NVE hosts 24th annual Sobriety Celebration

Keynote speaker Robert “Bob” Bernard, 24 years sober, shares his experience, strength and hope with Sobriety Celebration crowd full of friends, relatives and strangers

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“Hi, my name is Bob and I’m an alcoholic,” the keynote speaker began.

“Hi Bob,” came back the response from just a few the crowd of several hundred people packed into the Cordova High School gymnasium on Nov. 11.

That greeting wasn’t loud enough for former Cordova resident Robert “Bob” Bernard, of Portland, Ore., the keynote speaker at the Native Village of Eyak’s 24th annual Sobriety Celebration.

“Let’s try that again,” he said.

“Hi! My name is Bob. I’m an alcoholic.”

The traditional 12-step meeting response was louder on the second try.

“Hi Bob,” they said.

Bernard has been sober for 24 years.

“As I got sober and the years went by, I found the promises of AA (Alcoholic Anonymous) coming true,” he said. “When I would meditate, be still and listen, God would speak to me. I had to do something to pass on what I’d learned to the younger people.”

Bernard spoke at length about the correlation between young people feeling a sense of belonging to something important in their lives, and having something healthy to do, to living an addiction-free lifestyle.

Traditional Native ways are an example of such a lifestyle.

“We have to keep the drums beating,” he said. “Drumming is so important today. When it comes to alcohol and drugs, the devil knows no boundaries. The devil is scared to death of the drums – that’s why we gotta have the drums.”

The theme of this year’s celebration was “Riding the Qailiq/Wave of Sobriety.”

Sobriety Celebration is a big deal not only in Cordova. People from all over Alaska attend the event.

The celebration officially kicked off Nov. 10, with the Keex’ Kwaan Dancers from Kake performing at both the elementary and high school. Evening events included a welcome dinner for out of town guests, a 12-step sobriety meeting, a video presentation from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and her rural outreach coordinator, Deborah Vo, and a candlelight vigil and celebration of the Native dance groups who performed throughout the weekend.

Opening ceremonies on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, were led by former NVE President Robert Henrichs, and the Cordova Boy Scouts posting of the colors. Fr. Tom Killeen, of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, gave the invocation.

Alaska Native dancers from the Yees Ku Oo Dance Group, of Juneau, the Cordova Ikumat Native Dancers, Keex’ Kwaan Dancers from Kake, the Mt. St. Elias Dancers of Yakutat, and the Kodiak Alutiiq Dance group participated in the Grand Entrance parade, dancing their way into the high school gymnasium, singing, chanting and beating drums.

New to this year’s Sobriety Celebration was the acquisition of the traditionally made Chugach Hat by the Native Village of Eyak’s Ilanka Cultural Center.

Shyla Krukoff, a senior member of the Cordova Ikumat Dancers, wore the hat for its inaugural dance during the group’s performance.

The traditional Chugach Hat was woven of spruce root earlier this year by artist Dolly Garza, originally from Ketchikan and now living in Haida Gwaii, said Ilanka Cultural Center Director Brooke Johnson

“The hat shape is Chugach style – the painted teal color comes from remnants of copper and was a common color to be painted on things in our area; it has a killer whale painted on it, ‘arlluk’ in the Sugcestun language. The design was taken after a traditional hat that is in a museum. The hat also has three rings on it, another traditional part of Chugach designs. Only thing it is missing is whiskers, which (the artist) said was for us to add to it,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the hat was purchased through a grant from the Rasmussen Foundation, part of an art acquisition program where the foundation gives money to Museums Alaska, so that they can grant money to other museums within the state to purchase new artwork for their collections.

Next up, Mayor Clay Koplin welcomed attendees to the celebration, and NVE Special Events Coordinator Belen Cook introduced the NVE Tribal Council, and Sobriety Celebration committee, donors and volunteers.

Lt. Col. Valerie Simon, and Cordova Post #10032 Veteran of Foreign Wars Auxiliary President Wendy Ranney led a ceremony honoring veterans. Many local and visiting vets stood for the ceremony highlighting their military service.

Numerous guest speakers addressed the crowd throughout the day, including Representatives Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak and Dean Westlake, D-Kotzebue. Alaska Native Health Board President and Chief Executive Officer Verne Boemer told a story filled with lessons to illustrate her points on culture, values, sobriety and society. Other speakers were Wilson Justin, of the Alaska Native Health Board; keynote speaker Robert “Bob” Bernard; Arnold Brower; Mike Jackson, of Kake; Tara Risinger – special assistant to Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska; Arnold Olsen; Roald Helgesen, chief executive officer of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium; Brandon Johnson; Wilbur Brown, 6th Vice President of the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes; and Lincoln Bean.

Dr. Brian lutzi presented the Sobriety Celebration Countdown, with people coming forward who have lived 50-plus years sober, to individuals sober for one day, and many years in between.

Henrichs gave the closing address, followed by the Grand Exit parade, with the five dance groups, who celebrated their traditional Native dances and songs.

Winners were announced for the silent auction event, a fundraiser for the celebration, which was then followed by the Community Traditional Subsistence Potlatch Dinner.

NVE Tribal Council Chairman/President Darrel Olsen said sobriety is an important issue far beyond the local community.

“When a person decides to change their life and their habits, we need to encourage them in their decision,” Olsen said. “The sobriety can be (from) drugs or alcohol. We have the sobriety weekend, but we also need to remember that the people need our support every day – it can be as small as just giving them a high five, or wishing them success in their decision.”

“Let’s not criticize or condemn someone who has struggles,” he said. “Let’s try to encourage and support them. It may be hard at times but we need to be supportive.”

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Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson is a staff writer and photographer for The Cordova Times. She has been writing in one form or another for 30-plus years and has had a longstanding relationship with The Cordova Times starting in 1989. She's been an Alaskan since 1976 and first moved to Cordova in 1978. She's lived in various West Texas towns; in Denver, Colorado; in McGrath, Cordova, Galena, Kodiak, Wasilla, Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska and in Bangalore, India. She has two children and three grandchildren. She can be reached at cgibbens-stimson@thecordovatimes.com or follow her on Instagram @alaskatoindia.