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For some Alaskans, music brings healing

By Kirsten Swann 2:40 PM February 2, 2014

As alcohol and drug abuse run rampant throughout Southcentral, one Alaskan turns to music to mend old wounds.

ANCHORAGE – Samuel Johns stood at the back of the room, gripping a moose-hide drum in one hand and a curved drumstick in the other.

The Tuesday afternoon crowd at Bean’s Cafe was subdued. People sipped old bottles of flat soda and read books or played cards in groups of threes and fours throughout the main hall. A few slept, heads resting in their arms on the long dining room tables. Others sat and watched as Samuel, 28, beat the skin drum and sang the Alaska Native songs he’d learned by heart.

“I’m a little nervous,” he said, shifting his weight on scuffed Jordans in between the music.

But his audience didn’t seem to mind.

“Don’t be nervous!” called a woman standing against the wall.

Samuel started to play again, the sleeves of his black hoodie pushed about around his forearms.

As the beat grew stronger, a man sitting with a group of people at a middle table began to sing. He raised his hands in time with the drum, then got up and moved towards the back of the room where he joined Samuel in front of the colorful, full-size mural decorating the wall.

He said his name was Troy, and he danced alone to the pulse of Samuel’s drum. A dusty beam of sunlight from a side window fell across him like a spotlight, and he raised his voice over the crowded dining hall. At the end of his song, he said it was an Athabascan lyric he learned when he was young. He was smiling as he returned to his bench.

Samuel sang a few more songs  – pausing after each one to explain the stories behind the words — then asked the people in his audience whether they remembered any of their own music.

“I know a lot of you were probably raised in the village: I wanted to bring the culture to you,” he said.

Samuel himself had grown up in the Southcentral Alaska community of Copper Center. He said anger — fueled by alcohol and addiction — had been a deadly, deeply rooted part of his life for nearly two decades.

But music helped turn him off that path, and now he hoped to use it to revive his entire community.

The damage wrought by alcohol and drug abuse ran deep in Copper Center. Sgt. Shane Nicholson, an Alaska State Trooper assigned to the nearby Glennallen post for the past four years, said he couldn’t remember a single Copper Center call unrelated to alcohol or drugs. A colleague who’d patrolled the region for eight years couldn’t remember any, either.

“It’s an epidemic that’s going to keep going until some drastic changes occur,” Nicholson said.

Sexual assaults, domestic violence, disturbances, suicides – all went hand-in-hand with alcohol and drug abuse, Nicholson said. He said prescription pills were an especially pervasive problem. But law enforcement resources in the region are spread thin.

Nicholson said he and the three other troopers at the Glennallen post are responsible for a handful of far-flung communities spread across roughly 20,000 square miles. While other communities had the help of a Village Public Safety Officer,  Nicholson said it’s been more than a year since Copper Center opted out of the VPSO program.

The VPSO served a valuable role, Nicholson said, running educational initiatives and establishing close personal ties in the tightly-knit community of about 350. Once the public safety officer was no longer there to help with drug enforcement and prevention, Nicholson said the troopers’ job became exponentially more difficult.

It often came down to family ties. Many residents were related in one way or another, the sergeant said.

“When it’s hitting home in a small community like this, it’s easy to see where the problems are but hard to stop it,” Nicholson said.

Samuel still remembers the day it first hit home for him.

It was 1997: He was an 11-year-old boy who enjoyed listening to Tupac on his Walkman, and he said he looked forward to the days his older cousin Arnold would come visit and strum on his father’s acoustic guitar. They all called Copper Center home; they all loved music.

But one day Arnold drank enough Bacardi to stop his heart, and Johns remembers how his father came to tell him Arnold wouldn’t be coming around anymore. He remembers the pain of his cousin’s death, and the anger that came afterwards.

“It kind of hurt me pretty bad,” he said. “I kinda went off the deep end, and I wasn’t the same after that.”

He was angry, he said — at his father, at God, at alcohol. Johns said the anger never really left, and a few years later, he started drinking a little, too. Then came the summer of 2000.

It was the year Samuel turned 15 and his cousin Kara, just a few years older, received a new black Explorer on her birthday. Samuel still remembers how she invited him to go driving with her one late summer night, and how he declined on account of an early morning drive to Fairbanks the next day.

He still remembers arriving at the Golden Nugget Hotel and hearing the news: Kara drank and drove and died instantly when she crashed her Explorer the night before. His childhood friend Sylvia was there the day he learned of Kara’s death.

