ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts, who have survived for thousands of years in one of the harshest environments on Earth, openly declared war this week against a disease ravaging their people: alcoholism.
The natives, meeting in Anchorage from Thursday through Saturday at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention, turned their private individual and village struggle against drinking into a public battle by launching a sobriety movement.
'Many of us have made a choice to stand together against this plague that is killing our people,' said Inupiat Eskimo Jeanie Greene.
A blue ribbon commission of native leaders stood before the 1,000 delegates to the AFN convention and before many more in rural Alaska watching on statewide television and begged Alaska's aboriginal people to give up liquor.
Natives make up only 15 percent of the Alaska population, but 59 percent of that share are jailed for violent crimes, reports have said. Alcohol is linked to nearly all violence involving Eskimos, Aleuts and Indians.
The governor, respected native elders, doctors and government officials all said essentially the same thing in different speeches - Alaska's native people are doomed if they don't sober up.
'You are a strong people,' said Gov. Steve Cowper. 'You have proven that many times in the past. I urge you to use that strength here again.'
Destruction wrought by alcohol threatens to overshadow a history of epidemics that natives have survived, Cowper warned.
'It is painfully clear that alcohol is the major source of death, injuries and preventable illness in Alaska native people,' Dr. Jim Berner of the Alaska Native Medical Center told the crowd from across rural Alaska that filled the Anchorage convention center.
Alaska natives are killing themselves and each other and alcohol is the common denominator, according to an AFN report released in January that said alcohol-fueled suicides and murders were four times the national average.
The report also said suicide among young native males is 14 times the national average; fetal alcohol syndrome is twice the national average and the leading cause of native birth defects; and accidental deaths are three times higher.
While alcohol-induced despair has wracked many of the cold, barren state's 200 native communities, 63 villages have banned sale of alcohol and 17 have gone so far as to outlaw possession of alcohol -- an extraordinary step in a state where possession of small amounts of marijuana is legal.
Natives flying to the AFN convention from dry villages were offered half-price fares by Ryan Air, a 'bush' airline.
The hopeful theme of the convention was 'Restrengthening native families and communities.'
Maj. Gen. John Schaeffer, an Eskimo who heads the Alaska National Guard and is in the governor's cabinet, stood before the crowd and declared that he swore off drink one year ago and 'I've been trying to convince people that it's OK to be sober.'
'Enough of this self-destructive behavior,' said Doug Modig, a Tsimshian Indian who said this was the first time native leaders had seriously embraced the sobriety movement.
'We need to control this disease that's got ahold of us,' said Athabascan Indian businessman Roy Ewan.
'I don't like to see my people dying of this disease,' said Aleut Nina Olsen.
'This feeling of hopelessness and despair has to stop,' said Inupiat athlete Greg Nothstine. 'I've lost a lot of friends to alcohol. Many of you all have, too. It's up to us.'
'It's a sadness that has pervaded our people,' said Tlingit Indian Ethel Lund.
'I am an Alaska native. My spirit is strong. My spirit issober,' Jeanie Greene said as other Eskimos beat a solemn rhythm on skin drums while hundreds came forward in an almost religious dedication to get buttons depicting a raven -- a symbol representing the creator in Alaska native cultures -- sheltering a family and surrounded by the words, 'Our spirit strong sober.'
AFN President Janie Leask, a Haida-Tsimshian Indian, said fighting the plague of alcohol in native communities to achieve sobriety 'is something nobody else can give us. It's something we have to do for ourselves.'