Tanana Youths Speak Out Against Sexual Assault, Marijuana Legalization

The Tanana 4-H club returned to the Elders and Youth Conference Tuesday, following up on their emotional presentation at last year’s conference. The group’s message is still the same: they don’t always feel safe or cared for and they want that to change, but now they’re also taking a stand against marijuana legalization.

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During last year’s presentation, each 4-H member told the audience that they’d been molested, abused, or neglected and that they were tired of it. The youth shocked the unsuspecting audience.

An encore presentation during the Alaska Federation of Natives convention a few days later brought overwhelming support and praise for the group and thousands of dollars in donations.

Those donations brought the group back this year. This time, First Alaskans Institute, which hosts the conference, was more prepared for the intense feelings that the 4-H presentation might stir. A volunteer counselor in the audience was available to anyone who needed to talk.

One 4-H member, 17-year-old Ashely, identified herself as a victim of sexual abuse. She listed off statistics about Alaska’s high rate of sexual abuse and domestic violence and she chided adults for not doing more to protect children from it.

“If you experience sexual abuse you need to report it, but what difference does that make?” she said. “They still send abusers back to villages to prey on us. They don’t change; they’re still a sick, twisted person. This is our time to come out and speak. I challenge every one of you to stop keeping this a secret and protect our children to save our future.”

The youths talked about how their families have been affected by things like rape, domestic violence and substance abuse. A few of the youths took the opportunity to speak out against ballot measure 2, which would legalize the use and sale of marijuana.

“Hi my name is Linda, I’m 15 and I’m against legalizing marijuana. I may be young but I’m already sick of the negative effects the marijuana has (had on) my community. It has destroyed my village, we have crime and outstanding teen usage.”

As the legalization initiative is written, if voters approve legal pot there is nothing stopping people from bringing it into villages. When it comes to alcohol, communities can choose to allow importation but ban sales or they can completely ban it altogether. With marijuana, only incorporated municipalities have local control over retail sales, villages have none. The law will allow for legal possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and up to six plants.

The kids also spoke a lot about spice, synthetic marijuana that can cause hallucinations, seizures and psychosis. They said that they’ve been terrified when they were around family members who were using it. The legislature outlawed spice earlier this year.

Group leader Cynthia Erickson said that a few months after the kids returned from last year’s conference, she asked them if they thought anything had changed in their village of Tanana. They said nothing had. A few months later in May, a Tanana man shot and killed State Troopers Sgt. Patrick Johnson and Gabe Rich. The kids looked up to the troopers and were devastated.

“But I said all of you are changing, don’t get discouraged. It took 50 years to get this dysfunctional,” she said. “Seven kids can’t walk on stage and expect a change overnight. But you are changing. You won’t drink and do drugs with a baby in you. You won’t molest. You won’t rape. You are the change; we are the ones we have been waiting for. By one child changing it changes a whole village. One healthy child does make a difference.”

After the presentation Erickson said that the 4-H kids were starting to get a sense of how they impact other youth around the state. Some got to travel to Bethel and Ruby to meet and talk with other youths going through the same struggles. Erickson wondered if kids outside of Tanana might also benefit from getting some weight off their chests.

“I asked the kids how many of you would sign up today to go and take the stage with us at AFN,” Erickson said. “We have seven of you that will come and blast your village’s ass out of the water, they stand up and clap, ‘where do we sign up?’”

The Tanana 4-H club will again take the stage this year at the AFN convention. The group is scheduled to present Thursday after the Elders and Youth Conference report is delivered.

Jennifer Canfield is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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