Love, peace and seal grease: NVE’s 23rd Annual Sobriety Celebration and Memorial Potlatch

Gov. Walker: ‘Alaska’s biggest problem isn’t the economy; it’s alcoholism and drug addiction’

For more than two decades, the Native Village of Eyak has called for Alaska’s people to come together against the use of drugs and alcohol in the land we call home.

Nov. 11-13 marked the 23rd year of NVE’s Annual Sobriety Celebration and Memorial Potlatch.

Each year the Sobriety Celebration is harder to top, “but then we do,” emcee Robert Henrichs said.

“Alaska’s biggest problem isn’t the economy – it’s alcoholism and drug addiction,” said Gov. Bill Walker, who addressed the celebration on Nov. 12 in the Cordova High School gym.

“Cordova, whatever you do here, you do it well,” Walker said.

“This celebration is a model of what can be done and how it can be done. Your community said ‘enough is enough! We can fix it and fix it ourselves.’ I’m going to take this message statewide. Life is about the health of families. It is about stepping forward and being a part of the solution,” he said.


The celebration included guest speakers of all ages and occupations, who shared their own experiences with substance abuse, or how a loved one’s substance abuse affected them personally.

“What a wonderful weekend of speakers sharing their personal journey, life experiences and struggles. It was so powerful and inspiring,” said NVE Tribal Chairman Darrel Olsen. “The Native Village of Eyak was honored to have such amazing speakers. We need to continue to reach out and support our friends and neighbors in their personal struggles.”

Olsen said that Cordova is honored to have had the governor and First Lady Donna Walker present and taking part during the sobriety celebration.

“It was great to hear Governor Walker speak fondly of his memories of visiting Cordova during his basketball days at Valdez High School. This was his first visit to Cordova since being elected,” Olsen said.

In addition to Walker, guest speakers included Samuel Johns; Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin;. Rep. Dean Westlake director of village economic development, NANA Regional Corp.; U.S. Coast Guard Commander James Jarnac and ET1 Ryan Torbett, of the Coast Guard Cutter Sycamore; Kake magistrate and keynote speaker Mike Jackson; J.D. Stimson; Arnold Brower; Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak; Wilson Justin; Brandon Johnson; Lydia Olsen; Arnold Olsen; Ruth Demmert; Belen Cook; Robert Henrichs; Father Tom Killeen; Clyde Torgerson; Jerry O’Brien, Jr.; Walter Soboleff; and Everett Wright.

Stimson, a 19-year old Cordova resident who is currently in alcohol recovery, was involved in a motor vehicle accident in early August, in which his best friend, a passenger in the vehicle, died.

Stimson wept as he spoke to the audience.

“My name is J.D. Stimson and I am an alcoholic,” he said. “I have been sober 94 days.”

ET1 Ryan Torbett, who is stationed onboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sycamore and celebrating just over one year of sobriety, also addressed the crowd.

“I am a grateful, recovering alcoholic,” Torbett said. “Your rock bottom only has to be as deep as you say it is. You CAN stop digging. I’m following the 12 steps in Alcoholics Anonymous and I have a sponsor. When I quit trying to run the show, life got better. There are tools available, treatment facilities, AA. There are ways to recovery. It’s been 407 days since my last drink. I am a very grateful recovering alcoholic today.”

Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, said she is glad she could attend this year’s event.

“Sobriety celebration was overwhelming,” she said. “The impact of this celebration is so far-reaching that it’s hard to comprehend. To have recovering individuals to stand and tell their story in hopes of helping just one more person stay sober is incredible and far reaching.”

Stutes said she believes that the sobriety celebration should be a traveling road celebration, as all of Alaska has addiction issues, “But it seems rural Alaska has been hit particularly hard.”

Stutes spoke from her perspective as the inheritor of a bar in Kodiak.

Traditional Native dance groups, always a highlight at the celebration, performed during the grand entrance on Nov. 12 and throughout the weekend, eliciting hoots and applause from an enthusiastic audience.

The Kodiak Alutiiq Dancers, Yees Ku Oo Dancers, from Juneau, Cordova Ikumat Native Dancers, Ke ex’ Kwaan Dancers, from Kake, Mt. St. Elias Dancers, from Yakutat, and Tatitlek Dance Group, dressed in their traditional regional regalia, performed traditional songs in their languages.

AA meetings were held throughout the weekend. A candlelight vigil took place the evening of Nov. 11 and a countdown to sobriety on the evening of Nov. 12.

The Sycamore’s Coast Guard Color Guard, EM2 Mariah Chastain, MK3 Shaina Murray, MK3 Kate Salzmann and SN Bridgette Hendrix, carried the flags during opening ceremonies.

Casea Peterson was recognized for designing this year’s sobriety celebration logo.

Veteran of Foreign Wars State Commander Marty Harris helped honor veterans during a recognition ceremony with Clyde Torgerson.

A community-wide potlatch, which opened with a prayer by Leona Olsen of the Little Chapel, capped off the weekend.

Elders, dance groups and others shared the spread of buffalo, pickled fish, shrimp, baked fish, crab, scallops, various salads and rolls, and muktuk from Barrow.

Tables full of furs, beadwork, metalwork, earrings, photographs, skin-sewing handicrafts, and other items were available for purchase down the hallways of CHS during the event.

NVE wants to thank the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sycamore and Cordova Air Station crews, and the CHS Tech Club, in addition to numerous and generous sponsors throughout the Cordova community, Olsen said.

Editor’s note: Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson, a staff writer and photographer for the Cordova Times, is J.D. Stimson’s mother.