Spring 2016 – Nikolai – Sobriety for the New Year – A Community Wide Celebration

By Amy Modig

Josephine Malemute and Mike Mickelson of Dancing with the Spirit perform at the Nikolai Sobriety Week Celebration in January. A number of events were held during Sobriety Week, including music and suicide prevention workshops, dances, fireworks and more. Dancing with the Spirit is a project designed to connect youth and Elders through music. Photo by Amy Modig

Josephine Malemute and Mike Mickelson of Dancing with the Spirit perform at the Nikolai Sobriety Week Celebration in January. A number of events were held during Sobriety Week, including music and suicide prevention workshops, dances, fireworks and more. Dancing with the Spirit is a project designed to connect youth and Elders through music. Photo by Amy Modig

In Nikolai, a small Athabascan village of 100, Sobriety Week was celebrated from January 10 to 15, which included Russian Orthodox New Year on January 14. Beverly Gregory, Tribal Administrator and her Assistant, Shalmarie Nikolai, organized and coordinated the activities for the week which included music for the school students, a suicide prevention workshop, sobriety work, dances every night and a spectacular fireworks display on Russian Orthodox New Year’s Eve. Along with the assistance of local organizations, the community was able to use donated funds to house, feed and provide transportation for the guest speakers and musicians.

Residents recently voted to change Nikolai’s Nillocal option law from dry to damp and the community has seen an increase in alcohol-related trauma. Local planners hoped to support sobriety, attract those who are struggling and inspire active users to choose healthier lifestyles. Many times it is the youth who suffer from chaotic homes.

Circle talks, also known as talking circles, were held each day during the Nikolai Sobriety Week. Photos by Amy Modig

Circle talks, also known as talking circles, were held each day during the Nikolai Sobriety Week. Photos by Amy Modig

Josephine Malemute and Mike Mickelson of Dancing with the Spirit taught guitar lessons for youth during Nikolai Sobriety Week. Photo by Amy Modig

Josephine Malemute and Mike Mickelson of Dancing with the Spirit taught guitar lessons for youth during Nikolai Sobriety Week. Photo by Amy Modig

With the youth as a priority, Dancing with the Spirit was invited to teach the students in school to play music. Its mission is to connect youth and Elders through school music programs while promoting spiritual, physical and mental wellness. Josephine Malemute (Nulato/Galena) and Mike Mickelson (Cordova) were the two instructors. Mike Mickelson, son of founder and Executive Director, Belle Mickelson, said Nikolai was the 30th village the program has visited in the last 20 years.

Josephine, who is also the Assistant Director of Dancing with the Spirit, said they bring guitars, fiddles, mandolins and ukuleles and even though they mostly go to Athabascan villages, they have been all over the state including as far north as Point Hope and into Canada. The week of music culminated in a concert for the community by the younger grades.

The Top of the Kuskokwim School provided housing for most presenters and opened the library for music classes. Principal Tara Wiggins and the new teacher, Matt Willette were generous in their sharing of space and participating whole-heartedly in all events. John Runkle and Martha Stearns provided a clean and comfortable site. They were all very much appreciated.

As part of the festivities, Mike and Josephine played each night so the community could dance. Several youth, adults and Elders were encouraged to join the fun. Much to everyone’s delight, Stanley Peters of Holy Cross joined Nikolai with his guitar, fiddle and voice. On New Year’s Day, he and Josephine demonstrated the Jitter Bug dance for all to enjoy.

Russian New Year’s Eve was celebrated on January 13 and the community organized a fireworks display that would rival Anchorage or Fairbanks.

