According to the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council, Alaska had 1,369 suicides between 2000 and 2009, an average of 136 per year. That gives Alaska the highest rate of suicide per capita in the country.
Mike Williams Sr. of Akiak is one of the organizers. He says suicide is devastating Alaska, particularly the Native villages.
“And my hope is that we are going to be identifying the underlying causes that is affecting the devastation in our communities, especially in these last 20 years,” Williams says.
Alaska Native men between the ages of 15 and 24 have the highest rate.
Bill Martin of Juneau is co-chairing the event with Williams. Martin is the former President of the Central Council of the Tlingit Haida Indians of Alaska. In a written statement he said, “tribal governments can no longer ignore this issue. . .it is only we, their elders, their tribes and their families, who can end it.”
Williams says they hope to walk away with two resolutions. One would include an action plan for rural Alaska to deal with suicide. Another would help in “restoring the people.” He says some state and federal policies have come to the villages that have had adverse affects on them, such as the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. In 1971, ANSCA extinguished aboriginal hunting and fishing rights.
Williams lives in a remote community of about 300 residents.
“Living in a small community like Akiak I feel like I’m being left out and our voices are not heard,” Williams says.
He says the resolutions coming out of the summit meeting will be sent to Alaska’s 229 tribes, and to the state and federal government offices.
Williams says they will likely encompass a variety of solutions to address different needs around the state.
“I think each community has different ways of dealing with this issue and one size does not fit all,” says Williams.
The conference starts Thursday at 8 a.m. at the Hilton Hotel.
Scheduled speakers include Native American fishing rights activist Ed Johnstone of the Quinault Nation and Brian Cladoosby, Chairman of Swimonish Tribe, both from Washington.
Speaking from Alaska will be Doug Modig, a Tshimsian from Metlakatla, and Allen Levy of Anchorage.
Williams says they are all looking for positive solutions in addressing the suicide crisis.
“I have all the faith and confidence that we can do it and if we come out and saving one person out of this conference, that’s a huge message and that is a success,” Williams says.
Tribal leaders from the Lower Yukon village of Alakanuk will be presenting on how they have successfully dealt with suicide. The village hasn’t seen suicide in recent years after elders got together and faced it head on the local level.