Facebook Group Connects Homeless Alaska Natives and Their Families

Facebook Group Connects Homeless Alaska Natives and Their Families

On June 12 Jerry Marsha Riley posted a picture of her brother Johnny Nagasiak to the Anchorage-based Facebook group, Forget me not. Johnny, a Yup’ik originally from the town of Bethel, had a history of homelessness in Anchorage, begging for change while holding cardboard sign that read, “Luv to be happy,” or “Happiness is a gift of life.” A smiling cartoon face always decorated his signs along with the underlined words, “God bless.”

Jerry and her family had lost touch with Johnny and desperately wanted to find him and bring him home “…because we love him more than he knows.”

That same day members of the group sent their prayers and well-wishes in comments. Many recognized Johnny. Some knew him by his nickname, Johnny B. Good. The founder of the group, Samuel Johns, an Ahtna Athabascan, originally from the village of Copper Center, made a hopeful comment: “Sometimes I go down to Bean’s Cafe and drum and sing for them. I think I recognize him.”

On June 21 Jerry posted another picture. This one showed Johnny smiling and sitting at his sister’s dining room table eating a home-cooked meal. “Happy Sunday,” Jerry wrote in her post, “We’re happy my brother [is] here to celebrate Father’s Day with us. He made it safe to Bethel, AK. Now to have dinner.”

As originally reported in Alaska Dispatch News, the Facebook group has taken off since its inception on June 10, and currently has over 6,000 members. Rapper and motivational speaker Johns, who goes by the stage name AK Rebel, came up with the idea after speaking with a homeless Native woman who approached him asking for spare change. The woman told him she was from Angoon.

“She got real teary-eyed and said she wanted to go home. Before I left I told her I would do what I can.”

But after he returned home, