Enduring Burning: Alaska Walks for Life

15 05 2012

No halibut on deck here… Consistent storms have tethered us to the dock for two weeks, waiting out weather like 45 knot winds and 22-foot seas. We take it for what it is – what else can you do? – but watching steady gray sheets pouring down the cabin windows gets old.

So I go for a walk.

Southeast Alaska’s second annual Walk for Life is scheduled to gather at Crescent Harbor at 12:30. Scoping the scene from across the street, I see three people huddled against snarling wind and icy shards of rain. Oh, man… But taking a public stand against suicide seems especially necessary on such a grim day. I yank my hood up and head over.

Others feel similar urgency. Over the next half-hour, about 50 people fill the harbor shelter: cane-bearing elders, bundled children, young couples. Organizers from the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) hand out T-shirts emblazoned with The Watchman, a symbol of courage designed by Tlingit artist Robert Hoffmann.

“I’ve never worn a T-shirt over two coats before,” muses social worker Maggie Gallin.

With everyone decked out and ready to march, SEARHC Suicide Prevention Program Manager Wilbur Brown calls for our attention. “If you’ve been around Alaska at all,” he begins, “you know there’s a lot of suicides here.”

A lot of suicides… Statewide, Alaska doubles the national average, while rates in remote Arctic villages are up to seven times higher.  From our mountains, salmon, and bears, to our chemical dependency, domestic violence, and despair, we have it all bigger, badder.

Wilbur explains that Walk for Life is a response to those staggering losses. Initiated in Kotzebue, the first walk took place in 2009. (150 people participated in nearby Ambler – almost half of the Kobuk River village’s population.) In 2011, Tessa Baldwin, a Kotzebue teenager, inspired Southeast Alaska to join. One year later, the prevention effort has been embraced statewide. “People are walking for life all over Southeast today – people are walking in Angoon, Hoonah, Kake, Klawock, everywhere. We’re walking to celebrate life and say no to suicide.”

SEARHC Suicide Prevention Program Manager Wilbur Brown.

So we walk. Led by a police escort, we march through an intersection (one of Sitka’s two stoplights) and down the main drag, winding around Saint Michael’s Russian Orthodox Church and turning to parallel the channel. We hold up traffic. One driver leans out her window with a smile. “What is this?” Her smile washes away with the answer.

We file into the Sheetka Kwaan Naa Kahidi house, where Wilbur opens the ceremony. He hopes that through events like these, we might lessen the taboo of talking about suicide. “Alaska’s highest suicide rates are among young men. And what do we teach our young men? We teach them not to talk, not to feel, not to communicate. We want to show them there’s another way.”

One of those ways may be through cultural revitalization. For the next several hours, Naa Kahidi pulses with tradition’s heartbeat. Accompanied by a single drum, four Ravens stand at the stage edge, voices raised in a sorrow song shared by Hoonah’s Sea Pigeon clan. A group of Eagles respond, keening loss that pierces through the rafters, through time and place, through language.

Nodding with the beat, I glance at the ink on my left forearm. Part of me for 13 years, this tattoo usually demands about as much conscious consideration as a pinky toe, but in this setting, the Viktor Frankl quote seems to glow. That which seeks to give light must endure burning.

I remember burning… Sitting mute in the psychiatrist’s office, consumed by blistering loneliness, resolute. (Nine years old, I’d already aced my family’s lessons on silence.) Another lifetime trapped within that flame. Alliances with alcohol, friends whose angst mirrored my own. Skin carved like pie crust to relieve the steam within.

I remember light… Blinking against newly broken dawn as I staggered into my tribe. People who offered hope, connection, the thrill of community. We strolled bold amongst dragons, confident we’d pass through without a scorch.

It’s been seven years since I was a practicing social worker. I exchanged the path of tending lives for one of taking life, hunting fish half the year, yet still I find myself whispering the names of those we lost. The young man who committed suicide by cop. The young woman who hung herself in jail. In a hospital. In a garage. With an overdose. With a shotgun. After being kicked out of the family for being gay. After seeming to have made it, whatever “made it” meant. Those we lost, and those we might have. Those whose despair feasted like parasites, those who crooked their fingers to death and silently screamed please.

I remember the hiss of light guttering out, echoed by the mechanical slurp of a stomach pump. By then I’d learned that if I sat very quietly – as still as the dead – and wiped my expression mountain stream clean, the ER personnel would let me stay with the kid I’d brought in. Studying the steady extraction of a young woman’s stomach contents, grainy residue awash in waves of Pepsi Blue, I wondered how I’d ever dared imagine I’d sidestep burn-out.

Back in Naa Kahidi, six drummers gather around the Hashagoon drum, centered on the main floor. “We’re going to do a song to honor those who’ve passed away from suicide,” one explains. “Please remove any head coverings and stand if you’re able to do so. You’re welcome to join us to dance if you’d like.”

A circle forms around the drummers. I study the pairs of Xtra Tufs and sneakers, all moving with differing degrees of certainty and grace. Shuffle, toe, step, toe, knees flex, shuffle. As the faces of my dead and might-have-beens shimmer against the dancers’ feet, it’s easy to meditate on the losses binding us.

