Alcohol-related deaths alarm tribal groups

Martin: 'Alcohol is an issue for us; we are looking at it as public enemy number one'

Posted: Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A young teenager's body found frozen in an Anchorage baseball dugout after inebriation. An adult woman found overdosed on a kitchen floor in Juneau, her friend's body found on the porch. A missing snowmachiner found under the ice near a remote arctic village. A young Angoon man found on a trail in the woods. A Hoonah resident washed up on the shoreline. A Kake woman fallen from her boat.

Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

All are tragic Alaska Native deaths, and each instance stems from alcohol abuse.

"Alcohol is an issue for us," Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Bill Martin said. "We are looking at it as public enemy number one, because all of us have families that are affected by alcoholism. If we can just make our youth understand it causes so many problems and dangers."

Martin was part of a group representing local, state and national tribal organizations that held an emergency meeting April 2 at Juneau's Sealaska Corp. to discuss the causes, rates and consequences of alcohol and drug-related deaths among tribal members.

Those attending included tribal representatives, health care personnel and politicians. Topics discussed included promoting social and physical wellness, offering political support for drug abuse and prevention programs, and the need for more federal and state funding for such programs.

Representatives from the various groups said they needed to work together and support the ones that have alcohol and drug programs.

Martin said he personally hasn't drank alcohol for 18 years, when he first became involved in tribal politics.

"It wasn't a problem for me but I felt that, being a tribal leader, it really wouldn't look good for me to say people shouldn't drink while I was," he said. "You know the old saying that Indians can't hold their alcohol? There is truth to that. In the thousands of years we had been here, we didn't get involved in alcohol or fermenting anything to the point of alcohol. It is not a part of us."

According to the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics, in 2005 Alaska Natives had an alcohol-induced death rate that was four times the rate of non-Natives. Alaska's rate of alcohol-related deaths is more than double the rest of the nation, with Alaska Natives accounting for half of those deaths.

A 2006 state-sponsored survey estimates that more than 2,100 adults in Southeast Alaska have substance abuse disorders. At least 450 of those adults have co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

Tlingit elder Cy Peck Jr., of Angoon, has seen the ravages of alcohol during his time as a fisherman and community member.

"I feel people really need to learn how to drink if they cannot abstain," he said. "It is a part of our society. I have found that no one, outside of bartenders maybe, teach people how to drink conservatively. I think it can be learned. It is beautiful if people are sobering up, but I feel that anyone can learn to drink alcohol and still live a beautiful life."

"We wanted to let our tribal shareholders know that this is a problem," Sealaska Heritage Institute president Rosita Worl said. "It is a problem we have to take ownership with. It is directly in all our lives, it is in the lives of my relatives, it is heart breaking. We must go back to traditional culture and apply the past to the problem."

Worl shared the names of eight southeastern natives who have passed due to alcohol related deaths since January 2010. Among them was 25-year-old Kenneth Burnheart Johnson Jr., who Worl was especially fond of.

"I was eating the gumboots he gave me when I heard the news," she said. "I knew him through his generosity, the generosity he showed his people."

Groups participating in the meeting included the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, Alaska Federation of Natives, the Central Council of Tlingít and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, the National Congress of American Indians, Sealaska Heritage Institute, Sealaska Corp., the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, Tlingit and Haida Community Council, Tlingít and Haida Regional Housing Authority, Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, University of Alaska, the University of Oxford (England), Juneau School District, Bartlett Regional Hospital and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, and notables Sen. Albert Kookesh, Rep. Beth Kerttula, Commissioner Bill Hogan from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and John Moller from the Office of the Governor.

• Contact Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or

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