Huslia man reflects on father’s legacy of mental illness, recovery, and helping villagers in crisis

Man stands in the snow with a subtle smile, next to a red plastic sled.
Lee DeWilde stands outside his cabin in Huslia in Dec., 2023. (Rachel Cassandra/AKPM)

Lee DeWilde grew up outside of Huslia in the 1960’s, when it was a 160-person village in Interior Alaska. He remembers that his father, Lloyd DeWilde, faced some mental health struggles growing up. But despite those struggles, Lloyd later became a resource for his village. As part of a community reporting project focused on health and wellness in rural Alaska, Alaska Public Media’s Rachel Cassandra talked with Lee as they sat down for tea in the cabin he built in Huslia.

Lee DeWilde: I was born on the Yukon between Ruby and Galena on a homestead, the, let me see, one…two…three… the fifth child. They had six kids. They had a dog team. They had a two acre garden. My dad was a real hard worker and he sold vegetables to Ruby and Galena– cabbages, rutabaga, turnips, carrots, cauliflower. They moved up river, up the Huslia river. Then that spring, he started building a cabin, a second cabin, a little bit upriver from where our tent was. 

I was three years old. And I remember he put me in a backpack and then he had my younger sister under his arm. And then all my brothers and sisters were running through the trees. They were excited. About eight or nine dogs, big dogs, were running with them. Everybody’s excited to be going someplace new. And we moved there and they put the tent up under a big tree, a spruce tree. And my dad built that cabin that summer. It was a bigger cabin, 20 by 20 [feet], and it had a flat roof. He put all the big ends of the logs on one side. 

So, that’s where we grew up. That was home camp. And then I think it was two years later, he built another, a six sided cabin, and we moved there. And we starved that winter. We starved. Nobody died. But we got pretty hungry. He was hunting. But when you have seven kids, and you’re with dogs and you’re in lean country- That’s way up river. They’re isn’t much game, and the snow is deep. I think he just wasn’t in a good state of mind. And he wasn’t making good decisions. He wasn’t thinking right. 

That was when they just got snow machines [in Huslia]. They came out there and they picked us all up. I remember I was five years old by then. Ray Bane, Mr. Bane we called him, he was a teacher. He had an airplane. He went out and helped bring my dad back. My dad had a mental breakdown out there. Thinking back on it, they said “nervous breakdown,” but it was a catch-all for mental issues. I think it was clinical depression, maybe. I don’t know, maybe bipolar. I don’t know if people can just naturally get over that without medication. But he was fine after that. 

There was some hard stuff that happened. My dad came to town and scared some people. 

Rachel Cassandra: But he came out of it. 

LD: He came out of it. Yeah, he came out of it. He actually went to a mental institution. This was his, I think, third and last nervous breakdown. And he would talk about it. And then he came out and had more kids. And we stayed out. You know, he stayed out till he could stay out anymore. 

So that’s a success story, I guess. Because you don’t see very many people go through something like that and lead a normal and actually a pretty amazing life, a life that was well-respected. People respected his judgment. They would ask [him] questions. They didn’t have phones and when something happened in the village, he was one of them that responded. [When] people were raising hell drinking, he was one of them that talked them down. I guess I’m just saying that my dad went from a person who had mental breakdowns and ended up in a psychiatric institute for a couple of months, or maybe more, to someone who was a pillar in the community. 

I don’t know how he did it. He might have suffered a little bit from depression, but he handled it. My mom helped out. It would have been very easy for him to go the other solution, the more permanent one. He thought of that. But he didn’t do that. He just toughed it out I guess, for whatever reason.

RC: Yeah, but that kind of sensitivity also does help with him being able to relate to people who are having a hard time. 

LD: Yeah, I remember people would come up here. I remember a guy lost his baby and he came up there and he talked to my dad and it really helped him out. Just stuff like that. They came up and visited him and just talked to him. I remember one guy came up and he had just gotten married and he had a little baby and he would go out hunting all the time. But, for some reason, he found it really hard to leave his little baby. And he came up and he talked to my dad about that and, the guy came away, I guess he felt better talking about it. Another person came up- it’s like they had waited till my dad got to Huslia to go up there and just sit down and just talk. Good advice or something, that was good to see.

This story was produced as part of Alaska Public Media’s Community Wellness Project, a collaborative initiative with rural Alaskans to talk about what wellness means to them. Some stories are told by community members working as citizen reporters. Unlike other journalism projects, participants have input in the editing process and give consent to the final version of the story. People who are interviewed may receive small honorariums for sharing their knowledge and time. Citizen reporters are paid for their work. This project is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

RELATED: Kake resident finds healing by crafting traditional Lingít cedar roses

Rachel Cassandra covers health and wellness for Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Rachel here.

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