AFN keynote speaker stresses cultural resilience

Posted: Friday, October 26, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska Federation of Native's 21-year-old keynote speaker urged Alaska Natives to bring the resilience of past generations to the modern battle against alcoholism.

Francesca Sutton, a Yupik youth leader from Togiak who travels rural Alaska pressing for sobriety, kicked off the AFN convention Thursday.

''I would trust my life with this young person, her values are so good and she believes in our people so much,'' AFN President Julie Kitka told delegates. She described her as part of a generation of new Native leaders now coming of age.

Sutton said Native communities rely on brains and adaptability to survive after devastating influenza outbreaks that killed off entire villages 80 years ago.

That same resiliency can serve villages trying to break the cycle of unresolved anger and depression that leads to drug and alcohol abuse, she said.

A 1998 graduate of Togiak High School, Sutton said she nearly dropped out because the Western teachings conflicted with her Yup'ik values but other people persuaded her to use the Western perspective as a tool.

''The genius of our people and the reason against all odds that we are alive and doing fairly well is in our ingenuity, our ability to adapt to change,'' she said. ''We're here, and we're still alive. The strategy's still the same.''

The AFN's 36th convention continues Friday and Saturday. Roughly 3,000 Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts from around the state were expected for the event, Alaska's largest annual gathering of indigenous people.

Sutton's message comes as the AFN mounts a new wellness campaign pinned around the $15 million Alaska Native Sobriety and Alcohol Control Grant, money that U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens helped secure. The campaign is the topic of a panel Friday and several draft resolutions to be considered Saturday.

Over the next six years, the AFN hopes to make serious progress in dealing with problems that have plagued many Alaska communities for decades, representatives say. The Alaska Natives Commission in 1994 identified alcohol abuse and self-destructive behavior as the top health problem among Alaska Natives.

Alaska Natives make up nearly half the substance abuse treatment slots in the state, according to state statistics provided by the AFN.

Suicide rates for Alaska Natives are 274 percent higher than the national average and 117 percent higher than other American Indian groups, according to University of Alaska Anchorage statistics provided by the AFN.

Within six weeks, the AFN will begin distributing the federal money to a dozen regions around the state based on the number of tribal organizations and population, according to Geri Simon, the AFN's wellness program director.

The new programs bring new emphasis on hiring Native treatment counselors, Simon said. The AFN fielded complaints that some non-Native counselors couldn't find their clients' home villages on the map, much less understand the kind of situation they were going home to, she said.

''They didn't even feel connected to them, even spiritually.''

Marcus Tunohun, sitting outside the main hall at the convention, echoed those concerns. A judge ordered the 18-year-old Aleut from Old Harbor on Kodiak Island into a four-month detox program last year. The program in Eagle River he finished in January did not incorporate Native knowledge, Tunohun said.

He's been in and out of sobriety since then but hopes by next fall to enroll in a Native university in Kansas.

Asked what he'd do first if put in charge of a treatment program for Old Harbor, he answered quickly. ''Get the elders involved. Down there, it seems like the kids and elders aren't as open as they should be to each other.''

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