Columns 2006

Death in the Alaskan Bush

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.