In last week’s column, I spoke about the death rates in Bush Alaska and specifically in Alaska Native villages. Their death rates for suicide, accidents, and drug or alcohol overdoses top the charts for Alaska. In the lower 48, similar trends are evident on Native American reservations.
I find myself frequently listening with a sympathetic ear to people from the Bush as they attempt to work through these problems and possible solutions. And I once again find myself staring at the big pink elephant in the middle of the room that no one wants to acknowledge.
Among the reasons we see the cycles of suicide, domestic violence and addictions repeated so often is that many in the generation that now expects to be treated as respected Elders have done precious little to earn that respect. Their credibility among their youth comes with such a large dose of skepticism that it is basically non-existent. That’s one heck of a big elephant in the room.
When I first arrived in Barrow in 1972, the majority of Elders had rightfully earned their status. They had lived good, honorable lives and worked to feed their family and community while respecting the laws of their god and nation. Not at all a bad legacy. But there were other Elders who raised their families while drunk and had only recently sobered up, if at all. They did not necessarily deserve much respect even though they obviously still felt it was their due for having reached a certain age alive.
Over the next thirty years, I watched as many couples raised their children in drunken and violent homes. Now these people are older and some have sobered up either because they saw the light or because they contracted some illness that meant they had to choose to either continue using and die or clean up their act and have at least a chance to live into old age. These are the people who are now often found raising their grandchildren because their own children are lost in a miasma of alcohol and drugs. These are the people who wonder why their own children are so mad at them that they frequently have to fear that the anger will turn into physical violence against them.
You simply can’t wake up one day after fifty years of drinking and drug use, of domestic violence and child abuse, and decide to become sober and expect automatic respect be accorded to you based on your ripe old age. Yet this is exactly what happens.
And so children find themselves being raised in a home in which a generation is missing. Their parents are either absent or only occasional visitors to their lives. Their grandparents raise them but the kids feel a disconnect because of the vast age difference and so discipline in the home is sometimes hard to maintain. When the kids get mad because their grandparents won’t let them do what they want, they go stay with their parents. When drinking and violence makes that a hellishly untenable situation, they return to the grandparents. It’s like watching bouncing balls.
And when their drunken parents accost their grandparents with accusations of childhood abuse and neglect, these children learn that they do not need to respect their Elders because their Elders aren’t always deserving of that respect. Even those Elders willing to come clean with their grandchildren about their past often find themselves on the receiving end of cynicism and disdain.
Youth in Alaska Native villages desperately need role models, people who can show them a better way. But just being an Elder does not make it a given that you can be that role model. You can’t live a drunken, violent life and then expect instant respectability when you hit a certain age.
Youth aren’t dumb. They know when someone is trying to pull one over on them. When a panel is formed to address alcohol and drug abuse in the village and half the people on the panel are either adults who are still using or Elders who have only recently become sober, you have a real credibility problem. Which might be why the cycle of substance abuse, violence, despair and suicide have become such a entrenched phenomena in so much of this great state.
One should not cut up credit cards received in the mail until one is sure they are actually unsolicited cards and not their new ATM card. Anyone got a buck to loan me for the next five to seven days?
In Alaska, sandals may be worn until snow is actually sticking to the ground. Until then, it’s considered summer.
I found Mr. T standing in the closet in the entryway staring at the back wall. He wanted to go out and had apparently missed the correct door by a few feet. This would be a lot funnier if it weren’t for the fact that I feel like way too many of my days are spent that way. If I’d just look a little to the right, I’d realize I had the wrong door.
Why do people in Anchorage water their lawns when it’s raining? Do they not get irony at all?
Why is it that the only time someone recognizes me in public as the person from the paper I’m either having a horrendous hair day or I’ve just stuffed a big bite of food into my mouth and am sruggling with my tongue to get the last crumb off my upper lip or I’m wearing my weekend pants and shirt?
Finding old friends is fun. Especially if they haven’t aged any better than you have.
It doesn’t take long for anyone living in Alaska to figure out that you lose friends and relatives here at a much greater rate than in the lower 48. Part of this is attributable to the sometimes dangerous work people engage in. But that alone cannot explain the discrepancy.
