The legend of Joe Spenard has been lovingly passed down for generations in Alaska. An early settler of Anchorage, Spenard came to the city in 1916 looking to make his fortune as a logging camp owner. Instead, he quickly found his calling as a rebellious dandy with a penchant for bootlegging. Ignoring notices from the US Forest Service, Spenard clear cut acres of the Chugach National Forest to build an illegal dance pavilion at which the alcohol flowed freely.
A century has passed since Spenard’s follies but his story illustrates some Alaskans’ misplaced pride in being a bastion of booze-fueled good times.
“We have a number of elements of this frontier lifestyle,” Mary Ehrlander, director of northern studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told the Fairbanks News-Miner in 2015. “It’s quite masculine, there are elements of risk-taking. For women, especially young women, there’s a culture of being able to hold your liquor and drink with the guys.”
In a state where the culture of binge drinking runs deep, the problem becomes magnified in vulnerable populations like the Alaska Native community. Alcohol was first introduced to Alaska’s most remote villages in the 1880s by settlers who used it as currency. Since then, alcohol and drug use amongst Alaska Native’s has proliferated, leading to dire consequences.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) suggests that American Indians and Alaska Natives are at an increased risk for substance abuse. In fact, 17.5% of Native Americans and Alaska Natives were in need of alcohol or drug treatment from 2003 to 2011, compared to just 9.3 percent of people of other races or ethnicities.
The result is proving to be a repeating cycle of addiction. According to a 2017 study released by Recover Alaska, 35% of households in the state’s Northern Region struggle with alcohol use disorder. Even higher are “child out-of-home placements” due to parental use of alcohol: That number is a staggering 62%.
“I think everyone knows someone who has gone to jail or died because of alcohol and drug misuse, and it is time for it to stop,” says Gregory Nothstine, president of Sobermiut: Reviving Our Spirit, in 2018 informational video created for Recover Alaska.
Founded in 2008, Sobermiut: Reviving Our Spirit is an Anchorage-based non-profit that seeks to establish a network of services and healthcare for Alaska Natives relocating from the village to Anchorage. The organization hopes that by lessening the effects of culture shock, it can prevent substance abuse.
“For the past 30 years, the members of the Alaska Natives for Sobriety Movement have been working through grassroots campaigns to collect sobriety pledges and show the community that sober living is desirable.”
This is why March 2019 marks a historic victory for sobriety advocates like Nothstine. For the past 30 years, the members of the Alaska Natives for Sobriety Movement have been working through grassroots campaigns, like Sobermuit, to collect sobriety pledges and show the community that sober living is desirable. Now, they have the backing of the newly signed Senate Bill 208, which officially established March as Sobriety Awareness Month.
“…[It] may seem like a small gesture, but for many, it recognizes their achievement for a better lifestyle for themselves which will help foster a culture that is conscious of this State’s multi-faceted substance abuse challenge and how those challenges can ultimately be overcome,” Alaska State Senator Berta Gardner said in an April 28, 2018 press release.
One Alaskan who is leading the charge this month is Recover Alaska executive director Tiffany Hall. In recovery herself, Hall believes in the power of establishing a safe, inclusive community for those choosing to live a sober lifestyle.
“My relationship with alcohol was abusive. Parts of it felt really solitary and kind of isolating because I thought I was the only person who didn’t know how to drink appropriately and I had the feeling that I was just a bad person,” says Hall in an interview with The Temper. “I met other people in recovery, and it turns out there are a lot of us — and they taught me how to love myself and how to not carry that shame around with me.”
To help foster awareness and celebrate sobriety, Hall partnered with local bars, breweries, and restaurants, including Juneau’s Amalga Distillery. The goal was to create pop-up events featuring handcrafted, non-alcoholic options for patrons.
“‘Our sober community is growing, and these events allow us to come together in a comfortable environment, meet new people, and share the bond of a substance-free lifestyle,’ says Tiffany Hall.”
“I think craft brewers and distillers have a different mentality. We are focused on our ingredients and our community,” says Brandon Howard, co-owner of Amalga Distillery, in an interview with The Temper. “We want to create an inclusive environment for our community, so we’ve been serving non-alcoholic drinks in our tasting room for a while, but this is the first time we are openly supporting sobriety. I think we have a responsibility to the community to promote healthy lifestyles.”
As a distiller, Howard believes that alcohol can play an enjoyable role in Alaskan’s lives, but he says that the focus needs to be on quality, not quantity.
Quality is exactly what Hall plans to bring to Anchorage on March 30 at Alaska Sobriety Awareness Month’s final celebration. The event will feature made-to-order mixed non-alcoholic drinks by Sans Bar founder Chris Marshall, who will be making Anchorage the fourth stop on his national tour which includes Seattle, Portland, New York City and St. Louis, among others.
Founded in Austin, Texas, Marshall’s Sans Bar has had pop-ups across the country to show bar-goers that they don’t need mind-altering substances to have a good time.
“Alaskans are in for a treat! [Recover Alaska] has hosted several alcohol-free parties in the past and we’ve always had a great time, but Sans Bar events are next level. Our sober community is growing, and these events allow us to come together in a comfortable environment, meet new people, and share the bond of a substance-free lifestyle,” explains Hall.
Although the declaration of Sobriety Awareness Month this year or a one-time sober party likely won’t be the final solution to addressing substance abuse in Alaska, there are some that believe it is a much-needed step in the right direction.
“It’s nice to at least be talking about sober choices. Or even sometimes, sober choices,” says Anchorage-based musician Emma Hill in an interview with The Temper. “I feel like Sobriety Awareness Month reminds me that I am not alone. It also gives the rest of the world a reminder that there are a lot of people choosing to live life without alcohol and they are still going out and enjoying themselves! It’s an important message.”