When 54 Iron Dog snow machine racers showed up at Cynthia Erickson’s home in Tanana, the longtime caretaker had more in mind for the racers than the usual raceway room and board.
Erickson is the volunteer leader of the 4-H program in Tanana, which brings attention to the impact suicide, substance abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault has had on local youth. It’s a story all too common, but Erickson hopes to change that.
The mother of three has faced suicide in her village head-on. She watched children in Tanana grow up only to cut their lives off early. She’s taken her stories before the Alaska State Legislature.
Having more than 50 Iron Dog racers in Tanana presented Erickson with a unique opportunity to impress upon the village’s youth, speaking in personal terms on how drug and alcohol abuse can affect anyone -- even those Iron Dog heroes kids admire so much.
“It’s like a bunch of NASCAR racers just came through,” Erickson said. “I always tell (the racers), ‘I’ll do the introduction, but this is your story.'"
(Cynthia Erickson is surrounded by children inside the Tanana School District auditorium.)
After racing for hours on end, one by one the racers filed into the Tanana School District auditorium to listen to Erickson. She talked about how substance abuse and suicide had affected her town, much the same way she did when she spoke on the issue in October 2013 at the First Alaskans Institute Elders & Youth Conference. Instead of hearing from each of the kids about their experiences coping with substance abuse and suicide, Erickson turned the spotlight on the racers.
Racers like Gux Laraux of Bethel and Chris Olds of Eagle River shared their experiences dealing with the loss of loved ones' lives cut short by suicide. The racers stressed the importance of communication and providing support, even if it isn’t wanted by a person struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.
Micah Huss, an Iron Dog crewmember who grew up in Kotzebue, lost his sister when she took her own life at a young age. There isn’t a day that goes by where Huss wonders if there was something different he could have done to reach his sister before it was too late, he said.
“There are signs,” Huss told the crowd. “There are always signs.”
Like Erickson, Huss believes it’s important to engage children at an early age, regardless of the environment in which they are raised. But for those children raised in an environment plagued by substance abuse and violence, it’s vital to show them there is more to life than what they see at home -- and offer them a positive outlet.
“There aren’t many things for the kids to do in the villages, so that is a very real problem,” Huss said. “If there were more community activities, more programs, that would help children do other things but (drink and do drugs), when you don’t have anything else in town to do, that seems like the only thing to do and everyone else is doing it, and that’s the lifestyle.”
Huss said it’s not just a matter of noticing signs, but also doing something about them.
“We need to be more aware of what’s happening in these communities and not just shy away from it,” he said.
(Kids from Tanana and a group of Iron Dog racers pause for a photo opportunity.)
Erickson said the story isn’t uncommon, whether in a rural community or in the middle of major metropolis: For every family that deals with drug and alcohol abuse, there is a child that quietly struggles to come to terms with that reality. Children who wake up in the middle of the night to the sounds of alcohol-fueled violence or abuse know what is happening, but not how to make sense of it.
The rural difference, Erickson points out, is that when suicide and substance abuse impacts a community of fewer than 400 residents, the collateral damage is felt throughout the entire village. Perhaps it is that ubiquity that exasperates Erickson and her husband Dale the most.
Alaska’s rate of self-inflicted deaths was second most nationally only behind Wyoming, according to 2010 national comparative data compiled by Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services and its Epidemiology Section. The research provides the most recent data available.
From 2003 to 2010, Alaska’s age-adjusted rate for suicide was almost twice the national average -- 21.6 vs. 11.3 deaths per 100,000 persons per year, according to the study. The study reports suicide was the sixth leading cause of death in Alaska and the leading cause of death among persons aged 15 to 24 years of age in 2010.
The study further suggests Alaska’s rate of suicide increases the farther north a community is located; however, researchers could not officially conclude why.
It’s easy for one to get lost by the fact these statistic are simply numbers on a piece of paper. But for those these statistics reflect, the numbers come with a name and a face – the name of a brother, a sister, a mother, a father or simply just a friend.
Those faces and those names in Tanana haunt Cynthia to this day. She remembers watching those faces grow and mature; watching them falter and watching them succeed. She also remembers a man’s face (or what was left of it) she couldn’t hope or want to forget – the one she wrapped in linen so she wouldn’t have to look at what had happened to it again.
These statistics contrast the environment Cynthia was used to when she was growing up in Ruby.
“Things have changed: Life was harder; it was very simple; we didn’t have what we have now,” she said. “People were busting butt; they were hauling wood; they were packing water; they were fishing; they were trapping.”
Essentially they didn’t have time to despair or abuse the bottle as much, she said, because there was work to be done, and everyone needed to chip in.
“You had to put the food on the table, so there was no partying and fooling around,” she said. “There was no loss of hope; we had a mission and if you didn’t fill that wood box, you were going to get in trouble.”
Erickson figures it was some time in the 1970s when she started to see the “breakdown.”
“You started seeing government subsidies come in,” Erickson said. “People built their homes – it wasn’t given to them.”
Money was needed for infrastructure -- schools, city municipalities, public services, etc. – but Erickson believes that dependency upon the government will shift again, that a renaissance of sorts could return those living in rural villages back to relying upon themselves to build their homes and nurture that self-reliance she grew up with.
Back home in Tanana, Cynthia is preparing a veritable feast for the Iron Dog racers. At her side is a 5-year-old girl Cynthia nicknamed Bitsy Boo. Cynthia has been toiling inside the always-open kitchen all day, preparing dinners, breakfasts and all sorts of in-between snacks. This night, as the racers settle in, pulled pork sandwiches are on the menu; the night before, it was spaghetti. There are also six turkeys roasting.
Bitsy Boo is helping in the kitchen folding napkins and doing “gopher” work – “go for this and go for that.” Bitsy Boo was adopted as a baby by a friend of Cynthia’s in Tanana, and together, they have helped raise the child – as a family.
The Ericksons would sooner give Bitsy Boo and children like her in Tanana a job or teach them a trade, if for no other reason than to engage their minds. For Bitsy Boo and others like her, it's not too late.