For many of us who come here from elsewhere, the obvious difference in the life span of people we know from Iowa or California or New Jersey versus the people in Alaska is just too great to lay at the doorstep of any one profession or lifestyle.
Those of us who spent a lot of time in the more remote regions of the state, regions populated by one of Alaska’s indigenous groups, often find the death rate among friends and acquaintances overwhelming. I had a friend from the North Slope recently tell me she didn’t think her class would have a high school reunion because there were so few of them left. She isn’t fifty years old yet.
I’m almost sixty and I can go back to my high school reunion and find the majority of my class intact. The few that have died have left obvious gaps in the gathering because they are so few and it is viewed as so tragic.
Alaska’s Native people suffer disproportionately from a lot of society’s ills. Their health care lags behind that of every other group in this state. Their rates of addiction, domestic violence and child abuse top every chart measuring those statistics statewide. They are not alone or unique in this. Native Americans in the lower 48 face the same dismal statistics on their reservations. And the death rate of their young people from suicides, accidents or drug and alcohol overdoses seems almost unbelievable.
It’s not as though the people in our villages are not aware of the statistics. I’ve watched them struggle for over thirty years to deal with these problems. I have listened to Elders as they have spoken out in bewilderment at the epidemic that seems to have become endemic in their towns and among their people. They watch the cycle of violence repeat itself again and again through one generation after another and wonder why no one seems to be able to find the right solution to break the pattern.
A lot of thought has gone into creating programs to deal with these problems in a way that allows cultural strengths to help foster good mental and emotional health in young people who have lost their way. I’ve watched these programs come and go. Some were total disasters; money holes that sucked grant funds down at a record pace and spit back nothing more than a good pension for some bureaucrat. Some organizations have created programs that seem to work. Southcentral Foundation has a great program for troubled kids called Pathway. And Barrow is now trying football as a way to keep young people positively engaged with both life and the adults around them.
Sadly, those programs still seem too few to stem the epidemic that has been slowly destroying lives in Alaska’s villages for decades. Once, when a young man I knew died in an accident soon after his high school graduation, I heard people remark that maybe he was better off that way. He’d been a high school athletic star, they said, and that would probably be the high point of his life, so he went out on top. What a frighteningly sad statement to hear spoken aloud.
Until the solution is found, being close to people in the Bush will continue to mean being close with death. It will continue to mean saying goodbye way too many times to people who were your friends and contemporaries. These people should now be enjoying the journey to becoming Elders in their communities. Instead, they will spend these years only as memories for those of us left behind. They’ll never have their chance to be first in line at potlucks and to be served delicacies at Nalukataqs.
Whether they died of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, alcohol or drug addiction, accidents or suicide, too many of my friends in the Bush died long before their time should have been up. I hope we find the right solution for those who remain so that funerals become the exception and not the rule as the main place to see old friends gathered in the Bush.
William was a 54 year old Inupiat man in the National Guard whose group had been called up. He was in Mississippi preparing for deployment to the Middle-east. He was killed in a motor vehicle accident before he left the country.
How desparate are we that we are sending 54 year olds to war?
Wilson, a blue headed conure, has come to live with me as a foster bird. He joins Baby and Kenya in the downstairs foster home/lounge/TV room. I was never sure what to do with that room when I moved into this house and now the foster birds have defined it for me. It’s their room. Wilson is still not sure about the whole arrangement. He was found in a tree in Anchorage and captured after heroic efforts and bitten fingers on the part of the rescuers. No one ever even called animal control looking for him. How does that happen? How do you have a beautiful pet bird like Wilson who escapes and you don’t make any effort to find him? What is wrong with people?
I got up the morning after our latest earthquake to find that the shaking had caused Mr. T’s butt and legs to fall off his pillow bed. But being the champion that he is, it did not cause him to either wake up or try to use up any energy getting his whole body back on the bed. I found him sound asleep, butt and legs on the floor, front paws somewhat clinging to the top of the pillow to keep the rest of his body in place. It certainly didn’t look very comfortable. Yet considering that the quake happened around 5 AM and I got up at 8 AM, he’d managed to maintain that position for three hours without a problem. He’s just an amazing critter.
