Combating addiction with a revival of Native culture

Babic: venue change was a success

David Tucker performs at Native Village of Eyak’s 26th annual Sobriety Celebration. (Nov. 16, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times
David Tucker performs at Native Village of Eyak’s 26th annual Sobriety Celebration. (Nov. 16, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

The U.S. drug epidemic, which has disproportionately affected Alaska Native people, offers little room for levity. But the 26th annual Sobriety Celebration, providing both harrowing accounts of addiction and performances by Native dance groups and a stand-up comic, sought a balance between tragedy and comedy.

Jeremy Rankin, a Cordova fisherman who has struggled with substance dependence since age 14, offered a stark description of his addiction at the North Star Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 16. By age 21, thanks to a strong work ethic, Rankin had obtained a well-paying job on a fishing boat. However, as he moved from alcohol to cocaine and methamphetamine, it didn’t last.

“My attitude was, if I work hard, I can do what I want,” Rankin said. “I loved my job as a fisherman but, eventually, I managed to turn something good into something bad. The decisions I made because of my addiction took a toll… I soon began to live for my next high at any cost. All my integrity was lost, and my moral compass was broke. My life became dark. I no longer cared for anyone, not even myself… I stole, lied, robbed, hurt, used, extorted everyone close to me.”

While imprisoned on a felony charge, Rankin joined a Bible study group. Rankin spent seven months working in a prison ministry and, with a newfound religious conviction, finally began to overcome the sense of self-disgust and purposelessness that had grown with his addiction, he said.

“After feeling so used-up, angry, broken, alone, frustrated, anxious, the words I heard gave me hope,” Rankin said. “Even in prison, I now felt that I was making progress, like my life had purpose.”

Two stand-up performances by Native American comedian and actor Tatanka Means offered a lighter take, emphasizing the importance of motivation and self-discipline in overcoming life’s challenges. Means has abstained from alcohol and recreational drugs since first taking to the stage.

“I talk about comedy and how it’s healing and it’s medicine,” Means said during his Nov. 16 performance. “So is dancing, so is singing. Everything that we do is medicine, and it’s healing for us.”

Rates of drug abuse and overdose deaths are higher among Alaska Natives than in the general population, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Creating strong support networks in the Native community is key to reversing these trends, Means said.

Audiences also heard from keynote speaker Sarjus Moonin, who delivered a personal account of his recovery from alcoholism.

Native dance performances were given by the Cordova Ikumat Dancers, the Yees Ku Oo Dancers, the Mt. St. Elias Dancers, the Tatitlek Alutiiq Dancers, the Kodiak Alutiiq Dancers and the Anchorage Unangax Dancers. The Anchorage Unangax Dancers were a new addition this year, Sobriety Celebration coordinator Mary Babic said.

An opening ceremony included addresses by Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, Mayor Clay Koplin, Pastor Steve Leppert and genealogist Pam Smith, who delivered an address in the Eyak language. Following a posting of colors by the U.S. Coast Guard, resident Taylor Kimbarow led a ceremony recognizing Cordova’s veterans. Several veterans were presented with “Quilts of Valor,” handmade quilts crafted in recognition of their military service.

In previous years, Sobriety Celebration was held at the Cordova Jr./Sr. High School gym. This year, Babic oversaw its relocation to the Cordova Center, although the closing potlatch dinner was still held at the high school. Despite some logistical hiccups, Babic believes that moving to the Cordova Center benefited the event. If asked to return as coordinator, Babic would support using ushers to guide people to their seats at the North Star Theater, she said. Some attendees failed to notice the food fair held in the Cordova Center’s Education Room, a problem that Babic said she would rectify in the future with more visible signage.

Dance groups enjoyed performing at the more distraction-free environment of the North Star Theater, Babic said. Attending photographers also preferred the dramatic atmosphere of the theatre to that of the fluorescent-lit gym, she said.

Sobriety Celebration marries an anti-substance-abuse message with a revived pride in Native culture — two ideas that should reinforce one another, Babic said.

“I hope that the celebration touched one person’s life who may be struggling,” Babic said. “If we can share our stories and reach out to even one person in this community, then we’re doing what we came here to do.”