Presented by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium
That is the simple yet profound message of two Cup’ik friends, both named Cody, whose comedic work showcasing Alaska Native culture have gone viral across the state.
Meet Cody&Cody -- Cody Ferguson, 31, and Cody Pequeno, 29 -- two friends who grew up in the Western Alaska village of Chevak and who now host a wildly popular Facebook page filled with humorous videos, photos and memes about Alaska Native culture and life in rural Alaska.
The men first connected over traditional Alaska Native dance before one of their videos took off, launching them into the spotlight statewide. Since then, they have become suicide awareness advocates, spreading their message of choosing life throughout Alaska.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and nowhere is the message more important than in Alaska. Suicide was the leading cause of death for Alaska youth and young adults ages 15 to 24 in 2018 (the most recent year for which the data is available), said Leah Van Kirk, suicide prevention program coordinator with the State of Alaska.
Rural Alaska suffers disproportionately. Northern and Southwest Alaska are particularly affected by suicide, Van Kirk said. In 2017, Alaska Native people died by suicide at a rate three times higher than the national rate.
“We all go through experiences that make our lives seem dark and gloomy,” Ferguson says in one video advocating suicide prevention. “Those experiences blind us from being able to see the world for what it truly is: A beautiful place where anything is possible.”
‘Our culture is suicide prevention’
Ferguson and Pequeno first bonded over traditional dances.
“As much of a fanatic as I am about comedy, I’m the same, if not more, for Eskimo dancing,” Ferguson said.
At that time, Ferguson was struggling with severe anxiety and depression. “I’m a very proud Native gay male, and I struggled with that a lot growing up,” he said.
Ferguson credits Pequeno and traditional dancing with saving his life.
Traditional dances are passed down through generations of Yup’ik and Cup’ik communities, and there are some -- called Picingsaq in Cup’ik -- aimed at making the audience laugh, Pequeno said.
“You’re dancing with your cousin and you’re trying to get them to make a mistake,” he said, describing the word.
“Our Elders tell us laughing and crying have the same healing abilities,” said Pequeno, who works as the coordinator for Orutsararmiut Native Council’s Qasgiq program in Bethel, engaging the community in healthy cultural activities. Pequeno said that traditional coping -- going into nature and focusing on subsistence and traditional values -- is a powerful tool to help live a healthier life.
“We do believe that our culture is suicide prevention,” Pequeno said. “Our culture helps people thrive and live a healthy lifestyle.”
After bonding over dancing, the Codys quickly became close friends. They went on to form a youth dance group, but it was a social media video that would help them take their mission of healing through culture statewide.
One day in Chevak the Codys had the spark of an idea to make their own rendition of “Roundy’s on the Road,” a famous song and viral video by Native American singers Butch & Tone. But they twisted the lyrics.
“Why don’t you get a job, why don’t you get paid,” the Codys sing. “Hey what do you say, you can be my AlaskaUSA,” they sing later.
Alaskans went wild for the video, and people encouraged them to make more, Pequeno said.
So they kept producing videos, “relatable mainly toward Alaska Natives, for the villages,” Pequeno said. “That’s our everyday lives.”
Their fan base grew, and they now have more than 13,000 followers on Facebook -- thousands more people than the population of Chevak and all the other communities in the Kusilvak Census Area combined. And if the messages and comments they receive are any indication, they’re achieving their objective of healing through comedy.
“People say ‘You guys completely changed my train of thought at the time that I forgot what I was crying about,’” Ferguson said. “If we could get people out of their problems for a minute, we felt like we were helping.”
The spotlight can be hard sometimes for Ferguson, an introvert. Pequeno said he is recognized by his voice, and people sometimes call out “Soup” when they see the Codys, mimicking one of their most popular videos.
But the platform has also changed them for the better, Pequeno said. Since gaining a following, the men have started speaking and volunteering in communities and schools across Alaska, something they had never been involved with before, said Pequeno. Sometimes it’s a suicide prevention chat with a school group via Zoom, and sometimes it’s a larger audience; Ferguson has made audiences laugh with his storytelling at Celebration in Juneau and presented a keynote at the first-ever Alaska Native Collaborative Hub for Research on Resilience statewide gathering.
How to heal: ‘Take this first step’
Like many Alaskans, both Codys have experienced the staggering loss of suicide. Hooper Bay is less than 20 miles away from Chevak, and when four young adults died by suicide there in 2015, the impact blasted through the community, Ferguson said.
“It’s just devastating,” Ferguson said. “We felt like we needed to help.”
In response, Ferguson created a video for anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts. It has been shared 15,000 times on Facebook. One of the pair’s Choose Life videos was later featured at the Alaska Federation of Natives annual conference.
“There are many other ways that you can help yourself feel better,” Pequeno says in one video. “There are lots of ways, and I just hope you find that way, you use it, and if it helps you, you share it with others. Share it because you never know -- what helps you could help another person.”
Ferguson said that understanding your own story is the first step in healing.
“A lot of us go through hardships in life,” Ferguson said. “We’re scared to open up and tell our story. It’s just so important to have courage to be able to take this first step. … The first time that I went to my therapist and she started poking me about opening up about my own story, I was just crying and crying.”
But as the weeks went on, the tears lessened, and he discovered a new sense of clarity.
“I had a clearer image of what exactly I’ve been through, and what I need to heal,” Ferguson said.
Reaching out for help and sharing your struggles can really make a difference, he added:
“Say the words that consist of your own personal heart story.”
Along with the grim statistics about suicide comes a silver lining -- a powerful call to healing through traditional culture and personal storytelling.
“There is hope,” Van Kirk said. “Suicide is preventable.”
Follow the ANTHC Facebook page in the month of September for Suicide Prevention contests, resources and more.
Suicide Prevention Resources
Alaska Careline: A free resource that provides crisis intervention for someone considering suicide or experiencing crisis, isolation, or depression. They provide immediate and confidential help, 24-hours a day/7 days a week. The Careline supports survivors of suicide by providing crisis intervention, education, and referral. Call anytime, toll-free: 1-877-266-4357 (HELP) or text 4help to 839863 3-11 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
The Trevor Lifeline: A national 24-hour confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth. 866-488-7386 Call toll free, 24/7, for support.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: A national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24/7. It also offers information for youth. Call anytime, toll-free: 1-800-273-8255. The network also has a chat option.
This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.
This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.