Sullivan Honors Alaskan of the Week: Cynthia Erickson

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) spoke yesterday on the Senate floor in recognition of Cynthia Erickson, a small business owner in Tanana, who has taken it upon herself to provide safe haven and support to youth in need in her community, including victims of abuse. She hopes to take her “Setsoo ‘Yeh” program, which means “My Grandmother’s House” in Athabascan, to more communities across the Interior and throughout Alaska. Erickson also serves on the Alaska Suicide Prevention Council and was recently appointed to the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights. Senator Sullivan recognized Erickson as part of his series, “Alaskan of the Week.”


Mr. President, it is Thursday afternoon, and it is one of the times that I enjoy the most here in the Senate because it is the time when I get to come down to the floor and do a little bragging about my State and, most importantly, do a little bragging about the people who make Alaska such a wonderful place and such a unique place.

Now, we have all heard the stories about the grandeur, size, and beauty of the great State of Alaska, and they are all true, as you know. To anyone watching, we would love for you to come on up for a visit. You will love it. It will be the best trip of your life. Right now, for example, what is happening in Alaska is that it is a wonderful time of the year. We are gaining sunlight every day. The snow is melting. The birds are beginning their huge migration back to Alaska. Some flowers are even starting to bloom in parts of the State. It is a wonderful and incredible time.

Like any State, and we all come down here and like to talk about our States, it is the people who truly make my State so special. It is generous people who work tirelessly day in and day out to help one another. So each week, I come down to the Senate floor and talk about one of these individuals, and I call that person “Alaskan of the Week.”

Today, that person is a wonderful leader and a good friend of mine, Cynthia Erickson. As I mentioned, we live in a great State--great State to raise a family, build a good exciting life of service and meaning. But Alaska, like all States, has its share of challenges, and one of the biggest and most pernicious challenges in Alaska is that we, unfortunately, have some of the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in the country--as a matter of fact, in a lot of categories, the highest, including child abuse.

Now, when I was attorney general, we made confronting this issue a very big priority. We are continuing to push these initiatives in the Senate. Just yesterday, Senator Gillibrand and I introduced a bill that would seek to change the culture around sexual assault and domestic violence through a national ad campaign. We called that bill the Choose Respect Act, and we introduced it yesterday. This is a bill that will be part of a whole series of bills focused on trying to bring respect to our country with regard to these issues. Stay tuned on that.

Here is a fact. We can do all of those kinds of important pieces of legislation here in the Senate on these kinds of critical issues, but as I think we all know that it is really the work done on the ground by members of the community and the grassroots that ultimately has the biggest and most lasting impact on these critical issues--the biggest and most lasting impact on changing the culture that we need to change, not just in Alaska but in the country, on these issues of abuse and domestic violence.

I am happy to say that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people across my State--heroes all, no doubt--who have banded together using their passion, creativity, and energy to be there for victims and survivors and to help them break out of cycles of violence that often can be generational cycles.

Let's talk about one of those heroes, a very special woman, Cynthia Erickson, and today's Alaskan of the Week, who has spent countless hours helping to stop the generational cycle by helping Alaskan children, one child at a time, who are victims of abuse themselves and who are living in households where violence is prevalent.

Confronting the abuse of children can be a very difficult issue. It is so heartbreaking and so tragic that we often don't want to talk about it and you want to sweep it under the rug. But Cynthia, with a group of children she has gathered, is working to break that culture of silence one kid at a time. I can't think of anything more important than that.

Before I talk about what she is doing and what she has been doing, let's talk a little bit about her background. Her family is from Ruby, in Western Alaska, on the mighty Yukon River. She was raised in Tanana, a village of about 300 people near the confluence of the Yukon and Tanana Rivers, where she has been living for the past 33 years.

Many years ago I had the opportunity to visit with Cynthia and her husband in Tanana. She hosted me and some other State of Alaska officials. I remember being so welcomed by her and her family but also coming away thinking: This is a woman who is a leader and a woman of spirit and a woman of energy and a woman of passion.