My dog continues to go through Aunt Judy withdrawal. He comes out of my bedroom looking as dazed as ever but now it is dazed with a purpose. Where, he wondes, is the lady who made such a fuss over him and gave him treats all the time. And why, he wonders, was he left with the old bitch who insists he take his medicine and go to the vet. He wants the fun lady back.
I awoke a night ago to my bed shaking and my house rattling. I knew it was an earthquake because that sort of thing stopped happening in my bed for any other reason about twenty years ago.
My sister asked about shopping for Alaskan antiques. I asked her what she thought all those things under blue tarps on people’s front lawns were? We SAVE our antiques, sure that there is a future in which we will need a twenty year old carburator from a car that is no longer made.
My sister travels at about 948 mph. And that’s while she’s on vacation. I travel at about 4 mph on a good day. That we are able to travel together at all is a tribute to the strong bond we have.
She came back to Alaska again this year for some more exploration of the state bringing her friend Janet, which has helped in two ways. One, I had someone to pass the baton to when I collapsed from exhaustion trying to keep up with her and two, Janet is a shopper like Judy and they both did their best to make up for any oil tax revenue short falls we may experience this year.
Living here in Alaska for over thirty years has made me somewhat blasť about the beauty that surrounds me daily. Even living in Anchorage, as close to Alaska as you can get without really being there, you are surrounded by mountains and moose, bears and woods, salmon and eagles. After a while, you think of this as your birthright. Then people come to visit and suddenly you see the state anew and are once again amazed at your luck in living here.
This year we discovered the Alaska Marine Highway System. We drove to Valdez and took the ferry from there to Cordova and then back to Whittier. What a great way to travel. And what great people run that system. The only thing that spoiled the experience was a two-hour wait in Valdez during which time no one thought it would be polite to make any announcement about the delay. We just sat there in our cars waiting to board the ferry while a surprise Coast Guard drill was occurring.
I know, if it was a surprise, how could they announce it. Well, apparently the staff had been notified the day before about the “surprise”. It was rainy and miserable and people in the waiting cars were very unhappy. But, this being the era of Homeland Security and shoeless searches at airports, no one was inclined to say anything for fear they’d be hustled away as a terrorist.
The wait was made somewhat more pleasant by the fact that we were slowly and happily digesting the best salmon we’d had yet in Alaska from the Alaska Halibut House in Valdez.
In Cordova we stayed at the converted cannery now called the Orca Adventure Lodge. It was one of those out of body Alaskan experiences. We had no phones in our rooms and no cell phone service for those with cell phones but had fast speed Internet access in the lobby.
By the time we left Cordova, my company was almost blasť about eagle sightings. We’d driven to the original bride to nowhere and seen a glacier up close. We saw bear scat and had the Alaskan shopping experience of a store that was an espresso stand/liquor store/grocery store that also seemed to have some connection to a nearby generic Asian restaurant.
Following the long drive to Valdez with a drive to Homer was not exactly my idea of heaven but my sister fell in love with Homer years ago and a trip to Alaska for her is not the same without at least one night at Land’s End. The view is nice but what really gets her juices going is the spa there. What a hidden gem. It provides one of the best massages in the best ambience to be found anywhere this side of heaven. And it’s all offered at a reasonable price.
The massage was so good we almost didn’t mind the constant rain on our trip to Seldovia. I think it was there that both Judy and Janet realized just how isolated Alaskan communities are. I believe my sister’s comment was, “What if you just want to run to a CVS for some makeup?” I tried to explain to her that we live in such remote locations exactly because we don’t want to be able to do that. She didn’t understand.
And so I sit here today taking a much needed break from the running while Judy and Janet spend their last dollars on things Alaskan to bring back East. A large amount of smoked salmon will go with them to satisfy the craving of a young cousin who got hooked on the stuff while visiting here a few years ago. After they leave, I’ll go back to my daily routine, hardly noticing the beauty around me until my next visitors cause me to again view my state with new and appreciative eyes. And they’ll go back to America with a new appreciation for how many latte stands you can cram into a very limited state highway system.