Huslia Man Reflects on Parents’ Legacy of Mental Illness, Recovery and Helping Villagers in Crisis

Lee DeWilde stands outside her cabin in Huslia in December 2023. (Rachel Cassandra/AKPM)

Lee DeWilde grew up outside of Huslia in the 1960s, when it was a town of 160 people in the interior of Alaska. He recalls that his father, Lloyd DeWilde, faced some mental health struggles growing up. But despite these struggles, Lloyd later became a resource for his people. As part of a community reporting project focusing on health and wellness in rural Alaska, Alaska Public Media’s Rachel Cassandra spoke with Lee as they sat for tea in the cabin that build in Huslia.

Lee DeWilde: I was born in the Yukon between Ruby and Galena on a farm, the, let me see, one two three… the fifth child. They had six children. They had a team of dogs. They had a garden of two hectares. My father was a hard worker and sold vegetables in Ruby and Galena cabbages, rutabagas, turnips, carrots and cauliflower. They went up the river, the Huslia river. Then, that spring, he started building a cabin, a second cabin, a little upriver from where our tent was.

I was three years old. And I remember he put me in a backpack and then he had my little sister under his arm. And then all my brothers and sisters ran through the trees. They were excited. About eight or nine dogs, big dogs, ran with them. Everyone is excited to go somewhere new. And we moved there and they pitched the tent under a big tree, a fir tree. And my father built that cabin that summer. It was a larger cabin, 20 by 20 [feet], and had a flat roof. He put all the large ends of the logs aside.

So this is where we grew up. It was home camp. And then I think it was two years later, he built another one, a six-sided cabin, and we moved in there. And we starved that winter. We were starving. No one died. But we were very hungry. I was hunting But when you have seven kids and you’re with dogs and you’re in lean country, that’s up the river. They are not much game, and the snow is deep. I think he was not in a good mood. And I wasn’t making good decisions. I wasn’t thinking straight.

That’s when they just got snow machines [in Huslia]. They came out there and picked us all up. I remember I was five years old then. Ray Bane, Mr. Bane we called him, was a teacher. He had a plane. He came out and helped bring my father back. My dad had a mental breakdown out there. Thinking back, they said it made the nerves worse, but it was a problem for mental problems. I think it was clinical depression, maybe. I don’t know, maybe bipolar. I don’t know if people can get over it naturally without medication. But after that it was fine.

Hard things happened. My father came to town and scared some people.

Rachel Cassandra: But it worked out.

L.D.: It came out. Yes, it came out. He actually went to a mental institution. This was, I think, his third and last nervous breakdown. And I would talk about it. And then she went out and had more children. And we stayed out. You know, he stayed out until he could stay out more.

So I guess it’s a success story. Because you don’t see many people go through something like that and lead a normal life and actually quite surprisingly, a very respected life. People respected his judgement. They would ask [him] questions They didn’t have a phone and when something happened in the village, he was one of them who answered. [When] people were raising hell drinking, he was one of them who criticized them. I guess I’m just saying that my dad went from someone who had mental issues and ended up in a mental institution for a couple of months, or maybe more, to someone who was a pillar of the community.

I don’t know how he did it. He might have suffered from a bit of depression, but he managed it. My mother helped. It would have been very easy for him to go through the other solution, the more permanent one. He thought about it. But he didn’t. I guess he resisted it, for whatever reason.

RC: Yes, but this kind of sensitivity also helps him to be able to relate to people who are having a hard time.

L.D.: Yes, I remember people would come here. I remember a guy lost his baby and he came there and talked to my dad and it helped him a lot. Just stuff like that. They came and visited him and just talked to him. I remember a guy came along and he just got married and he had a baby and he was out hunting all the time. But for some reason, it was very hard for her to leave her little baby. And he came and talked to my dad about it and, the guy came out, I guess he felt better talking about it. Another person appeared, it’s like they waited until my father got to Huslia to go and sit and talk. Good advice or something, that was good to see.

This story was produced as part of the Alaska Public Media Community Wellness Project, a collaborative initiative with rural Alaskans to talk about what wellness means to them. Some stories are told by community members who work as citizen reporters. Unlike other journalistic projects, participants participate in the editing process and give consent to the final version of the story. People who are interviewed may receive small fees for sharing their knowledge and time. Citizen journalists are paid for their work. This project is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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