Editor’s note: The following interview took place during the Elders and Youth conference in Fairbanks between the Juneau Empire’s Jennifer Canfield who spoke with a 16-year-old girl who spoke out against domestic violence and sexual abuse during a forum on Tuesday. The following interview discusses mature topics. The girl’s name was withheld because she is a minor.
When did you start talking out loud about your fears and worries with the 4-H group? How long did it take you to open up to that?
My last trip to Washington (D.C.) was the first time I started talking about suicide, really, but today is my first time speaking like this.
You said some things up there that, I think, were embarrassing for some of the elders to hear from a young person. When you were writing what you wanted to say, did you realize how big it was to say all that in front of so many people?
Yes, but it needed to be said. I have younger cousins and I don’t want them to go through what I’ve been through.
What do you think an elder needs to do to earn respect?
It’s what they do throughout their life and what they do with the youth. Like my great-grandma, she was the eldest of 20-something children. She took care of them, raised them and then she moved away to get a job at the hospital before it was closed. She was drug and alcohol free her entire life and she was 91 years old.
What’s it like growing up where you live?
You just get used to lots of drunks and funerals. You expect it. Now it’s starting to get tiring and really sad because people you grew up with are dying off. Elders that you loved are dying off. The people in your town, the drunks, are making it worse because there’s partying all week long. When my uncle drowned when he was drunk a couple of years ago, that was the most terrifying week of my life because my family was drinking and arguing with each other. A couple of my uncles left because my mom was arguing with them and it just felt so terrible because everyone was arguing with each other. My mom was losing weight because she was constantly drinking and it was just horrible.
Most people in that kind of situation would find a way to normalize it. Did you ever say, “This is normal,” or has it always been alarming to you?
I was molested from sixth grade to a couple of years ago during basketball trips, but I didn’t think anything of it. Then, I was molested in my bed by someone really close to my family, and now I have to see them almost every day and pretend I love them because they tell me they love me back. They don’t know what they did because they were blacked out. He has no memory of it. I was suicidal after that, but then Cynthia (Erickson) showed me this.
What are you going to do now?
I’m going to continue what I’m doing. I’m probably going to be a leader in my community and maybe in my state to help stop this. I just came back from Oklahoma, the National Congress of American Indians (conference), and they’re basically dealing with the same things.
What did you learn from the NCAI conference?
The suicide rates on the reservations are much like ours, not as exaggerated, but they’re still there. They’re having the same difficulties that we’re having.
How are you going to do something about that?
Not keep quiet. Keep talking about it and hopefully other youth will share their stories and start to feel how I feel about this and help me.
You’re not intimidated by taking these problems on?
No, because I know there are people behind me 100 percent.