Home Advocate Looking Back, Moving Forward: Carol Seppilu, Alaska Native, Suicide Prevention Advocate, and Ultra-Runner

Looking Back, Moving Forward: Carol Seppilu, Alaska Native, Suicide Prevention Advocate, and Ultra-Runner

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Carol Seppilu (Siberian Yupik) was born on St. Lawrence Island, west of mainland Alaska in the Bering Sea. She had a difficult childhood, which led to depression and alcoholism. Twenty-three years ago, in September, at age 16, she attempted suicide after a night of heavy drinking.

Seppilu remembers a pivotal moment in 1999, right after he attempted suicide.

“In the hospital, as I struggled to breathe, I fell into a vision,” she said. “I walked into a mist when an old village appeared. My late great-grandfathers were there, sitting on the ground as they waved at me. They looked young and perfect, wearing feather parkas of a bird and smiles so big, eyes closed.”

Her late elders had a message for her.

“They told me everything would be fine,” she said. “And that I had to come back because I was going to do great things. They also told me other things that I can’t remember, but somehow I feel now.

“It was so peaceful there and I didn’t feel any pain. I begged to stay,” she said, adding, “but I listened to them. And I came back with a strong sense of purpose.”

The years that followed were extremely difficult for Seppilu. After attempting suicide, she had to undergo numerous painful surgeries, including a tracheostomy and the insertion of a permanent tube in her neck to help her breathe. Depression threatened her and she spent most of her days in bed, sometimes until 8 p.m.

She remembers thinking one day, “Carol, you have to get up and do something. So she laced her shoes, picked up her dog — an Alaskan Malamute and a mixed-breed Siberian Husky named Solar — and started a two-mile run around her neighborhood.

After a running block, Seppilu was out of breath. She walked the two miles. That day, she pledged to run the entire two-mile course without stopping. She made a little game out of it and tried to go a little further each day, tracking her progress.

Seppilu’s new routine has motivated her to get out of bed every day. Before too long, she noticed how much healthier she felt. The following year, she could complete the two-mile run without walking.

As a result, his once small steps became mighty steps. She noticed that her sanity was benefiting from her runs and soon spent most of her free time running with Solar in the mountains outside of Nome. The sun and the exercise made her feel stronger and healthier, she said.

Carol with her dog, Solar, in Nome, Alaska.  (Photo: Courtesy of Carol Seppilu)Carol with her dog, Solar, in Nome, Alaska. (Photo: Courtesy of Carol Seppilu)

Since then, Seppilu has used running as a tool to fight depression. She describes running as a form of medicine and prayer – a pure joy she hasn’t found anywhere else that allows her to listen to nature and connect with her ancestors.

Today she lives in Nome and runs ultramarathons – long-distance races that stretch 50 to 100 miles – even as she breathes through the now permanent tracheotomy from surgery two decades ago. She runs with one purpose: to celebrate life, share hope and raise awareness about mental health.

Earlier this month, Seppilu ran a hundred-mile ultra through the Colorado Rockies called the Leadville Trail 100, but couldn’t finish after struggling to adjust to the high altitude of the course, which rises to 12,600 feet above sea level.

The minor setback in Colorado didn’t deter Seppilu at all. She plans to run the Hitchcock Experience 100-mile endurance race in Honey Creek, Iowa, on her birthday in December.

One foot in front of the other

For those who know her – or know her story – Seppilu is a source of inspiration. In 2020, the Federation of Alaska Natives awarded Seppilu the Hannah Paul Solomon “Woman of Courage” Award. Recognition highlights those who exemplify the strengths of Indigenous culture and courage through their life and work.

From the beginning, Seppilu’s mother, Sally Seppilu, has been an unshakable rock in his life. In three long Suicide Prevention Awareness Runs in Nome, Sally was at the finish. During a 100 mile run, Sally didn’t sleep until her daughter finished, praying for her the whole time.

Sally continues to be amazed by her daughter’s daily growth.

“She’s our role model, so we look up to her,” Sally said. “She is our strength. She is smart and she can write. She is our inspiration. I thank God for her. We have too many losses at home, and she is our inspiration.”

Carol riding the dirt roads of Nome, Alaska.  (Photo: Courtesy of Carol Seppilu)Carol riding the dirt roads of Nome, Alaska. (Photo: Courtesy of Carol Seppilu)

Carol Seppilu is usually reserved and maybe even a little shy, but has developed a quiet confidence as she continues to share her story.

Her closest friend, Crystal Toolie, sees it.

“It was pretty cool to see her get recognized in running communities nationwide,” Toolie said. “At first she didn’t think she could run a mile, let alone 100. It just shows Carol’s mental toughness.”

Toolie said she hopes more people will hear Seppilu’s story so that there is an awareness not only of the importance of mental health, but also to raise awareness of the historic trauma the Indigenous community is going through. from Alaska.

Stories of suicide are sadly familiar in Indian country. Indigenous peoples have the highest suicide rates of any racial or ethnic group in the United States — up to three times higher, according to estimates. The numbers are especially worrisome for younger generations of Native Americans. In 2019, suicide was the second leading cause of death among Indigenous people aged 10 to 34.

The last few years have become increasingly stressful. The World Health Organization has found that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a massive 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide. The economic challenges of the past year have particularly affected Native Americans, and revelations about Indian boarding schools and government efforts to assimilate Native Americans and Alaska Natives have added to the mental distress felt by many families and communities. indigenous.

In the midst of it all, Carol Seppilu keeps moving forward.

Although it doesn’t come naturally or easily for her, she continues to share her story, knowing that many Indigenous people are still struggling. In particular, she shares her message of hope for indigenous peoples who are going through dark times.

“Some may go through such dark times that they feel they can’t go on anymore,” she said. “I’ve been there many times before and I still get to this point to this day. As long as there is only one particle of light in your life, hold on to it because even the most small amount of light eclipses the darkness. I saw it become as bright as the sun in the sky.

Carol running in the snow in Nome, Alaska.  (Photo: Courtesy of Carol Seppilu)Carol running in the snow in Nome, Alaska. (Photo: Courtesy of Carol Seppilu)

“When I go through those dark times, I just have to get through it because I don’t want to stay there, and I know it will be better again. I’m always grateful to still be here. Keep it up.”

September is National Suicide Prevention Month. If you or someone you know is struggling or having suicidal thoughts, please call or text Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 to get in touch with a Crisis Text Line counsellor. For more information or resources on suicide prevention and information, please visit the Bureau of Indian Education. You’ll find links to federal resources, Indigenous suicide prevention organizations and resources, and more.

Ben Prior

Ben Pryor (Choctaw) is a writer who has contributed to Indigenous News Online and freelance writer for several other national and regional publications. A graduate of Oklahoma State University, his writing interests include politics, the environment, and sports.

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