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Coming of Age Video

The goal of this project is to produce a 30 minute documentary showcasing Alaskan Natives who are striving and succeeding to overcome the problems of drug and alcohol abuse in their communities, families, and personal lives. By telling their stories of substance abuse and recovery and sharing how they currently lead alcohol and drug-free lives, these individuals will demonstrate the potential for others to also lead meaningful, successful lives rooted in Alaska Native heritage, culture and wisdom.

Background Information

Alaska is a land abundant in natural resources, wilderness, and cultural diversity. As the largest state, it covers approximately 586,000 square miles, home to more than 200 rural Native communities. 

Within the past 40 years, significant changes have taken place in most of these Native communities. During the 1950's, large numbers of Alaska Natives were introduced to alcohol which quickly became a debilitating and deadly presence:

"By the early 1970's, alcohol was identified as being a leading cause of death among Alaska Natives. The Alaska Native suicide rate, which did not significantly differ from nationwide averages throughout the 1950's, began to take a dramatic turn upwards. Other indicators of serious social and behavioral health breakdown--e.g. assault, murder, sexual crimes including those against children, avoidable accidents, and psychological depression--began to multiply throughout the 1960's and 1970's. As with Native suicides, these anti-social behaviors and conditions were, by and large, directly related to the use and abuse of alcohol. These trends continued into and throughout the decade of the 1980's. (Alaska Natives Commission, v. 1, 1994, p. 15)

Today, substance abuse is the single most important debilitating force among Alaska Natives: the suicide rate is four times greater than the national average and nearly 80% of all Native deaths are alcohol related. In addition, the rate of fetal alcohol syndrome among Alaska Natives is the highest for any population studied to date (4.2 per 1,000 live births). Alcohol and drug abuse has, does, and will continue to ruin the lives of many more Alaska Natives unless these people can be encouraged and inspired to choose positive alternatives to their current destructive lifestyles. 

The Alaska Natives Commission of 1994 was mandated by the United States Congress as a joint federal and state commission on policies and programs affecting Alaska Natives. The report sought to provide recommendations for solutions to the many complex problems facing Native Alaskans and was based upon eighteen months of intensive research throughout the state. The report states that: "Because the most serious problems Alaska Natives face are uniquely their own, the solutions will have to come from the Native Community. Alaska Natives must be empowered to carry out the solutions." (Vol. 1, p. 16)

Repeatedly, throughout the report, the Commission recommends that substance abuse must be solved by the efforts of those people who have been and continue to be directly affected by it every day. The solution must come from within the Native Alaskan community and must involve an element of personal empowerment to motivate present and potential future abusers to make healthy choices. "Coming of Age" is a documentary that has been designed with this precise intent and has the potential to be a powerful and positive sobriety tool for Native (as well as non-Native), young and old, rural and non-rural people throughout Alaska and throughout the country.

Robert Charlie, Executive Director/Founder of the Cultural Heritage and Education Institute, is an Athabascan Elder originally from the interior Alaska village of Minto who has witnessed the destructive nature of profound substance abuse to his people. Minto faces an unemployment rate of 85-90% and lacks many of the resources and opportunities needed to keep residents busy doing healthy activities. Alcohol consumption has become one of the primary village activities and has had a devastating impact as seen in the high rate of alcohol-related deaths (in car and boating accidents, cold weather exposure, and suicides) and the higher-than-usual rate of fetal alcohol syndrome. Despite the village's "Dry" status (the importation and sale of alcohol is illegal) young Minto community members appear to be of greatest risk to the deceptive lure of alcohol, and community leaders are wary of the implications this will have on the future of their people, culture, and homeland.



CHEI currently seeks funding for the "Coming of Age" documentary which recognizes that, as film maker Tony Dawmunt says, "video has become an indispensable tool for indigenous people seeking to assert and maintain their cultural identity in the wake of the increasingly homogenized global media flow." "Coming of Age" will be a unique film to simultaneously examine the current crisis of substance abuse in Native Alaska and provide role models whose experiences send messages of self-empowerment and cultural pride. CHEI's intent is that these messages will encourage present and potential future substance abusers to gain an understanding and appreciation of their cultural heritage, history, worthiness of self-respect, and innate ability to choose healthy alternatives.

