ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Amid the celebratory mood, some speakers at Alaska’s largest yearly gathering of indigenous people lamented the disproportionately high rate of suicides among Alaska Natives, including a recent string of suicides in one village.
Gov. Bill Walker told the audience at the opening of the annual conference of the Federation of Alaska Natives that nothing causes him greater concern than these suicides among young people. He was referring to four young adults who took their own lives in the western Alaska village of Hooper Bay since late September.
At least two of those suicides were influenced by a subsequent one.
Walker said his administration plans to announce an action plan Friday dealing with suicides that has been in the works for a couple months.
“That’s a very, very highest priority in this administration,” he said. The governor added there’s no guarantee that any actions will be successful, but said that to do nothing guarantees failure.
Also speaking at the opening was Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, a Tlingit who was born in the southeast Alaska village of Yakutat and was the Democratic nominee for governor last year before joining forces with Walker in the gubernatorial election. Before Mallott took the podium Thursday, AFN president Julie Kitka introduced both him and Walker, reminding the audience that at this time last year conventioneers rallied around the two in the belief that they would bring to Juneau the leadership and knowledge that Alaska deeply needed.
“Today, I’m pleased to say we were right,” Kitka said before turning the floor over to Mallott, who was greeted with a standing ovation, cheers and whistles.
Mallott, a former AFN president, noted that the federation is nearly 50 years old, formed when Alaska was a young state and indigenous land rights were at stake. Mallott noted that if Native leaders had not acted then to retain their lands, the opportunity might not have come again.
“We all knew that we were standing on the shoulders of others,” he said.
Mallott noted that a century before the struggle, Alaska Natives were focusing on the same determination to save the lands in their possession. “They were on a journey after first contact with Western civilization that we are still on today,” he said.
The convention continues through Saturday under this year’s theme: “Heroes in Our Homeland.”
The event will include panel discussions and work sessions on various subjects, including Alaska Natives and the justice system, the state’s ongoing fiscal woes amid low oil prices, and forming government partnerships to co-manage fish and wildlife resources.