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Rural Alaska

Kids take to streets in stand against bootleggers and drugs in Alaska village

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published February 28, 2016

Dozens of kids marched the icy roads of the Western Alaska village of Kwethluk last week, shaming people much older than they were with handmade signs and chants of, "No more alcohol! No more drugs!"

Around the homes where kids knew there was a problem, "we said it even louder," said Jenessy Sallaffie, a senior at the village school who, along with fellow student Nelson Nicori, organized the march.

The demonstration drew many Kwethluk schoolchildren, along with adults from the village and beyond. It was part of a broader effort by the teen leaders to help Kwethluk be "an active village," in a good way. They are taking on alcohol and bootlegging and are trying to create healthy activities such as open gym nights to give kids options.

Sallaffie, Nicori and a third student, John Noes, who since has left the village for a boarding school in Galena, began their work in the fall when they went to the statewide "Lead On!" teen conference in Anchorage, organized through the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

At the conference, young people are taught skills to help build up their communities and schools, then come up with their own projects, said Claudia Plesa, the network's "empowerment evaluator."

"They sometimes bring things to the surface that even us adults are afraid to talk about," Plesa said.

In Sitka in Southeast Alaska, a teen committee created an "I am" campaign that features girls talking about what makes them strong. In Ruby in the Interior, young people are forming a traditional dance group. In villages near Bethel, teens have hosted elder nights and community nights with speakers.

When young people talk about problems they care about, and how to address them, that builds strength, skills and connections to deal with issues like teen violence that go beyond their immediate focus, Plesa said.

The Kwethluk kids took what they learned at the November conference and ran with it, say the adults involved. They've been approved for a $2,000 state grant to address alcohol and drug abuse, as well as bullying, money they can use for open gym, a game night, an elder's week, an assembly and other activities. But they didn't wait for the money.

Their handmade signs for Wednesday's march were blunt: "Drunks Are Stupid!" "Sober Parents Have Happy Kids." "Stay Sober Be Happy." "Drunks scare me!" The last one including a drawing of an R&R whisky bottle in a circle with a line through it. Almost all the bootleg alcohol in the region is Rich & Rare, a Canadian whisky that ships in plastic bottles.

Village law enforcement participated in the walk, as well as state troopers from Bethel, an assistant district attorney and tribal police from nearby Akiachak, just upriver. Orthodox church priests and a Moravian pastor, teachers and tribal council members, a social worker and the tribal child welfare worker all took part.

At least 75 to 100 kids were there, too, a remarkable number for a school of about 250.

"Almost all the student body," said Sallaffie, 18. She had been living in Anchorage but moved to Kwethluk for her senior year. She said she likes the village Ket'acik & Aapalluk Memorial School in part because of the small classes.

"I hope you know we are doing this for a reason. Not just for attention," Sallaffie told the crowd as she figured out who should lead the procession with a big "Enough is Enough" banner. "We are finally going to take our stand."

Head uptown, she directed, and don't block the banner.

Kwethluk, with more than 700 residents, is a dry village but like many has trouble with bootleggers and people bringing in their own alcohol, said tribal police chief Pete Suskuk. The community, on Kuskokuak Slough, is about 20 miles up the winding Kuskokwim River from Bethel, which has its own problems with booze at a time it's preparing for legal sales.

Almost every police call in Kwethluk involves drugs or alcohol, and it's usually alcohol, he said. Most of the people are good at heart but do bad things when drunk, he said. In December 2014, three people died just outside of Kwethluk when their four-wheeler went through thin ice near an open hole in Kuskokuak Slough, not far from Bethel. They had stopped to drink at a home just outside the village on the way from Bethel to Akiak, troopers said at the time.

The student leaders invited members of the community's multidisciplinary team of health, social work and law enforcement professionals to talk to students in grades five and up about what kind of village they wanted. The team made the rounds at classrooms in December.

Sallaffie and the other leaders then asked fellow students to write letters to the tribal council on what should be done about bootlegging. More than 100 students responded, said Katie Frutiger, a school social worker who was a volunteer chaperone for the fall Lead On conference. Children wrote about their own broken families, about parents in jail because of alcohol. Some letters went on for pages.

Members of the multidisciplinary team took the letters to the tribal council "and read every single one," Frutiger said. "All of them were talking about how they wanted harsher consequences for bootlegging. They felt like people were getting away with it."

The student leaders didn't let it rest. They held an assembly for older students and asked police to talk about alcohol. Tribal police chief Suskuk said he wanted to involve the kids, not talk at them. He asked one to clap, then another, then more until the whole gym was thundering.

That was how much impact their letters had, he told them. If they worked together, they could do things.

Sallaffie and Nicori decided to hold the march.

"We wanted drug users and alcoholics to know there is something being done about their bad habits and their abuse," she said in an interview. "We're tired. We're tired of what we hear and see happening in the village."

Alexander Nicori, the tribal administrator, applauded their work. "They really are getting fed up with everything they are exposed to," he said.

After the march, Sallaffie stood before the kids and the adults, the police and the priests and the teachers. She thanked them for showing up, for walking from one end of the village to the other until their legs grew tired, for showing the strength of the village.

"Nelson and I are not alone," the teen said, as the moment sank in. "We're finally letting them know they can't get away with their bad habits, smuggling and abuse."

They started chanting again. "No more alcohol! No more drugs!"

The kids' voices, according to Suskuk and other village leaders, are being heard. Residents are posting photos and videos on Facebook. Akiachak and New Stuyahok, his hometown, already are talking about doing something similar.

One march won't stop the drinking or the bootlegging, but it's a step forward for change, Suskuk said.

"It already has begun."

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