ANCHORAGE — Just a few years ago, Julie Roberts-Hyslop’s nephew was “a normal guy.” Then, in May, he shot two Alaska State Troopers at point-blank range at her mother’s Tanana home.
The tragedy shook the community of about 300, Roberts-Hyslop said during a panel discussion at the joint Alaska Federation of Natives and National Conference of American Indians conference in Anchorage on Wednesday, and paints a bleak portrait of the state of mental health care and substance abuse in rural villages. The discussion included representatives of the federal government.
Twenty-year-old Nathanial Kangas, who shot and killed the troopers, is a product of a broken system, said Roberts-Hyslop, vice president of Tanana Chiefs Conference.
Voice wavering with emotion, she stood before the panel and said she feels “lost” in the aftermath of the trooper shootings and the heart-wrenching testimony of young people at the First Alaskans Institute’s Youth and Elders Conference earlier this week.
“I stand before you pleading for help,” she said to the panelists, Raina Thiele, White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs associate director, and staff from the offices of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. “When this substance (abuse) stuff takes over, it’s the hardest thing we have to fight right now. And I really want you, you up there, to help us. Please help us. Please go back and tell the President we’re suffering.”
A representative from Sen. Mark Begich’s office was invited but not able to attend.
Roberts-Hyslop said tearfully the shooting “was not something I would wish on anybody anywhere” and that she wishes she could do something to help the families of the fallen troopers.
With the right mental health care, Kangas might never have shot the two men, Roberts-Hyslop said, adding that her nephew is just one of many Native young men in Alaska’s villages who need more support.
“The women are strong, but the young men, they need our help,” she said.
Many members of the audience were moved to tears by Roberts-Hyslop’s speech, including Murkowski’s staffer Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle, a King Island Iñupiat from Nome.
“It’s a difficult reality that we live with,” she said. “If we can take a minute and pray for the community of Tanana.”
The room fell silent before one man led the rest in prayer.
After the day-long meeting, Roberts-Hyslop said she addressed the panel because she’s “tired of being quiet about behavioral health.”
“A lot of it goes right back to the substance abuse,” she said. “We can help a lot of things, but we can’t help mental illness. We need professional doctors.”
Tanana Chiefs Conference receives $4 million each year from the federal government for behavioral health care for all of the 39 villages it covers, Roberts-Hyslop said.
“We need to have more funding,” she said. “How much is it costing the state to incarcerate them, when we can be helping them at an earlier age to lead normal lives. It has to happen for the Alaska Natives.”
During the panel discussion, Lenora Hootch, former director of the Emmonak Women’s Shelter, thanked Roberts-Hyslop for her words and wondered why things haven’t gotten better for Native villages.
“Our people continue to live in peril,” Hootch said, citing the high rate of domestic violence and sexual assault in Alaska. “We’ve been hearing that (statistic) for 30, 40 years. Why is that?”
She lamented that federal money for tribes is funneled through the state first and “a lot doesn’t go to the tribes.”
“We continue to lack law enforcement in our state,” Hootch said, and many of the officers villages do have “… are untrained.”
“There’s a high rate of homicide, there are a lot of murders going on in our villages,” she said. “They’re not getting properly prosecuted.”
Lack of law enforcement is a big problem, but it isn’t the only one, Hootch said. She spoke out against the way bodies are sent back to villages after being autopsied in Anchorage.
“We just lost a young man who committed suicide,” she said. “When they get sent home, they are sent home in cardboard boxes (with the bodies wrapped in thick plastic). They are brought to the home naked … Is that how they are supposed to send our loved ones home after they’ve taken them to Anchorage for autopsy? That is injustice, that’s inhuman, and that needs to change.”