"Coming of Age" will showcase individuals who have met the challenge of drug and alcohol abuse by overcoming their addictions. These individuals will be chosen based on their interest in and ability to share their stories, and collectively will represent rural, urban, dry, damp, and wet communities, as well as both males and females, a variety of ages, and the many Native cultural groups of Alaska. These individuals' experiences will be an example to others on how to pursue activities that are instrumental in sustaining their sobriety (e.g. living traditional lifestyles that are a blend of both their own cultures and "western" culture, pursuing artistic endeavors, and participating in competitive athletics such as World Eskimo and Indian Olympics, dog mushing, basketball, etc.). 

Integral to the documentary will be a song called "Sobriety," written by Robert Charlie. "Sobriety" will serve as background music becoming yet another means to transmit the drug and alcohol-free message. The song advocates that Native Alaskans reject drugs and alcohol for alternative healthy lifestyles that reflect their Native Alaskan ways of life. "Sobriety" depicts the Athabascan people's life before they were exposed to drugs and alcohol:

  • "..I heard a few tales of the olden days 

    When the time was right and thoughts were new
    They told about the harmony
    Of land, the people in a simple way..."

"Sobriety" suggests ways to meet the challenges of today's pressured life and the need for families and friends to support those who are trying to overcome their dependency on alcohol and drugs. 

Already, plans for the video's distribution are being made. "Coming of Age" will be available, free of charge, to libraries, school districts, and to the more than 200 regional and village corporations, as well as other educational organizations throughout Alaska. At the college level, "Coming of Age" will be applicable to many academic subject areas such as Native American studies, Alaskan Native studies, abuse prevention studies, psychology, education, and the humanities. 

Initial distribution will target an in-state audience but will eventually target nation-wide schools, abuse prevention centers, etc. Within Alaska, the following organizations will be asked to assist with publicizing and distributing the documentary: the Alaska Native Human Resources Development Program, the Alaska State Council on Drug and Alcohol Abuse Prevention, the Alaska Federation of Natives, the Tanana Chiefs Conference, Native regional corporations, and other local and regional centers that offer drug and alcohol abuse prevention programs. Outside of Alaska, similar organizations will be asked to assist in our distribution efforts. Already, CHEI has been approached by an Alaskan Native now living in North Carolina who wishes to help distribute the documentary to the Cherokee Reservation near her home because, she urged, "The Cherokee people need any and all help in reaching their people and helping them overcome this disease." 



"Coming of Age" will become a vehicle by which many essential questions regarding the nature of humanity are examined: the importance of place, the value of personal choice, and the role of time in shaping attitudes.

Overall, CHEI anticipates the following results from this project:

  1. To enhance Native Alaskan cultural pride, support, and identity. 
    • Measurement: Conduct pre- and post-surveys with Native audience members regarding their sentiment toward and experiences with their community as a source of pride, support, and identity.
  2. To increase motivation toward identifying, creating, and implementing effective and healthy options that will lead to substance abuse prevention, treatment, and/or support.
    • Measurement: Conduct pre- and post-surveys to measure self-reported changes in behavior. 

      Measurement: Conduct pre- and post-surveys to measure any changes of perception regarding substance abuse including availability and appeal of options for recovery. 

      Measurement: Conduct qualitative interviews with audience members regarding their reactions to the documentary and the sobriety options it presents.

  3. To increase awareness of Alaskan Natives' struggles and successes with substance abuse. 
    • Measurement: Conduct pre- and post-surveys to measure awareness of Native Alaska's struggles and successes with substance abuse.



PO Box 73030 Fairbanks, AK 99707 | (907) 451-0923 |


Old Minto Cultural Heritage and Educational Institution

Comments or Suggestions? Please contact CHEI.