• Forecast
  • News Tip
  • Categories
Temperature Precipitation
Estimated read time
6m 11s

Cultural healing and resiliency current treatment for overcoming the fallout of colonization

By Anna Rose MacArthur/KYUK 7:07 PM January 3, 2017
BETHEL –

The rate of death by suicide and homicide in the Kusilvak Census Area, located along the lower Yukon River, more than doubled since 1980, a rate increase higher than anywhere else in the nation, KYUK Public Media reports. That’s according to a study from the University of Washington that mapped how people in the U.S. died during those years.

Their finding for the area is disturbing. To better understand it, KYUK talked with one of the study’s designers and with people in the region who are working to reverse this life-ending trend.

It’s a sobering increase from 51 deaths per 100,000 people in 1980 to 181 per 100,000 by 2014. The area’s small population numbers were adjusted to be able to compare rates with larger population areas.

While the finding from the University of Washington does come with some caveats, Dr. Abraham Flaxman, an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Global Health Department, said it raises a red flag.

“Let me start by saying that 130 percent increase is huge,” he said. “And anytime we see an increase like that, and it’s an increase in something bad, we want to know about that.”

A graph showing the age standardized mortality rate from self-harm and interpersonal violence for both sexes in 2014 from a University of Washington study. Credit Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington

A graph showing the age standardized mortality rate from self-harm and interpersonal violence for both sexes in 2014 from a University of Washington study. Credit Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington

The data came from death certificates from across the nation, and using this source brings a potential defect to the study. Flaxman said that even though death certification has been improving since the 1980s, quality varies and coroners in many areas would often list an alternate cause of death to avoid the stigma of suicide.

Another limitation of the study is that it doesn’t show how much of that 130 percent increase is from suicide and how much is from homicide.

But according to the state of Alaska’s death statistics, since 1999 — which is about halfway through the study’s timeframe — suicides in the Kusilvak area have far exceeded homicides. For example, there were 13 suicides and 4 homicides between 1999 and 2001. Between 2011 and 2013, there were 24 suicides and 6 homicides.

Presumably suicides account for most of the 130 percent increase, and Flaxman hopes that the numbers help local officials take action.

“So now it is out there, and what happens from there, I really hope this is something people find helpful and can use to improve population health,” Flaxman said.

Suicides among Alaska Natives are no secret. In this same census area in 2015, four people killed themselves in Hooper Bay in a period of weeks. And while the continued high rate of suicides in Natives communities took center stage at the Alaska Federation of Natives meeting that year, one Native man underscored the issue by flinging himself off the balcony and dying in front of the delegates.

One of the people trying to plug the flow of Alaska Native despair is Ray Daw, head of behavioral health at the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation.

“Our prevention department, which is about four years old, has done a lot of work at understanding the impact of boarding schools, the impact of the epidemics that occurred two generations ago upon families in the region,” Daw said.

Colonization disrupted the local culture by killing whole families and communities with epidemics and then taking children away from the survivors to educate them in white-run schools. This led to family dysfunction and substance abuse, conditions ripe for suicide because youth lose the capacity to see a viable future.

The YKHC suicide prevention department works to reverse these forces by strengthening the Yup’ik culture. It bases its treatment on ways Yup’ik people lived healthy lives less than a century ago, before there were such high suicide rates. Daw said the department is fully staffed by local Alaska Natives who all speak Yup’ik.

“Research says that if you’re going to have effective work in behavioral health, you have to have people who are closer to the culture in terms of how they think, feel and behave, and understand the dynamics of problems and solutions a lot more effectively than someone who isn’t,” Daw said.

To get more Alaska Natives providing behavioral health care to Alaska Natives, the department partners with Dr. Diane McEachern at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Kuskokwim campus. McEachern teaches the Rural Human Services certificate program and the Human Services Associate Degree program. Both are paths to a degree in social work.

Two Yup’ik elders are always in the classroom with McEachern. The classes work on how to counsel people and how to heal communities. McEachern is convinced that these classes can make a real difference.

“So we’re looking at what does it mean for a whole community to experience more health and well-being?” McEachern said. “And if that happens, what are all the ways to help that happen? And then, what outcomes can we imagine from that in terms of the rates of all these issues? Well, they would plummet.”