That was the year Samuel started drinking a little more, he said. He started seeing Sylvia, and drank out of grief when her brother Herman was diagnosed with cancer and she flew to Seattle to stay with him throughout his treatment.

Samuel remembers how everyone looked up to Herman. For a while, Herman’s sickness seemed to go away and he returned to Alaska and people called him Miracle Jackson because he was a cancer-conquering miracle. That was the year he drove Samuel to Glennallen to perform a rap at a talent show.

Samuel still remembers how Herman stopped the car on Simpson Hill, and they sat and looked out over the Copper River Basin.

“I want you to know you’re different,” Herman said.

Samuel’s rap landed him in second place at the talent show, but he said he never forgot what Herman told him on Simpson Hill that day.

Then Herman’s cancer came back and he died a few months later, just shy of his high school graduation. They all grieved. Samuel drank. He was angry, he remembers. There was so much loss.

“The alcohol would never abandon me,” Samuel remembered thinking.

He moved to Anchorage in 2005 — met the girl who’d become his fiancée – and by 2008 they had a daughter. With their help, Samuel had quit drinking. He rekindled his love for music with a Myspace account and a recording app on an iPad, and for the first time in a long time, he said he started to feel happy. But he still hadn’t reached the end of the road.

While he’d left alcohol behind, the anger that came with it for so many years remained.

“As time wore on, I felt very distant,” he said. “I just felt this battle with God.”

He quit jobs nearly as quickly as he got them, battled depression and drifting from workplace to workplace. In 2012, he ran out of options and moved back to his hometown with his fiancée and daughter.

Copper Center hadn’t changed much.

People drank too much. Prescription pills were everywhere, it seemed.

And Sylvia, who stayed behind when Samuel moved to Anchorage, developed a pill habit so bad it killed her the year he returned. She was 26 when her heart stopped.

Samuel said her death took a toll on the whole community. He struggled with his own feelings – Sylvia had been in his life throughout all the turmoil of his teenage years, yet finally fallen victim to the poisons he’d managed to escape.

He said he began to see the connections, even after his little family moved back to Anchorage later that year. The alcohol and drugs that caused so much loss in his small community seemed to be the salves people turned to to mend the very wounds they created.

“When you get a cut, you don’t let it get infected,” Samuel said. “You don’t let it take over you.”

Oftentimes, Sgt. Nicholson said that’s exactly what happens.

“Alcohol has a tendency, for a lot of people, to rule their lives,” he said.

While the Copper River Native Association provided a wide variety of programs and services for area residents struggling with addiction, Nicholson said many still couldn’t resist the temptation of drugs or alcohol.

“The majority of them tend to go right back,” he said.

Samuel thought there had to be a better way, and a book on grieving loaned by a local pastor gave him an idea.

That May, he gathered with other Copper Center residents at the Kluti-Kaah Hall for the first Graceful Grief Gathering. One after another, people took the floor to share their stories, trials and tribulations while their neighbors listened. Dinner was served, but the food turned cold while the talking continued.

“God blessed our people that day,” Samuel recalled.

He said a second gathering is in the works for April, but it’s only the first step. At the 2013 Ida’ina Gathering, Samuel met organizer Emil McCord and began working to put together the first spoken word and rap contest at this year’s gathering.

Music could be the healthy alternative to pills or a bottle, he thought. People could use it to reconnect to their culture or express their grief. Maybe, Samuel said, it could bring healing to his community.

With music, the future sounded a little better. It helped give him direction, and when he started to volunteer at Bean’s Café at the beginning of the new year, he found another chance to share the healing power of the drum.

Some of the people who ate at the Downtown soup kitchen said they missed the music from their hometowns – Samuel saw an opportunity.

So on a Tuesday afternoon in late January, he brought his moose-hide drum to the crowded hall and started to play.

“It’s not just music,” he told the people sitting around the room. “It’s healing.”

Troy – sitting at the middle table – recognized his cousin from across the room. It had been around five years since he’d seen Samuel, he said, but the music coming from his cousin’s drum drove him to dance his way to the middle of the dining hall floor.

Standing in the parking lot after his impromptu performance, Troy said he left his childhood home in Tanana three years ago. He’s been homeless in Anchorage ever since.

“I’m an alcoholic,” Troy said. “I could drink you under the table.”

But it felt good to dance to the traditional music again, he said.

Inside Bean’s, Samuel finished his final performance and asked his audience if they’d like to hear more, if he should return to play again. They all said yes.

“That felt really good,” Samuel said afterwards.

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