A Way From Despair

Decoding the past for a brighter future

By Diana Campbell

Web extras:

  Video: Paula Ayunerak teaches the People Awakening Protective Factors in a Yup’ik way.

People Awakening

Hear interviews from the People Awakening project

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About the cover

Fall 2009 Aurora cover
Participants in the Elluam Tungiinun research project watch Adeline Edmund cut up salmon at her fish camp in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The project teaches Alaska Native teens and their families how to protect themselves against suicide and substance abuse using knowledge gleaned from sober and healthy Alaska Natives. Photo courtesy of Gunnar Ebbesson.

The people of Alakanuk knew a spirit of suicide and alcohol and drug abuse walked about
freely, scenting the air with its rancid nature. It had just claimed two more victims; unsatisfied,
it was looking for more. Sheltered inside the small Yukon River community’s tribal hall, elders,
youth and parents huddled together in a circle. Some hunched down, faces void of tears, tense
bodies pressed against unyielding metal chairs. Others let tears quietly slide down their cheeks.
The two recent deaths were the newest heartaches in a long line of many.

The group knew too well the spirit’s easy reach into their community. They’ve carried many
to the cemetery, dug many graves. Some knew intimately how alcohol or drugs seemed to dull
the pain but deceitfully brought more tragedy and sorrow. From time to time, outsiders had come
to the village to help deal with the spirit’s long reign, but nothing they brought seemed to last.
But in spite of disappointments and heartbreak, the people gathered this day because they still
believed things could change. This time the solutions and answers would come from their
community, from themselves.


“We had to do something,” recalled Josephine Edmund, mother of three, who sat in the circle that winter day. “We had to help our children.”

The gathering that day was part of the Center for Alaska Native Health Research’s Elluam Tungiinun program, funded by the National Institutes of Health. This research project is testing to see if the values that Alaska Natives have said helped keep them sober and alive could be taught to Alaska Native young people, their families and their communities.

Alakanuk was one of the first Alaska Native communities to sign up to be in the research program and the only one that agreed to go public about their involvement.

“We had to help our children.”

“Elluam Tungiinun means ‘toward wellness’ in Yup’ik, a name Alakanuk chose for themselves,” said Jim Allen, who is the project co-principal investigator and a UAF psychology professor. “The community insisted the focus be positive and strength-based. They had ownership. They designed the cultural activities. They planned it. They ran it.”

The community Allen describes was not the one Sheila Toomey found in 1987, when as a reporter working for the Anchorage Daily News she went to Alakanuk to write a story about eight suicides that happened in less than a year and a half.

“In a community of 550, eight suicides is the equivalent of more than 3,000 in Anchorage,” Toomey wrote. “In a community of 550, every name on the roll of the dead is someone you know …”

Toomey’s story was part of ADN‘s “People in Peril,” a series about how Western influence devastated Alaska Native culture, leaving its people in the turmoil of alcoholism, brokenness and suicide.