FAIRBANKS — The children in the 4-H Club in Tanana make this promise: “I pledge to live, honor and protect myself from any harm, to love my life, my family, my friends and my village. Today we stand together to stop suicide in Alaska.”
Their presentation Tuesday at the Elders & Youth Conference packed such a punch that the Alaska Federation of Natives invited the young people to repeat it before the full AFN convention here Friday afternoon.
The Tanana pledge has become an important part of life in the village, recited when the Iron Dog snowmachine race stops in Tanana, at the Choose Respect rallies and other events.
It’s a promising start.
Seven of the 15 or so 4-H club members made the trip from Tanana to Fairbanks this week to put on a talk about suicide and other difficult issues.
They wrote their comments on the back of posters they held on the stage. The front of the posters contained a few words or a phrase about what they intended to say — “My Dad’s Suicide,” “Alcohol & Drugs,” “Family Death.”
One of the children, a 16-year-old girl, mentioned that she has been sexually assaulted many times and it’s “not stranger danger.”
“It makes you lose all the safety that you felt just yesterday,” she said. “I lock my door whenever there’s someone sleeping in our living room.”
The children, ages 10 to 17, held the attention of everyone in the Carlson Center on the second day of the conference. After each child spoke, the audience responded with enthusiastic applause, not because of content, but because of courage.
The children’s presentation led to continuing discussions throughout the day.
Shortly before noon, as a vote took place to select delegates to the statewide Elders & Youth Council, one Interior representative made mention of the 4-H members, clad in kuspuks.
Suicide’s effect on communities
He asked for a moment of silence because a young man in his village took his life Monday night.
As in so much of Alaska, suicide is not a stranger at the door for the children from Tanana.
“My uncle got so addicted that he couldn’t stop drinking,” said Patrick, 15. “My parents and my other relatives tried to help him, but he said he didn’t want it, he said he was OK.”
He said his uncle hid his pain and emotions from others until it was too late for anyone to do anything.
“Now everywhere I go if I’m chilling inside a house by myself, I hear things. I get a feeling that he’s chilling with me too.”
One of the other children, 14-year-old Natawnee, mentioned that she cried herself to sleep every night when her parents drank.
About alcohol, she said, “I hate it in my family, in my village.”
Sometimes she would wake up with the temperature in the house close to zero because no one had cut any firewood.
Even before you have a family, it can be destroyed by alcohol, she said.
“If you’re drinking and doing drugs while you’re pregnant with a baby, you might as well give them a death certificate than a birth certificate, because you’re ruining their future before it even starts. I might sound cruel, but it’s true,” she said.
An 11-year-old girl who lost her father to suicide said the loss made her mad, scared and confused.
“Take care of your family and friends because none of you want to go through what I went through,” said Violet. “And it only made everything harder because at the time many of my family members were abusing drugs and alcohol. And it hurt me more because instead of talking about it, they thought that drugs and alcohol would help. But it doesn’t. If anything, it makes it worse.”
She said she is happy and proud to have taken a pledge to stop suicide.
Christian, 17, said that suicide is cruel and selfish, and that those who lose hope in themselves fail to recognize “how nice things really are.”
When it came her turn to speak, Teionna, 10, said that children need good parents, good food and a safe place to live.
“Listen to your kids,” she said. “A lot of grownups don’t talk to your kids. They become sad and angry. It’s good to have siblings to keep you safe.”
“I promise to have a good family and protect them,” she said.
After the children finished speaking, they gathered at the side of the stage. Some of them were crying as they hugged parents and friends.
Giving youth a voice
Cynthia Erickson, the volunteer 4-H leader, said the seven children are the most inspirational people in her life.
She started the club as a way to help give a voice to young people and because “Three years ago I dealt with one too many suicides.”
She said while people complained at first that public discussion would trigger others to take their own lives, she said that ignoring the problem will only make the situation worse.
Year after year, in conference after conference, the problems of addiction and violence are discussed and studied, she said.
“Then we go home and what happens? Not much in my area,” she said to the several hundred people in the audience. “So I hope today that we can inspire you to find your voice and change your village, that it’s just not another Elders/Youth Conference.”
Land, culture, subsistence and language are all important, but “What good is all that if we don’t have healthy children?” she said.
“Without them, what is life?”
Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @DermotMCole