Depression is a hot topic for Alaskans as well as it is also a difficult issue to address.
In his book “Shopping for Porcupine,” author Seth Kantner discusses the effects of a constantly changing world and the effects it has the culture he was raised in. Though it is never directly addressed, the emotional effects are expressed throughout the book.
“It was a problem yesterday, it is a problem today and will be a problem tomorrow,” Kantner said.
It’s not cutting-edge news, but depression and suicide in Alaska is a becoming a devastating issue. What’s wrong with our world? What causes these people, who in the big picture are nothing more than babies, to think that they are not good enough, that they can’t leave and just can not go on living? Professor Don Rearden poses these questions.
“Before I left, we had three suicides and four attempts,” Olivia Kaganak, a student at UAA, from Scammon Bay, a village on the Bering Coast, said.
Of the four people in her graduating class, Kaganak is the only student still alive today.
A young female Kantner hired said there is only one person, out of six from her graduating class, who is still alive, according to Kantner.
A friend of the author’s daughter asked her, a young teen herself, if she wanted to go to the graveyard and see her cousins, according to Kantner.
“The graveyards are filled with young people,” Kantner said, with the face of a worried father.
Through his book and self-explanation, Kantner explains his life growing up until current day. He talks about fishing, hunting, trapping, photography, traveling around the United States to do readings and the general change in his life style.
Even Kantner has had to adjust to a different world.
“I really love to trap, but there isn’t really a place for it anymore,” Kantner said.
That is what it comes to, that feeling of being an outsider, that constant search for the feeling of belonging in a world that continues to force its people to adapt and to change.
“When fishing, hunting and trapping are no longer needed, entertainment is hard to come by; so what do we do? Party in the summer and drink in the winter,” Kantner said. “When they watch TV, they see tall skinny blondes and muscular men, then begin to compare themselves until they no longer find anything beautiful about themselves, which is such a distorted picture.”
Kantner, who grew up on the tundra, is familiar with the feeling of being an outsider – being a Caucasian male.
“My parents were strange white people who wanted to live like Eskimos,” Kantner said.
Now he is forced to learn how to fit in all over again.
Driving in cities and flying make the author uneasy, as well as constant travel needed to promote the books he writes.
“You know when you fly to Detroit and two people show up, one of which was only looking for a bathroom, then the next day your in a room with 300 people all waiting for you, its difficult and very nerve racking,” Kantner said.
So what lifestyle does he prefer? The one of a thriving author? Or the simple tundra life, where work is working to survive?
“I would rather be shoveling the neighbor’s dog shit, than writing,” Kantner said, as he chuckled, then adding that he would rather be sleeping next to muskoxen.
Kantner left his home to attend school at UAA, but not because he wanted to live in the city or become a doctor, but to find himself a girlfriend.
“My family was totally against finding a real job,” Kantner said.
Needless to say, the feeling of being an alien in a world where you are constantly pressured to fit in is more than just an issue of youth, it is an issue with adults as well.
“There is definitely a higher percentage of males who commit suicide, I think it has something to do with men being more impulsive,” Kantner said.
Kaganak backed up his statement by saying that men in there 20s and 30s are the ones who commit suicide, maybe more frequently than teens.
Seasonal depression is a common sickness in Alaska, and unfortunately most people get a taste of it. For those who live in the city, people and activities constantly surround them. Then there is the polar opposite. Imagine the feeling of seclusion in rural Alaska.
“If you saw people around there, you would be confused, like ‘what are you doing here,’” Kanter said. “As a white person I was confused to see other white people.”
In a passage from “Shopping for Porcupine,” Kantner expresses his admiration of muskoxen.
“Muskoxen live on that line, that thin good-bye edge of extinction. Theirs is a simple, efficient, very different from human approach to a parallel journey through time. If they can’t hang out and take it easy, they can’t survive. And who says, uminmaich may outlive us all.”