But a child careens through the room. Arms outstretched and a grin wide enough to swallow the sun, he runs against the stream on socked feet. He’s shirtless, a clan robe around his shoulders, clasped with five pearl buttons spanning his narrow chest. The robe is a stunning piece of regalia, a red and black link to his history, but today it’s a cape streaming behind him and he’s Superman. He runs faster – he flies – the embodiment of joy, curiosity, and light. He shoves grief aside, inflates us all with his buoyancy.

I leave Naa Kahidi wanting to believe that little boy will keep flying. That the dragons who reduced so many other heroes’ capes to charred ash will leave him be. I hope he grows up knowing how to ask for help, that the only shame is in silence. I hope he learns there’s another way.

If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, please talk to someone. Here in Southeast, contact SEARHC’s Helpline at 1-877-294-0074. Nationwide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.784.2433. Be well.





The View From Sitka: Totem Raising, Part 2

13 04 2011

On October 14, 2006, the stars lined up just right (in the alignment of bad ocean conditions) that we were tied to the dock on the day of a totem raising. The newspaper explained this “Wellbriety” totem pole, going up at the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium’s Mt. Edgecumbe campus, was honoring a process to heal the total person – physical, mental, spiritual and emotional well-being.

Just one year removed from tending to Seattle’s homeless youth, I was still seeing “my kids” nightly in my dreams. The concept of Wellbriety deeply resonated. Before I could over-think it, I’d hopped off the boat and started the 3 mile walk from the harbor to the clinic. Anxious excitement curled in my belly, I was almost running by the end.

More than 300 people had turned out for the event. A steady drizzle of Sitka sunshine fell on children, elders, families. We stood in respectful quiet – not silence, not with all those kids running around – as the ceremony began. Tlingit elders from the Raven and Eagle clans named the pole: Yei eek kwa neix. You are going to get well.

Thick rope guidelines stretched out from the 4000-pound pole. When we took our places, it was clear that the left guideline had many young men, while the one on the right largely consisted of women. An older woman in front of me called, “Can we get some more guys over here?”

I heard a little girl’s voice pipe up from somewhere unseen: “Girls can be strong, too!”  Someone’s raising that kid right, I thought.

Our hands clenched, as if braced for a tug-of-war. But totem poles are stories and stories must be handled with reverence, not the teeth-gritted strain of competition.  In unison, under master carver Wayne Price’s instruction, we began a slow march back.

Master carver Wayne Price. Photo Courtesy of SEARHC

Watching intently, an eagle perched on a nearby telephone pole, and a raven on the clinic roof.  As the pole ascended, the outstretched wings of Raven, carved at the top, caught air for their first time. The eagle began keening, welcoming Raven to the sky.

Seeing Yei eek kwa neix in its entirety, I saw all of my kids’ struggles and my hopes for them. A medicine woman stood at the base, a basket of healing herbs in her hands. Above, a shaman and wolf spirit helper prepared to plunge into the darkness, retrieving those lost in addiction, torment and grief. Then, in a sprawling run free of design, the freedom to reflect and heal in the journey from darkness to light. And there at the top hovered Raven, a gleaming brass disc of the sun held in his beak, guiding us to another way.

You are going to get well.

With the pole solidly in place, people broke apart into celebratory groups. I began a slow walk back to the harbor, footsteps heavy with reflection. I thought about the gratitude and honor I felt to participate in a cultural legacy not my own, the pride of sharing a community where Native culture is not held hostage in a museum, a dusty-shelved shrine to the past, but is a living, breathing, singing, dancing present and future.

I’ve sometimes felt that “Southeastern Alaskan” is its own cultural identity. An evolution of shared connectivity that crosses racial and ethnic lines, forges bonds built of skunk cabbage springs and crowded cruise ship summers, autumns where seasonal folk sweep out as winter winds whoosh in.  And I’ve second-guessed that presumption, scoffing that it’s all too easy for someone of dominant culture to imagine connection when we don’t carry the ancestral scars.

A new friend has gently corrected me. “Your culture includes the Tlingit because you are a Southeastern Alaskan. It includes living among an indigenous peoples, interacting every day. There is value in that.”

I think now about the grace in her statement, and recall the initial explanation of the pole. Roberta Kitka, Chairwoman of the sponsoring Kooteeyaa Project, said, “Wellbriety Kooteeyaa means healing, hope, unity and forgiveness for Tlingit people and anyone who is working on the healing of mind, body and spirit.”

We are going to get well.

Does this ring true for you, sweet reader? Are there places in your life where you’ve questioned your role, wondered if your presence was beneficial or baggage? What does wellness mean for you in your own life, and how do you create it?

Me, I think I’ll keep asking questions, and look to ravens for guidance.

Photo by Joel Brady-Power

[As with all totems, the Wellbriety pole is far more complex than a blog post could ever do justice to, particularly when written by someone engaged in such a brief sliver of the journey. A detailed description of the project, pole, and carver is here. You can also read a powerful essay about this day in Heather Lende’s book, “Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs: Family, Friendships and Faith in Small-Town Alaska.”  My gratitude to Michael Jenkins of SEARHC for granting permission for photo usage.]








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