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Tribal groups respond to recent deaths in Southeast


April 16, 2010

Representatives from local, statewide and national tribal groups and other officials held an emergency meeting on Friday, April 2, to discuss the recent deaths of at least six tribal citizens in Southeast Alaska who died due to suspected alcohol or drug use.

The group met in Juneau at Sealaska Corporation to discuss the recent deaths, their possible causes and the epidemic rates of alcohol- and drug-related deaths among tribal members.

"We must acknowledge to our people that we are concerned," Clarence Jackson, a member of the Sealaska Heritage Institue's Board of Trustees, said in opening comments. "We must gather around our family. Anybody we lose is a tragedy."

The meeting was attended by representatives from tribal groups, including the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB), the Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS), Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), the Central Council of Tlingít and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (Central Council), the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI), Sealaska Corp., the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC), Tlingit and Haida Community Council, Tlingít and Haida Regional Housing Authority, Goldbelt Heritage Foundation and concerned community members. They were joined by 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. Also present were representatives of the University of Alaska, the University of Oxford (England), Juneau School District, Bartlett Regional Hospital and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

The groups agreed on the following:

1. To acknowledge and mourn the recent deaths within the tribal community related to alcohol and drugs;
2. To take ownership and responsibility of the drug and alcohol problems evident in the tribal communities and recognize that it is we, as Native people, who will solve the problems;
3. That the organizations present in the meeting will work together and support those organizations that have alcohol and drug programs and to integrate culturally-based solutions to the problem.

When Sealaska Heritage Institute integrated Native language and culture into its programs it found students did better academically, SHI President Rosita Worl said, addingthat the same principle could apply to alcohol and drug recovery programs. Tlingit and Haida Regional Housing Authority reported that it will begin to monitor the alcohol and drug incidents within T&H Housing and will seek to partner with those organizations that have alcohol and drug programs. SEARHC outlined the alcohol and drug programs it has, but acknowledged that its programs often have waiting lists.

It is intrinsic upon tribal groups to get to the root of drug and alcohol abuse, Sen. Albert Kookesh said.

"We have to work harder to find the void in people's lives that is the larger issue and must be addressed," he said.

According to the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics, in 2005 Alaska Natives had an alcohol-induced death rate that was more than four times as high as whites. Alaska consistently has had an alcohol-induced death rate that has been more than twice that of the rest of the United States, and Alaska Natives account for almost half of these deaths.

Southeast Alaska has a high rate of alcohol- and drug-related problems. The 2006 state-sponsored Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey (BRFSS) estimated that more than 2,100 adults in Southeast Alaska have substance use disorders. At least 450 of those adults have co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. The 2008 BRFSS estimates 16 percent of Southeast Alaska adults have binged on alcohol in the past month and 6.5 percent are heavy/chronic drinkers. The estimated 15.5 percent of Southeast Alaska adults who have ever abused or been dependent on alcohol is more than double the U.S. rate.

During the meeting, NCAI Executive Director Jackie Johnson-Pata, a Tlingít originally from Juneau, discussed her organization's initiatives about drug and alcohol abuse. Central Council President Bill Martin reviewed his organization's drug and alcohol programs. SEARHC President/CEO Roald Helgesen followed with a statement about the drug and alcohol problem in Southeast Alaska and a review of the alcohol and drug programs offered by SEARHC.

There was discussion about how the Native organizations can provide political support for these programs. There also was discussion about how they can use their programs and services to promote social and physical wellness through cultural interventions in ongoing activities. The meeting concluded by acknowledging the drug and alcohol tragedies through a traditional Tlingít Eagle/Raven sorrow song.

"We have programs throughout our region that provide mental health and substance abuse services," said Roald Helgesen, president and CEO of SEARHC. "However, there is much more need for these services than what we are able to meet with our limited health program funding. Behavioral health needs more funding at the federal, state and local levels. The advocacy of all our organizations is critical to our success in helping our people. Please support our programs by encouraging our members to seek health services and advocate for additional funding for these essential behavioral health programs."


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