Alaska life, Entertainment

Nikolai – Sobriety for the New Year

Amy Modig recently attended a sobriety celebration in Nikolai and has generously agreed to share her experience on the Athabascan Woman Blog.

Nikolai sunset b by Amy Modig

Nikolai – Sobriety for the New Year – A Community Wide Celebration

New Year celebration in Nikolai. Photo by Amy Modig
New Year celebration in Nikolai. Photo by Amy Modig

In this small Athabascan village of 100, Sobriety Week was celebrated from January 10 to 15, which included Russian Orthodox New Year on the 14th in Nikolai. Beverly Gregory, Tribal Administrator and her Assistant, Shalmarie Nikolai, organized and coordinated the activities for the week which included music for the school students, a suicide prevention workshop, sobriety work, dances every night and a spectacular fireworks display on Russian Orthodox New Year’s Eve. The community was able to use donated funds, as well as local organizations, to house, feed and provide transportation for the guest speakers and musicians.

In the last local election, the residents voted to change Nikolai’s local option law from dry to damp and the community has seen an increase in alcohol-related trauma. Local planners hoped to support sobriety and attract strugglers and inspire active users to choose healthier lifestyles. Many times it is the youth who suffer from chaotic homes.

Josephine Malemute and Mike Mickelson performing at the Nikolai Sobriety Celebration. Photo by Amy Modig
Josephine Malemute and Mike Mickelson performing at the Nikolai Sobriety Celebration. Photo by Amy Modig

With the youth as a priority, Dancing with the Spirit was invited to teach the students in school to play music. Its mission is to connect youth and elders through school music programs and it promotes spiritual, physical and mental wellness with music. Josephine Malemute (Nulato/Galena) and Mike Mickelson (Cordova) were the two instructors. Mike Mickelson, son of founder and Executive Director, Belle Mickelson, said Nikolai was the 30th village the program has visited in the last 20 years.

Josephine, who is also the Assistant Director of Dancing with the Spirit, said they bring guitars, fiddles, mandolins and ukuleles and even though they mostly go to Athabascan villages, they have been all over the state as far north as Pt. Hope and even into Canada. The week of music culminated in a concert for the community by the younger grades.

Guitar lessons for youth in Nikolai. Photo by Amy Modig
Guitar lessons for youth in Nikolai. Photo by Amy Modig

Top of the Kuskokwim School provided housing for most presenters and opened the library for music classes. Principal Tara Wiggins and Teacher Matt Willette were generous in their sharing of space and participating whole-heartedly in all events, while John Runkle, Maintenance, and Martha Stearns, Cook/Custodian, gave all possible support to create a clean and comfortable site while doing all of their regular duties. Matt Willette had just arrived as a new teacher that week! They were all very appreciated.

As part of the festivities, each night Mike and Josephine played so the community could dance. Several youth, adults and elders were encouraged to try their talents with the two. In a special treat, they were joined by Stanley Peters of Holy Cross who delighted Nikolai with his guitar, fiddle and voice. On New Year’s Day, he and Josephine demonstrated the Jitter Bug dance to everyone’s delight.

Russian New Year’s Eve was on the 13th and the community organized a fireworks display that would rival Anchorage or Fairbanks.

As part of developing sobriety skills, a four-hour safeTALK session was held for over 20 community members, high school youth included. Val Pingayak and Constance Reiner-Ely co-trained and it was very well received. They both work for Tanana Chiefs Conference Suicide Prevention.

Samuel Johns of the Forget-Me-Not movement for helping people to reunite homeless people to their families or communities, delighted the young people with his humor and his inspirational message. The Forget-Me-Not Facebook group started in June and already has over 21,000 members. He has received numerous awards; just the latest is the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award which he will receive in April in Washington, D.C. Samuel performed some of his rap messages and spoke on his commitment to sobriety and health.

Circle Talks were held at the Nikolai Sobriety Celebration. Photo by Amy Modig
Circle Talks were held at the Nikolai Sobriety Celebration. Photo by Amy Modig

Doug and Amy Modig, early leaders in the Alaska Native Sobriety Movement, held circle talks each day on different aspects of living sober. They also had individual sobriety talks with community members. They thoroughly enjoyed local steam baths and the music and dances.

All the guests were fed three meals a day by a professional quality chef, Ed Ticknor of Nikolai, who is also the father of Tatiana Ticknor (who got to speak with President Obama last November on Alaska Native youth concerns). Joricha Thomas was also a great cook and they had creative recipes for moose and fish. They cooked large items, such as moose stews, baked king salmon and turkeys for the potluck dinners held each night in the school gymnasium.

Breakfast and lunch was provided at the tribal office where a kitchen was set up. Each of these meals, were enlivened by the storytelling skills of the visitors and the local staff. The final lunch on Friday caused so much hilarity that people were wiping their eyes and holding their sides. Many agreed that these were the most healing of all the activities, except for the steam baths so generously provided by the Petruska family, Nick and Oline.

Nikolai Dog Musher John Runkle with pups. Photo by Amy Modig
Nikolai Dog Musher John Runkle with pups. Photo by Amy Modig

Another local activity was provided by John Runkle, longtime dog musher, who gave a sled ride to Mike Mickelson for 27 miles! There were several birthdays during the week. People requested prayers for the Tribal Chief Sammy John, who was under medical care at a hospital.  On New Year’s Day, gifts were presented to the Elders and to the children.

It was a very wonderful sobriety celebration and reminded Doug and Amy of the early Rural Providers’ Conferences. They both received, as well as everyone who had participated, a Certificate of Appreciation “for choosing to LIVE a SOBER lifestyle.” All of us want to thank Nikolai for its generosity for sharing its vision of sobriety with the rest of us. May all their hopes and dreams be realized in the New Year!


Thank you Amy Modig for sharing her experience and beautiful photos. What an inspirational start to the New Year in Nikolai!

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1 thought on “Nikolai – Sobriety for the New Year”

  1. A really wonderful post; thanks so much for sharing! As someone who has struggled with addiction issues I know the heartbreak and desolation substance abuse embodies. Here’s hoping programs such as this one will help educate young and old as to the insidious dangers of any substance capable of becoming addictive!

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