Native Alaska: suicide rate linked to retention of language, culture?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon May 14 16:27:59 UTC 2007

May 14, 2007
Bethel Journal

In Native Alaskan Villages, a Culture of Sorrow


BETHEL, Alaska, May 10 The older brother hanged himself. The younger one
used a gun. They died 38 days apart. They had lived in this muddy town of
6,000 people, a hub at the center of scores of much smaller and more
remote native villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta of southwest Alaska.
Their parents taught them to hunt for geese and seals and to fish for pike
and herring and salmon. They taught them to speak their native Yupik and
to cut wood for steam baths each night, even as one son played electric
guitar and the family surfed the Internet. Sit, said Evon Waska, the
father, directing two visitors to a freshly finished wooden bench in his
living room. Mr. Waska had placed it like a pew before a makeshift
memorial of cards and photographs of the dead. Sit with us.

When I was heartbroken, he said, I put my sorrow into making that bench.
In grieving for the older son, William George Kinzy, 34, who died on March
8, and his half-brother, Evon David Waska Jr., 20, who shot himself on
April 15, Mr. Waska and his wife, Dora, are suffering a cruel
concentration of the kind of loss that so many others in communities like
theirs confront. Rural Alaska has some of the highest rates in the world
for suicide, said Ron Perkins, who came to Alaska three decades ago to
work for the federal governments health program for Native Alaskans and
now is executive director of the Alaska Injury Prevention Center, a
nonprofit organization.  I remember talking once to an elder in a village
outside Kotzebue. He said, I was 20 years old before I first heard of a
suicide, and then it was a white man in Kotzebue. Now, if a native kid is
10 and hasn't heard of a suicide, its rare.

The suicide rate among Native Alaskans was three times that of nonnative
Alaska residents and five times the national rate from 2003 to 2006,
according to a study Mr. Perkins helped conduct. Contrasts are also
striking in the ages of those committing suicide.  Nationwide, people 80
and over and those in their 40's are most likely to kill themselves. Among
Alaska natives, the 20-to-29 age group had the most suicides, 39 percent
of the total, while that age group ranked seventh nationwide.

Natives ages 10 to 19 make up just 20 percent of the state population in
that age group, but accounted for 61 percent of its suicides. The suicide
rates for natives declined somewhat in 2005 and 2006, but Mr.  Perkins
said it was too soon to know whether that reflected a pattern.  Roughly 80
percent of all Alaska suicide victims are male. Suicide among natives is
commonly linked with depression and mental illness, which often goes
untreated in rural areas, as well as with alcoholism and cultural and
economic stress. Many native families are reluctant to discuss suicide,
adding to the challenge, Mr. Perkins said.

Native death rates over all are about 50 percent higher than for
nonnatives, according to data compiled by the Institute of Social and
Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Natives are
increasingly moving to urban areas from rural villages and native families
are increasingly led by a single parent. Women are more likely than men to
move to cities to find work. They've lost their culture, they don't have a
way to support their family, and then what we see is a lot of alcohol and
drug use, particularly alcohol, said Diane Casto, the section manager for
prevention and early intervention for the states division of behavioral
health. Theres such a feeling of hopelessness, particularly for young men.

Christian missionaries, followed by government bureaucracy and modern
technology, have long since transformed villages on the tundra into places
where seal meat is hung out to dry in the shadow of steeples, public
schools and satellite dishes. Many natives still hunt and fish for staples
even as the outside culture promotes materialism. Experts say young people
often have frayed connections to the old ways but poor preparation for
living in a modern world. How do you move out, how do you move on? said
Yvonne Kinegak, an intake supervisor for the Bethel branch of the states
Office of Childrens Services. We see healthier people when they're more
connected to their culture.

Bonnie Bradbury, who teaches Sunday school at United Pentecostal Church in
Bethel, where her husband is the pastor, said that deaths among natives,
many of whom in the delta are Russian Orthodox, are repeatedly
memorialized through feasts at various anniversaries. Evon David Waska Jr.
killed himself as his family was preparing for a feast on the 40th day
after his half-brother died. They think, well, if they don't think much of
me now, maybe they will when I'm dead, Ms. Bradbury said, echoing a common
view. Mr. Perkins, who conducted the suicide study, acknowledged that
perception but said he knew of no way to confirm it. Misperceptions about
native suicides are common, he said, including the belief that more people
kill themselves during the dark Alaskan winters.

We found that suicides occurred all during the year, he said, noting that
December, one of the darkest months, had one of the lowest suicide rates.
Alcohol or drugs were a factor in nearly three-fourths of the suicides
among natives, the same as for nonnatives. And while about two-thirds of
all suicides were from gunshot wounds, natives were twice as likely to
hang themselves as were nonnatives, even though gun ownership is high
among natives. Mr. Perkins said that efforts were being made to help
people maintain their connection to native culture and language, but that
some groups less likely to speak their native language, like the Aleuts,
had relatively low suicide rates.

They're past that cultural transition, he said.


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal.


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list