We see that a lot in Alaska with Cynthia. She received a degree in elementary education from the University of Fairbanks. Her family owns a store that she worked at, but she never lost her love for children. Her house was a place where children throughout the town in Tanana went. She had things for them to do, but it was also one of those homes--and we all know the homes we are talking about in different communities throughout Alaska and the country--that kids felt safe in. That was her home.

About 5 or 6 years ago, when there was a series of suicides in her village and in nearby villages, she knew she had to do something. She called the local politician. He talked her into coming to Juneau, our State capital, to work for him. She did that for a few months, and she gathered as much information as she could about programs available to help children in crisis. But she wasn't satisfied. She concluded that there wasn't nearly enough being done.

When she got back home, she took matters into her own hands. Amassing a group of children, she started a 4-H club, which eventually morphed into a nonprofit called “Setsoo ‘Yeh.” That is Athabaskan for “My Grandmother's House.” In Cynthia's house, kids gather to crochet, to sew, to cook, and to be. They glide on the snow outside in the winter, and they swim together in the summer. She told a reporter recently, when she was being honored: “Between all the swimming and the sewing and the beading--we all sewed our own kuspuks--in between all that, we talk about our problems.”

Why? Why did she call it “My Grandmother's House”? Because every child that she spoke to who was having problems--and she spoke to a lot of them--had fond memories of a grandmother's home--a place where soup is served, bread is baked, mukluks are sewn, and a place of love and safety. Currently, Cynthia's “My Grandmother's House” is a virtual space for kids in far-flung villages, but she envisions real houses all across the State--houses where children can go and be safe.

First, she had to raise awareness of these issues that affect so many children in Alaska. In 2014 she and seven of these brave kids went to the Alaska Federation of Natives conference. That is the biggest gathering of indigenous people in North America every year. AFN comes together for the conference, usually in Anchorage or Fairbanks, and these young kids spoke on stage about what they had experienced. I remember this.

It was so powerful. The stories they told of abuse that they or their friends had experienced were heartbreaking and very difficult to listen to. Importantly, they implored the elders in the audience to stop turning a blind eye to the abuse. That took so much courage from these children and their courageous leader, Cynthia.

When the presentation was over at AFN, it received a standing ovation. People cried, they thanked Cynthia, and they thanked these courageous young kids for at long last having the courage to speak out--remarkable.

Last summer, Cynthia and 11 children and a doctor--a mental health therapist--traveled on a plane, a bus, a boat--we have a very big State--to Fairbanks and to the villages of Minto, Tanana, Ruby, and Galena. It was a healing journey, they called it. At the villages, the kids formed a talking circle to talk about their experiences. Again, this is courage. It is not easy for young children to do this. They ate together, danced, prayed together, and talked some more. Cynthia said about this journey:

It's empowering the children. It's giving them a voice. It's grassroots. There are so many programs out there to help kids, but there are not boots on the ground [on the frontlines]. They aren't grassroots. These kids have had enough. They are sick of waiting for help. I tell them all the time, “We are the ones we've been waiting for” [for the help].

That is a beautiful statement and a powerful statement: We are the ones we have been waiting for. It is a grassroots movement to do what we all know is right--to work to stamp out this kind of horrible abuse.

We just learned last night that Cynthia has been appointed to the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights. It is no surprise to me. This is a woman of energy, passion, and inspiration who has done so much for these kids--and, by the way, a woman of courage. I am confident she will do a great job in that new position--a very important position in Alaska. She will bring her empathy, her common sense, and her passion to protect Alaskans--particularly our children--across the State.

Cynthia, from the bottom of my heart, my friend, thanks for all the great work you do. Thanks for your courage. Thanks for your energy. Thanks for being an inspiration for all of us. Thank you for protecting our most precious asset, our most precious resource--our kids in Alaska. Thank you for creating My Grandmother's House. Everybody needs a grandmother's house. Thank you. And congratulations on being our Alaskan of the Week.

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