Spiritual Listening: Alaska Natives Tackle Youth Suicide with Lessons from the Land

Published in Indian Country Today in 2013. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Some years ago, Yup’ik mentor Keggulluk was setting up a camp in northern Alaska with the help of an at-risk teen he’d taken under his wing. The youngster had been abusing alcohol and gas huffing—inhaling gasoline fumes, which induces hallucinations and causes brain damage and even death. The teen was on track to become one of the many Alaska Natives who kill themselves each year, at a rate at least three times the national average—in some areas, far higher than that.

“The problem has exploded so recently and appears to be still growing, with no end in sight,” said Keggulluk, who is also known as Earl Polk. “It’s a grueling, non-stop battle to save our youth.”

As a result of all the suicide-risk factors bearing down on their children, area tribes had put together a suicide-prevention camp. For several days, the kids would live in the wilderness and benefit from its lessons.

It was a cool, clear September morning when the teen and Keggulluk (pronounced kuth-look) began to put up tents and haul wood and water to prepare for the arrival of the 15 other campers. Suddenly, an enraged bull moose appeared and charged Keggulluk. The youngster took aim with a hunting rifle. “Don’t miss!” Keggulluk exhorted.

The teen fired and brought down the moose. Not only did he rescue Keggulluk, but the shock of simultaneously killing his first moose, provisioning his community in the manner of his ancestors and saving a man’s life put the young man on the road to recovery from his addictions. “It was a spiritual moment, an honorable moment,” explains Keggulluk. “As the young man took care of the dying animal in our way, pouring water from his own mouth into the moose’s, the animal breathed his last breath, and the young man felt it go through him. It was a blessing.”

Later, the youngster challenged Keggullukk: “I thought you were going to lecture me on gas huffing.”
“I will,” Keggulluk recalled telling the teen, “but first we had to take care of some other things.”
That young man was lucky. Others aren’t. For Alaska Native males aged 15 to 24, the suicide rate is 12 times that for other Americans, making it the highest of any population group in the nation, according to the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics.

In recent years, Keggulluk and Maniilaq Association wellness coordinator Evon Peter, Gwich’in, have offered suicide-prevention camps through Maniilaq, which represents tribes north of the Bering Strait, and Kawerak Association, with represents tribes grouped around the Strait. The events offer four to five days of songs, dances, traditional games and storytelling, outdoor activities like hunting and fishing, and lots of laughter. “These interactions are about being ourselves in unguarded moments, not as we’ve been told to be by outsiders,” said Peter.

Often, what’s taught isn’t obvious. “The real lesson is often not what we adults say, but rather how we are—how we interact, solve problems, and so on,” said Peter.

In addition to running the camps, which are supported by the Indian Health Service’s Methamphetamine and Suicide Prevention Initiative, Peter and Keggulluk collaborate on school programs for the early grades through high school. Both also work for indigenous-culture consulting group Gwanzhii, where Peter is chief executive.

The youngsters referred to the Maniilaq and Kawerak camps may have abused alcohol or drugs, experienced domestic violence or neglect, been a bullying perpetrator or victim, or suffer from fetal alcohol effects, according to Peter. “We aren’t told why a youth is referred to us, though it often comes out in the safe space the camp affords. The children feel honored and protected, they build peer networks, and they come to see the adults as mentors.” After three or four days, he said, even the tough ones open up.

The camps can do only so much to abate the high Alaska Native suicide rate, though, Peter cautioned. A youngster may return to a difficult home situation, and the risk rises again.

Understanding suicide

Suicide is what scholar Lisa Wexler called “an unruly phenomenon.” An individual decision impacted by many factors, it’s more difficult to predict and prevent than other public-health issues, said Wexler. A professor at the University of Massachusetts Center for Research on Families, she has worked with communities in Alaska since 2000, focusing on suicide and suicide prevention.

“My research is not about, but with, the people. It’s intended to start a conversation and bring awareness,” said Wexler. For the last three years, she and Peter have worked together to offer communities suicide-awareness training tailored to their needs.

One obstacle to understanding Native suicide in Alaska is the large variation among communities, said Peter. “Although Alaska Native people have high suicide rates overall, several large tribal groups in the state have rates lower than the U.S. average. We also have villages with very high numbers—an annual average of 12 individuals out of a few hundred taking their own lives, for example—next to villages with one suicide in decades.” That means there are no cookie-cutter solutions, he said. “When we go to a village, we ask how we can help.”

More research will help explain the differences among villages, Peter said. Recent studies in the United States and Canada show that indigenous communities with strong traditions and active involvement in sovereignty issues experience less suicide. Wexler is also looking into historical events that may lie behind Alaska’s suicide clusters. “An epidemic may have wiped out one village’s elders at some point,” she postulated. “In another village, an abusive priest may have devastated many children.”

Some things are known, thanks to Maniilaq’s many years of suicide data and Wexler’s existing studies. In an analysis of hospital visits, she found that 40 percent of males who killed themselves had been treated for an alcohol-related injury in the year prior to the suicide. “Forty percent is statistically very significant,” said Wexler. “So, we were able to share with the communities that if anyone shows up for such treatment, health-care workers can talk to them about suicide.”

