Fairbanks, Alaska--Freddie Edmund thought the pond was safe that cold spring day in Alakanuk, until he broke through the ice and sank into the water.
He panicked, but then remembered the ice-safety lesson he heard from the community's elders as part of the Elluam Tungiinun [ISH-lom DOO-nee-nun] research project, spearheaded by the Center for Alaska Native Health Research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"I started to get calm and I spread my arms out," Edmund, 16, remembered. "I got out. I remembered what the elders said."
Freddie credits Elluam Tungiinun, Yup'ik for "Toward Wellness," for saving him from drowning. His father, Shelby Edmund, said the program rescued his son in a different way.
"I have a relationship with my son now," Shelby said. "My wife, too."
This is the intent of Elluam Tungiinun, said Gerald Mohatt, a psychologist and CANHR director. The project aims to find culturally appropriate ways to help Alaska Native youths find reasons to live and avoid problems with drugs and alcohol.
The National Institutes of Health's National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities has awarded the project another $2.9 million to continue testing the prevention theories in Alakanuk and expand the program into four Alaska Native communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
Elluam Tungiinun has roots in a previous UAF research project that began as an answer to the Anchorage Daily News' "People in Peril," a Pulitzer Prize-winning series about suicide and alcoholism among Alaska Natives, Mohatt said.
"We began hearing from Alaska Natives who wanted to know about people who never had problems with alcohol or who had recovered and been sober for five or more years," Mohatt said.
UAF psychology professors Mohatt, Kelly Hazel and Jim Allen, along with Alaska Native partners and a staff of Alaska Natives and non-Natives, conducted the People Awakening Project. Collaborators collected life stories from Alaska Natives and then identified 13 characteristics of the family, community or individual that were common among people who did not have serious substance abuse problems.
Those qualities, called protective factors, became the basis for the Elluam Tungiinun project, which started in 2006, Allen said.
Because CANHR conducts community-based participatory research, Alakanuk residents made decisions about the program, including how the protective factors would be taught to its youths. They decided to do cultural activities, such as fishing, berry picking and seal hunting, in addition to other more Western-focused activities to help youths understand the effects of alcohol. They also chose activities, such as the ice safety lesson, to explain how Yup'iks survive arctic conditions or how Yup'iks view the world.
"This is not just doing cultural activities because the protective factors are in the values, and link action to internal feelings," Allen said, "It's not just head learning. The activities have an intellectual, emotional and spiritual relationship for the participants."
The program is highly regarded in Alakanuk, where community members have come to regard it as their own, and not just something UAF is doing, said Ray Oney, the tribal administrator for the Native Village of Alakanuk. The community elders insisted Oney put someone on his staff to help with the program.
"The elders saw a change in the youth," he said. "We all really want to give the kids an identity of being Yup'ik, who they are, where they came from, how they utilized the land and the history of the Yup'iit."
That sticks with Freddie Edmund.
"I started to know how the elders used to go, how they lived and how their parents taught them," he said. He encouraged his friends to attend the program.
Paula Ayunerak, an Alakanuk elder, said the program has changed the young people, as well as the parents and other adults.
"Elluam Tungiinun brought better relationships and communication among the community (members)," she said. "Parents started communicating with their children."
The program makes room for Alaska Native values, which makes it different from other drug and alcohol abuse or suicide prevention programs, she said.
Alakanuk was featured in the "People in Peril" series in the 1980's because of its high suicide rate. The community used the Elluam Tungiinun program to address this problem, Ayunerak said.
In one activity conducted in April 2007, the participants laughed at "the spirit of suicide" to shame it into leaving the community and then stomped their feet to block a return path, both actions based on Yup'ik lore.
"We haven't had a suicide since then," Ayunerak said.
The program has given Shelby Edmund and his family hope, he said.
"We have some pictures (of Freddie), his before and then after," Shelby said. "Before you could tell he was not really smiling with his heart. You can see now, he's full of smiles."
CONTACT: Diana Campbell, CANHR communication specialist, 907-474-5221 or firstname.lastname@example.org. James Allen, psychology professor, 907-474-6123 or email@example.com. Gunnar Ebbesson, Elluam Tungiinun project manager, 907-978-5367 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gerald Mohatt, CANHR director and psychology professor, 907-474-7927 or email@example.com.