FAIRBANKS — Through mud, rain, wind, bus and boat, 11 warriors and surrogate auntie Cynthia Erickson of Tanana struck forth by river in mid-June to tell their stories in Fairbanks, Minto, Tanana, Ruby and Galena. The journey and soul searching was part of a healing excursion called My Grandma’s House.
Their goal was to break the cycle of abuse and the implicit silence surrounding it.
Erickson is an Athabascan storeowner in Tanana whose house is a safe home to many children. She is proud of her people and of village life, so she fights to protect Alaska’s indigenous cultures. She pointed out that domestic, alcohol and drug abuse, as well as suicide, are not just a rural Alaska problem, but have become global cancers. In Alaska, the abuse statistics are high, and in the villages, it is visible to all.
“Molesting and abuse are done by both family and friends,” Erickson said. “If a victim exposes the offender, he is taking on those nearest and dearest. A list of registered sex offenders should be posted in schools so pedophiles are known to the children. Suicide can be the result of childhood trauma. Each alcoholic rage, every bullying word, every suicide leaves victims. At the age of 3 or of 6, that trauma becomes a rock in a child’s backpack. By the time he is 12, that weight becomes oppressive. Half of the children in foster care are Alaska Natives, but we need more healthy homes available.”
Four years ago, at the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention, when Erickson and her then-4-H group from Tanana cried out to break the silence of abuse, there was a public outburst of “We need to protect the children!”
As time continued, the protest subsided and the predation continued.
Erickson pondered what next to do. She had dreamed of a map of Alaska with safe homes, “Grandma’s Houses” in each community, places where a trustworthy person with a key could have a secure place to protect children.
Longtime friend and psychologist Dr. John DeRuyter, formerly of Hope Counseling, spoke with Erickson about how best to deal with trauma.
“Kids haven’t developed the defenses adults have,” he said. “When a person can access an internal compartment, he can process, defuse and hopefully discover a positive conclusion from tragedy. Many people get caught in pain like a hamster on a spinning wheel, thinking the same thing over and over.”
DeRuyter said he depends on three guideposts: a safe zone for the client; processing the traumatic event to its emotional core until it is defused; and discovering what beneficial meaning the trauma could have to one’s life.
One tool DeRuyter relies on is journaling.
“Not only is writing an expression, but it also uses a much broader part of the brain and helps a person to see clearly and differently,” he said.
As Erickson began considering a journey with Native youth to Alaska villages, she asked DeRuyter if he would go with the group. He agreed. Erickson chose 11 children who wanted to tell their stories and begin a dialogue to help stop the cycle of abuse.
On June 12, the youth flew into Fairbanks, where they received training with Fairbanks Wellness Coalition and became certified in the QPR (Question-Persuade-Refer) youth suicide prevention program. At Hope Counseling, they were coached on journaling. At child advocacy center Stevie’s Place, they were guided in working with the very young. Thus prepared, they began their Setsoo ‘Yeh (Athabascan for Grandma’s House) Healing Journey: a six-community tour. First they gave their testimonies at Pioneer Park on June 15. They continued by bus to Minto and Manley and then by boat to Tanana, Ruby and Galena.
Because DeRuyter planned to use talking circles and journaling with the youth as they traveled, Tanana Chiefs Conference provided logs for the children to process their thoughts. The journals also had information with Alaska Careline Help Crisis Intervention information and included the My Grandma’s House pledge for self-care.
Erickson’s friend, Zoanne Anderson, asked her Latter Day Saints church to make 125 pillowcases, “a symbol,” Erickson said, “of the homeless life many of our children are forced to live. Escaping from toxic homes, they often couch surf from house to house for safety and care.”
The pillowcase “suitcases” filled with Bibles and journals became dear to each child. The adults filled other pillowcases to hand out to village children with Alaska Careline water bottles, shirts and warrior wristbands. Tanana Chiefs Behavioral Health Aide Bernice Holmberg Hetherington talked with teens while Deanna Wright Houlton worked with the very young, reading them a culturally relevant book, “Talk About Touch.”
“At each village,” Erickson said, “the community met us, greeting us with their own Native songs, dancing and potlatch. After the kids shared, we had fabulous dancing, an expression of healing because of the children’s courage in talking deeply, honestly and openly with all of us.”
“It was very emotional,” Lois Huntington of Tanana said, “because many there had experienced trauma and were touched by the children’s strength.”
Huntington’s own 9-year-old adopted daughter Bitsy-Boo said quietly, “If you can’t take care of your own children, adopt them to someone who will love them, as has happened to me.”
One by one, the children told their stories ranging from brains on fire with mental disorders to communities plagued with drugs and alcohol, burglary, domestic violence, bullying, self-harm, and suicide. Many of the children had fled to boarding schools trying to find another life. As they spoke, they were offloading rocks from their backpack.
Before leaving, they prayed with the village for their wounds to heal and threw a rock in the river.
After many miles, prayers and lots of tears, one student declared, “I feel so light!” Their reward was a perfect blue sky as they returned up the glassy Yukon on water that a day earlier had been very rough. They returned lighter to face their own individual healing journeys.
Huntington, Shirley Cleaver, of Galena, and Ruby’s First Chief Katie Kangas all agreed that arming children with knowledge and resources is the way to combat abuse while urging families to talk openly with their children.
Agnes Sweetsir, of Galena, added, “Parents should be held accountable. There are resources for that, and they should be doing their job.”
Erickson summed up the journey on Facebook.
“If we don’t rise up, alcohol and drugs will be the end of us,” she wrote. “These warrior kids will lead us to better days. Take time for your children. It doesn’t take money. Go down to the river and skip rocks together, pick berries, harvest diamond willow, make a cane for grandpa: make good memories. Let’s be a family. Rise up. No one can do this for us.”
Alaska author Judy Ferguson’s most recent books include “Windows to the Land, An Alaska Native Story Vol. One: Alaska Native Land Claims Trailblazers” and “Windows to the Land, An Alaska Native Story Vol. Two: Iditarod and Alaska River Trails.” http://judysoutpost.com.