The data also shows that Alaska Native suicide occurs primarily among 15-24–year-olds. It’s also a recent phenomenon—unknown until the 1960s, said Wexler. By that time, mandatory-schooling regulations had forced the region’s traditionally nomadic people into sedentary villages.

That altered lifeways and social structure, Wexler said. “For the first time, a sizeable number of young people were living together and were no longer an integral part of their family’s survival. Simultaneously, media and external influences grew.” Unemployment and lots of empty time for many people exacerbated the difficulties of adjusting to the new life.

Men and boys

Boys and young men have typically had a harder time coping with the modern Arctic than girls and young women, Wexler said. “Girls and women have generally been able to integrate traditional and contemporary roles. They know they’re valued for caring for siblings and elders and for having children of their own, as well as for doing well in school.” Boys, on the other hand, often can’t afford to hunt, the activity that still defines manhood in the region. “It takes cash to hunt, for the snowmobile or boat, and for the gasoline to run them,” said Wexler.

For many men, their activities as providers have shifted dramatically, confirmed Keggulluk, a virtuosic hunter in the traditional manner. They have to hold down jobs, rather than hunt caribou, moose and seals. “This is not about to come back.”

That, in turn, means one of the critical lessons of the Arctic is hard to come by. Keggulluk recalled that his grandfather once told him, “Those who don’t listen die young.” In the unforgiving North of old, a hunter stayed alive from moment to moment by listening to elders, fellow hunters, the natural world and his own instincts. He was exquisitely sensitive to subtle clues that made the difference between a successful hunt and losing his life under the ice or in an avalanche, between sustenance and death.

“In addition to the practical component, there’s a metaphysical one—spiritual listening,” Keggulluk said. “This is a huge part of what’s missing today for our young people.”

Today’s world distracts youngsters from the land’s messages and from who they are, he explained. “The onslaught of outside information fights with what’s running in their veins. The contrast between life on the tundra and elsewhere is staggering. When our young people go away to school, they find new models for success and learn things that are not relevant at home. This can cause raging conflict.”

That, according to Keggulluk, is where the suicide-prevention camps and their deep listening come in. It may be the first time in some participants’ lives that they can talk to an adult who listens compassionately and nonjudgmentally, Peter said. “We teachers can find ourselves sitting on the beach for hours, listening to a kid talk about intense things. Then the healing can begin.”

Breathing Lessons

In We Breathe Again, a movie in production about Alaska Native suicide-prevention work, a man talks about his suicide attempt. “I wanted to hunt. I wanted to put food aside, but I couldn’t do it without a vehicle and gas money.” He began drinking and finally turned a gun on himself. The last thing he remembers saying to his family before the gun went off was, “By god, I love you all.”

The people in the film were courageous, willing to talk about moments of anguish as well as triumph, so that others can learn from their experiences, said director and cinematographer Marsh Chamberlain, shown here with executive producer Evon Peter and featured interviewee Keggulluk. “Listening to them has been such a privilege. We Breathe Again is about serious issues, but it’s also uplifting—a healing journey. Whatever our characters have been through, they’re all living healthy lives now, so that hasn’t been hard to do.”
Native American Public Television is funding the movie, now in the editing phase. A trailer can be seen on Vimeo (vimeo.com/46032413). According to Evon Peter, who is Gwich’in, the film shows both what drives a person to suicide and the healing work Alaska Native people are doing.

New Hampshire-raised Chamberlain first got to know the Arctic in 2006, after an aunt married into the Inupiat tribe. “Conversations with an Inupiat cousin changed my life,” Chamberlain recalled. “Nathan Nagaruk shared his joys and despairs. As we dug deeper, he told me of friends lost to suicide and the effect on individuals and communities. I had no idea this was such an issue for Native people.”

The two young men decided to make a difference and began creating a movie in 2007, with Nagaruk a producer. In 2010, Peter came on board to consult and offer links to more communities.

Alaska’s glorious terrain, with its wintery mountains and glaciers and vast grassy plains in summer, surrounds the five primary interviewees as they affirm the vital connections to land, culture and community that mean surviving—and thriving—in the new Arctic. They hunt, they pick berries, they sing and share and laugh.

Final versions will include a 1½-hour theatrical release, to be screened in January 2014, a 56-minute public-television version ready for broadcast in May 2014 and an even shorter version for school showings. “We’ll submit We Breathe Again to Sundance, Tribeca and other major film festivals,” said Peter. “And we’re looking for a grant to make DVDs, so we can distribute them to schools and communities.”

Said Keggulluk, who is Yup’ik: “I told Marsh he had to document our austere way of life, and to do so in real time. I get calls all the time. A week ago, there was yet another suicide, and yesterday I lost a nephew. It’s so hard, so intense, like a powerful undercurrent that can draw a person under at any moment.”

Keggulluk compared the ongoing transformations—real and filmic—to ever-changing Arctic snowdrifts: “As lives shift, the movie shifts.”

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs c. Marsh Chamberlain, used with permission.

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