Professionals are putting their hope in historical healing and resiliency, strengths the elders in the classroom embody; strengths that the students work to build in their communities; and strengths that, when they were present, the young did not take their own lives, but instead grew up and became elders and leaders in their own right.

The classes are rooted in the understanding that the rates of suicide, domestic violence and substance abuse are ways that the fallout from colonization manifests when one culture violates another. From there, the students can move beyond the past to create a viable future.

“It’s is a social condition that happened to the Yup’ik people,” McEachern said. “And that’s a powerful insight for people to have, because now they can sit back and go, ‘Oh, it really wasn’t us. So what is it that kept us safe before? And let’s embrace that.’”

But will that be enough to curb a trend that has built and increased over more than 30 years? No one knows the answer to that question.

There have been efforts to bring highly visible discussion of the issue, like the Pulitzer Prize-winning series “A People in Peril: A Generation of Despair,” published in 1988 by the Anchorage Daily News. There has also been controversy and discussion, both public and private, along with community and private healing sessions. But despite all of this, there is still no sign of a reversal in the trend of increasing suicides in Alaska Native youth.

Johanna Eurich and Steve Heimel contributed reporting to this story.

Latest Stories

  • Bloomberg to world leaders: Ignore Trump on climate

    by Associated Press on Apr 23, 17:36

    NEW YORK (AP) – New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg says he wants to help save an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions. The former New York City mayor addressed his intensifying focus on climate change an interview with The Associated Press. Last week, he released a new book, “Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and […]

  • Sports

    BLM seeks public input on proposed Red Devil Mine cleanup

    by KTVA Web Staff on Apr 23, 17:17

    The Red Devil Mine is located on the Kuskokwim near the Red Devil Creek between Crooked Creek and Sleetmute. It started mining in the ’30s, picked up steam in the ’50s and ’60s but has not operated since the 1970s. The problem is that there’s mercury, arsenic and antimony in the soils left behind by […]

  • Students sue Trump administration over climate change

    by CBS News on Apr 23, 17:07

    EUGENE, Ore. — Avery McRae has been passionate about the environment for half a lifetime, and she’s been worried about climate change since kindergarten. Now, at 11, she is really getting serious. She recently signed on to sue President Trump and the U.S. government. “Trump is not doing anything to help stop climate change,” she […]

  • News

    Water streaming across Antarctica surprises, worries scientists

    by CBS News on Apr 23, 16:45

    In a unique study spanning the entire continent, scientists have found that water is gushing across Antarctica — more than they ever realized. The researchers from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have found significant drainage of meltwater flowing across the continent’s ice sheets during summer in Antarctica. Until now, these streams of water were mainly […]

  • APD makes 1 arrest in Carrs-Safeway shooting

    by KTVA Web Staff on Apr 23, 15:46

    Anchorage Police say they have at least one of the persons responsible for a shooting inside a grocery store over the weekend in custody. Anchorage Police Lieutenant John McKinnon says 18-year-old Devon Maurice Brown has been arrested in connection to the trashing of the Carrs-Safeway on Northern Lights Boulevard, as well as the shooting of one […]

  • News

    Fire damages Sand Lake duplex

    by KTVA Web Staff on Apr 23, 14:55

    Crews were dispatched to a house fire early Sunday afternoon in Sand Lake. Just after noon, 13 Anchorage Fire units were called to a duplex in the 7800 block of Fenn Street. Homeowner told me everyone got out of the building OK. She does not know what caused the fire. @ktva pic.twitter.com/9SfbGD1aCA — Eric Ruble […]

  • Girl, 4, missing from Palmer area for a month

    by KTVA Web Staff on Apr 23, 14:45

    Alaska State Troopers are asking for the public’s help in locating a 4-year-old girl who’s believed to have been taken by her father. Troopers in Palmer says 4-year-old Charlie hasn’t been seen since March 21, and the girl was with her father, 57-year-old Raymond Martin, of Wasilla. Authorities say Martin failed to relinquish custody of […]

  • News

    North Korea detains third U.S. citizen

    by CBS News/Associated Press on Apr 23, 12:55

    PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea has detained a U.S. citizen, officials said Sunday, bringing the number of Americans being held there to three. Tony Kim, who also goes by his Korean name Kim Sang-duk, was detained on Saturday, according to Park Chan-mo, the chancellor of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. Park said […]