A Russian Orthodox New Year Celebration was held in Nikolai on January 14. Photo by Amy Modig

A Russian Orthodox New Year Celebration was held in Nikolai on January 14. Photo by Amy Modig

As part of developing sobriety skills, a four-hour SafeTALK session was held for over 20 community members, including high school youth. Val Pingayak and Constance Reiner-Ely co-trained and it was very well received. They both work for Tanana Chiefs Conference Suicide Prevention. SafeTALK is an alertness training that prepares anyone over the age of 15, regardless of prior experience or training, to become a suicide alert helper. Most people with thoughts of suicide don’t truly want to die, but are struggling with the pain in their lives. Through their words and actions, they invite help to stay alive. SafeTALK trained helpers can recognize these invitations and take action by connecting them with life-saving intervention resources.

Samuel Johns of the Forget-Me-Not movement helped people reunite homeless individuals to their families or communities and delighted young people with his humor and inspirational message. The Forget-Me-Not Facebook page started in June and has over 22,000 members. He has received numerous awards including the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award which he will receive in April in Washington, D.C. Samuel performed some of his positive rap messages and spoke on his commitment to sobriety and health.

Doug and Amy Modig, early leaders in the Alaska Native Sobriety Movement, held circle talks (also known as talking circles) each day on different aspects of living sober. Circle talks are a time for attendees to share personal stories and experiences and process what they have learned. They also provided individual sobriety talks with community members. They thoroughly enjoyed local steam baths, the music and dances.

Dog Musher John Runkle and his family participated in the Nikolai Sobriety Week events. A few of the guest speakers enjoyed a dog sled ride with John. Photo by Amy Modig

Dog Musher John Runkle and his family participated in the Nikolai Sobriety Week events. A few of the guest speakers enjoyed a dog sled ride with John. Photo by Amy Modig

All the guests were fed three meals a day by professional chef, Ed Ticknor of Nikolai and the father of Tatiana Ticknor who had an opportunity to meet President Obama last November and talk about Alaska Native youth concerns. Ed Ticknor and Joricha Thomas cooked delicious meals including moose stews, baked king salmon and turkeys for the potluck dinners.

Breakfast and lunch was provided at the tribal office where a kitchen was set up. Each of these meals, were enlivened by the storytelling skills of the visitors and the local staff. The final lunch on Friday caused so much hilarity that people were wiping their eyes and holding their sides. Many agreed that these were the most healing of all the activities, except for the steam baths so generously provided by the Petruska family, Nick and Oline.

Another local activity was provided by John Runkle, longtime dog musher, who gave a sled ride to Mike Mickelson for 27 miles! There were several birthdays during the week. People requested prayers for the Tribal Chief Sammy John, who was under medical care at a hospital. On New Year’s Day, gifts were presented to the Elders and to the children.

It was a very wonderful sobriety celebration and reminded Doug and Amy of the early Rural Providers’ Conferences (RPC). All participants received a certificate of appreciation “for choosing to LIVE a SOBER lifestyle.” All of us want to thank Nikolai for its generosity for sharing its vision of sobriety with the rest of us. May all their hopes and dreams be realized in the New Year!
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Thank you Amy Modig for sharing her experience and beautiful photos. What an inspirational start to the New Year in Nikolai.

Save the Date for the 2016 Rural Providers’ Conference!
RPC logo 2016RurAL CAP and Kawerak, Inc. will host the 33rd Annual Rural Providers’ Conference (RPC) on August 2-5, 2016 in Nome, Alaska at the Nome Elementary School with nightly performances at the Nome Recreation Center. The theme of this conference is “Carving a Path to Wellness.”

The conference is an annual gathering, designed by rural Alaskans to share information, gain skills and participate in training to address substance abuse in a variety of culturally significant ways. The RPC is conducted in a style compatible with Alaska Native lifestyles and ways of communicating including ceremonies, circle talks, and cultural events. Participants include substance abuse service providers, professionals seeking to earn continuing education and college credit, youth, elders, village representatives, and family members interested in gaining new energy and celebrating their own sobriety.

For more information, contact Bridget McCleskey at RurAL CAP at (907) 854-9470 in Anchorage, toll-free in Alaska at (800) 478-7227 or at confcoor@gci.net. You may also contact Barb Nickels at (907) 434-1833 with any questions.

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