It’s 1999. Sierra Tucker is 3 months old, and her parents are divorcing. She flies from Arizona to her father’s hometown on the Seward Peninsula.
It’s 2005. Sierra is 5 years old, and she’s trying to figure out why her two sisters have left her behind in Nome. Her sisters have flown to Arizona to visit their mother, but they never return. Instead, they stay in Arizona to avoid coming back to live with their stepmother. Sierra doesn’t understand why they would leave.
It’s 2010. Sierra is 11 years old, and she is awake in the middle of the night feeding her younger brother with a bottle.
She can hear her father and her stepmother in the other room. They’re drunk, and they’re arguing about whose turn it is to wake up and take care of the crying child.
Sierra’s grandmother — the only mother she has ever known — has just died. Her father and stepmother have fallen into a deep depression. To compensate, they drink more than ever.
Her stepmother has become angrier and more violent. Her father avoids the house as much as possible. When he is there, he’s so drunk he doesn’t recognize his own daughter. He throws a bottle at her.
It’s 2011. For the first time in her life, at 12 years old, Sierra is meeting her birth mother.
The Alaska Office of Children’s Services flies Sierra’s mother from Arizona. They spend a full three days together, but then, as quickly as her mother arrives in Nome, she’s gone.
“Why does everyone leave me?” Sierra thinks. “Maybe if they didn’t leave me none of this would’ve ever happened.”
Sierra’s childhood didn’t start her on a path to success. By all accounts, she has been plagued by each and every one of the most harmful risk factors that contribute to the likelihood of alcohol abuse. Trauma, lack of positive parenting role models, poor family environment and genetic risk factors are listed by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as among the most significant indicators of youth alcoholism.
They also perfectly describe Sierra’s upbringing.
And yet, through her own determination and the support of her friends and community, Sierra refuses to be consumed by alcohol.
A kindred soul
It’s 2012. The Office of Children’s Services takes Sierra and her brother away from her father.
For a while, they live with an aunt. Then one day, while waiting to be picked up after school, Sierra sees her caseworker. All of Sierra’s things are packed in someone else’s car. She’s going to live with someone new, the caseworker says, someone she doesn’t know. They don’t tell her why. They don’t tell her for how long.
It’s 2013. There’s an altercation and Sierra’s father ends up in jail with a felony.
Two months later, though, he gets out of prison. He and Sierra’s stepmother break up. As part of his parole, her father is forced to stay under the watch of a third party. So Sierra’s family moves in with her uncle, where she begins to grow close to her cousin, Tehya Tucker.
Tehya is two years older. Her family has had plenty of its own struggles with alcohol. Tehya’s grandmother died of alcohol abuse. Her brother is in jail for crimes related to his alcoholism. Several years earlier, Tehya’s father’s alcoholism got so bad he had to be airlifted to Anchorage. He nearly died, and now he has to live completely sober out of medical necessity.
Before Sierra moved in with her uncle’s family, she and Tehya weren’t close. While living together, however, the two begin spending weekends together and working together at the AC Value Center.
Together, they find mutual support.
“Tehya and me, we’re not blood sisters, but we fight in a sisterly way, so we’re like sisters,” Sierra says now.
The traditional model of substance abuse prevention tries to remove as many risk factors as possible from young people’s lives, recognizing that these risk factors lead to the increased likelihood of alcohol abuse. This thinking, though, has shifted both nationally and in Alaska toward the importance of building protective assets.
Protective assets can be defined in several ways, but essentially they boil down to two categories: internal social-emotional character traits and external supports, which can be influenced by adding positive adult role models as well as helping kids develop stronger senses of honesty, restraint and personal achievement.
Sierra and Tehya are at risk. No matter how hard counselors or teachers try, they cannot remove every potential risk factor from the cousins’ lives. What their school and their community can do, however, is give them the support they need to be resilient.
In addition, the cousins have been building on their own internal assets, intentionally or not, by working in their community, participating in sports and other activities and by striving to achieve their academic goals.
“I have this shirt that says ‘Strive for Greatness,’” Sierra says. “I just completely love that shirt.”
It’s because of stories of teenagers like Tehya and Sierra Tucker that researchers began examining protective factors in the first place.
“I talked a lot with my counselors, and I talked with my friends, too, and they helped me through it, and they just told me that I’m very strong for doing what I’m doing,” Tehya says. “(My friends) inspire me to just not be distracted by the other outside negative effects of the parties and all that.”
The cousins can give you plenty of reasons not to drink, but the most compelling is that two girls in Nome, despite alcohol controlling every aspect of their childhoods, are doing everything in their power to reclaim that control.
Now it’s 2015. And today the two cousins are working to improve their family’s future. Tehya is completing her senior year at Nome-Beltz High School and participating in the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Sierra is playing basketball and wrestling for the high school team.
“I love being active and sweating, and I love that exhaustion feeling, because I know the next day I’m going to feel great,” Sierra says. “I wouldn’t be able to do that if I drank. I’d have to give up something like that.”
Both Tehya and Sierra are active participants in the Nome Native Youth Leadership organization. They frequently perform service in the community, and travel around the state to leadership conferences. This month, they plan to fly to Spokane, Washington to take part in the national Today’s Native Leaders conference.
These days you can find the Tuckers on TV, in the Be [You] Alaska campaign, which aims to spread the word to the state’s underage population that most of their peers actually don’t drink.
“There’s been some big things that’s happened in our family, so for us to be doing good in school and be doing all these activities … is just making a whole new name for our family,” Sierra says.
Their goal is to completely change the narrative of what it means to be a Tucker.
“Me and (Sierra) always talk about how we have a family who drank a lot and didn’t go very far and that we’re breaking that line and trying to go further, and we’re really proud that we’re both together,” Tehya says.
Each of the cousins is thinking about what college they’ll attend. Tehya is considering studying engineering at Montana State University. Sierra is considering studying Inupiaq for two years at Ilisagvik College in Barrow. She hopes to one day become an attorney or maybe a tribal youth coordinator.
“We’re going to be the first two people to go to college in our family,” Sierra says. “It’s going to be great.”
Together, they’re continuing to change their family’s narrative and take ownership of their name.
“Yeah,” Sierra says. “We’re Tuckers now.”
Originally published November 1, 2015 by Weston Morrow in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner