Alaska Native's Proposal Seeks To Heal Villages -- Man Hopes To End Plague Of Despair

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - A decade ago, in what he says was an alcoholic haze, Harold Napoleon killed his 4-year-old son.

In the confines of his cell and the depths of his despair, this Yupik Eskimo searched his soul: Why are Alaska Natives afflicted by alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide? And what can be done to save himself and his people?

"I don't want my son to have lived for no reason," he says.

His conclusions have given birth to the Alaska Native Reawakening Project, which aims to heal whole villages, ridding them of the angst that has crippled Natives for generations.

He traces that angst to the Great Death - a series of settler-borne epidemics, including an influenza outbreak which started in Nome early in the century. As many as 60 percent of the Native population died in some areas.

"What happened at the turn of the century is that the whole belief system collapsed. It was a major upheaval," he says.

In a 1991 jailhouse treatise, "Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being," Napoleon writes that the epidemics hobbled healthy communication among Native villagers and destroyed cultural pride.

He says Natives became easy targets for Christian missionaries, who taught that Native cultures were satanic and encouraged cutting ties to the past.

Deadly legacy of silence

He concludes that the Native villages suffer from a post-traumatic stress syndrome that can be compared to the plight of some Vietnam War veterans.

"One of the deadlier legacies is that people quit talking. Pretend it didn't happen. It's a natural and innocent way of coping, but it's very deadly," said the soft-spoken Napoleon. "Things stay with you and fester; problems are kept hidden. There is such loneliness in the villages.

"Alcohol then lets these emotions out in a tragic and horrible way."

Natives are 16 percent of Alaska's population but account for 37 percent of suicides. Many occur in the scores of Native villages where a few hundred is a typical population and where subsistence culture continues as modern Western society increasingly intrudes.

Napoleon was an executive director of the Association of Village Council Presidents in the 1970s. When he was released from jail a year ago, he joined the Native sobriety movement and went to work on the reawakening project.

His proposal, announced at the Alaska Federation of Natives' annual convention in October, is just a proposal, at the moment - funding must be secured. As many as 24 Natives are to be recruited to undergo training and go out to a selected village other than their own but within their ethnic region.

John Schaeffer, a leader in the Native sobriety movement since the 1970s and an adviser to the proposed program, said the counselors are to help develop village histories to restore cultural pride. They will include mention of the epidemic deaths.

"They'll help initiate a grieving cycle to get rid of the baggage that we're carrying around that gives us a propensity for addictive behavior," Schaeffer said.

Village treatment planned

The emphasis will be on treating the entire village rather than an individual, as in Western medicine, he said. But volunteers ideally would also be versed in counseling individuals on alcoholism and other problems, he said.

Napoleon's ideas are not new and coincide with what many in the Native community have been saying in recent years, Schaeffer said. But Napoleon was the first to crystallize the philosophy in a book, he said.

Village counseling is a growing field, and the Reawakening project would add to similar community-based programs paid for by the state and put together with Native input, said Susan Soule, coordinator of Native services for the Division of Mental Health.

In his book, Napoleon writes that a key component in healing a village is an increase in tribal sovereignty, which is opposed by the administration of Gov. Walter Hickel. But Napoleon and Schaeffer said in interviews that the project would not be a political movement.

"What we're trying to make is healthy villages," Schaeffer said. "What they do with their health is up to them."

Robert Alberts, a psychiatrist at Providence Hospital and a non-Native adviser to the project, said the most important result of such village counseling would be individuals with better self-esteem.

He cited a University of Michigan study of Lower 48 Indians that found those with the most awareness of and pride in their culture and history were best able to succeed in Western society.

Napoleon said he is busy trying to line up sponsors for the project. Ideally, support would come from the villages taking part, he said.

"I have this great need to avert what happened to me and my family. I believe there is a basic goodness in people, and we're trying to reach it and let it live again."