, Bell-Joe said. Even on a night when high school basketball practice competed for teens' attention, dozens showed up for dance practice and basketball players stopped by later.
Bell-Joe, who has had six children, including two adopted by her brother, blends in with the kids. She is just 4 feet, 9 inches tall. When she hears of issues with a teacher or an aide at Hooper Bay School, she slips inside to observe, a watchdog in disguise.
"I literally dress up as a teenager and go into the classroom," Bell-Joe said. "Sometimes we have problems with teachers at the school, with attitudes and favoritism."
She stays quiet until a kid notices her. "Wilma's here," a student eventually says. She said she talks to the teacher and school board about what she sees.
"I remind those teachers they are here to teach and encourage our children, not discriminate ... They are not there to talk down on the kids," Bell-Joe said.
Her presence sends a message to the kids too.
"That's my way of letting the kids know I am there for them," Bell-Joe said.
The modern world can be so removed from village life, she said: "I just learned about Amazon last month. I just learned about Facebook last year."
Traditional ways help anchor the kids, she said. Her parents, Margie and Joseph Bell, are among the elders who come to the little building to teach. Joseph Bell is also the mayor of Hooper Bay and Margie teaches Yup'ik to children at the Head Start preschool. Elders have led workshops in making harpoons and beading, in making dance fans and sewing qasperet, the Yup'ik term for the cloth pullovers that non-Natives usually call kuspuks.
Pressing the restart button
For each qaspeq, Margie Bell cut the cloth and boys and girls sewed it by hand.
"Just using needle, thread and thimble. No sewing machine," Margie Bell said. Young people don't need anything more, she said. "Only elder or older person, when they are in a hurry, they will cheat in sewing."
All the projects are done with hand tools, Bell-Joe said. Next, they plan to make a pair of boots, or piluguuk, out of unsold sweaters and jeans donated by the Alaska Commercial Co. — the AC store — instead of the traditional materials of sealskin and fur. They don't want to waste good material.
Sewing, hunting and other traditional skills, Bell-Joe said, teach patience and help kids work through frustrations rather than blow up in anger.
One of her sons, Raymond, 17, wears a big heart stud earring in one ear. He said that when relationships go bad, that can mess with the mind and maybe even bring thoughts of suicide. Friends learn how to help each other through those sad times, he said.
"Friends would always come to me and tell me their problems. I just press the restart button on them and they become happy again," Raymond said.
His father wasn't around when he was growing up. Bell-Joe said he was in and out of jail. So Raymond turned to grandparents and uncles to teach him to hunt and fish. He's gone seal hunting but needs to buy a rifle for walrus hunting.
In the spring, the youth group will walk the tundra with elders to collect greens. They'll likely go on instructor-led hunts too.
At the dance practice, Joseph Bell and one of the young men led the drumming. Margie Bell led the dancers. On a cold night on which most of the teens walked or rode to practice by four-wheeler, some practiced in winter boots and insulated pants.
Larry Bunyan, 19, danced in the front row, his movements sharp, repeating a dance until he got it right.
Most boys would rather drum, he said. About a month ago he noticed a lack of boys in the dance line.
"So I put my drum down and became a dancer," said Bunyan.
Valentina Tomaganuk, 18 and a high school junior, said she's been coming to the youth group since it began. She loves to dance. She got involved through her grandfather. "My ap'a," she said.
Bell-Joe gave the kids an assignment: Ask their parents who first taught them about respect. She wanted to get families talking.
The Native Survivors kept at it into the night. They danced the story of a big family celebration, a loud, happy time that drowned out the cries of a baby. Then each dancer reached out. Arms moved in unison. Each found their way to a tiny imaginary baby. They gave comfort in dance.