It was 1995 when I first met Doug and Amy Modig, one of the couples leading the Rural Providers Conference (RPC), a grassroots Alaska Native sobriety movement, which travels to a new location every two years and rotates on and off the road system. 

That year the RPC had come to Bethel for the first time – and Amy was still nursing her son, Charley. He cried out during the middle of our interview, so we had to stop recording. I think he was trying to tell us something.

Over the years, Charley became a symbol of hope to the movement – a child born after his parents dedicated themselves to sobriety, in a completely alcohol and drug free household. 

Every year when the Modigs attend the RPC, they usually bring Charley with them. Those at the gathering seemed to take a lot of joy in watching Charley grow up.  Today, he is a young man whose life is full of promise, with none of the baggage that children of alcoholics often carry – a reminder that it is possible for families to break free from the cycle of addiction. 

This year, for the first time in 36 years, the Rural Providers Conference is coming to Anchorage during the week of July 8th at the Alaska Pacific University campus.

Since the conference will be accessible to a wider audience this year and next year, I invited Doug and Amy on Frontiers to talk about how the RPC uses Native culture and traditions to help communities find recovery.

“We don’t have any experts around. All we have is each other,” Doug says. “Just another Native. Native to Native, we can help each other.”

Organizers say it’s misleading to call this annual event a conference, because it’s not a conference in the Western sense but really more of a gathering -- which began as a way for counselors and others on the front lines of fighting addiction in Rural Alaska to support each other. Over the years, those struggling with sobriety were welcomed into the fold – and today the RPC has evolved into a community self-help program.

Perhaps the timing is good for the gathering to come to Anchorage, which is sometimes called Alaska’s biggest village. As the city struggles to deal with homeless camps, it has discovered that addiction is indeed a community problem.

The RPC has many traditions that have kept the movement strong. One of those is to choose a couple to model sobriety for a two-year period. Once that tour of duty is completed, they become part of a volunteer steering committee that helps to organize the gathering, mainly to keep it out of the hands of bureaucrats who might turn it into a more mainstream program.  

Nothing wrong with mainstream, organizers say, but those programs often depend on state and federal funding, which comes and goes. The RPC subsists on a shoestring budget, volunteerism and community donations – a simple but enduring structure that keeps the gathering and its message of recovery close to the people.

The RPC is headquartered at RurAL CAP, which helps with the logistics, but its mission is mainly to carry out the instructions of the volunteer steering committee.

If you want to learn more about this recovery movement, you might want to check out two other Frontiers programs about the Rural Providers Conference, when it was in Nome in 2015 and Tanacross, where it was held in 2017. 

Each community brings something new to the event that is woven into the tapestry of the gathering’s traditions, which relies heavily on talking circles and inspirational speeches.

The Modigs say the talking circles are not so much about talking but more about listening. And some of the stories that are told over the course of the week are not only inspiring, but for some, life changing.

This gathering has the feel of a family reunion, where those who struggled with addiction years ago return to celebrate their sobriety. Besides the stories that they share, they talk about the importance of the relationships made at the conference over the years – relationships that continue outside of the gathering and help them in their ongoing recovery.

This year’s theme: Spreading the Light through Trusting Our Traditions.

One Frontiers program can’t say all that needs to be said, but the Rural Providers Conference is one of those beacons of hope and change that you don’t hear a lot about in Alaska. We can’t resist the urge to spread some of the light.

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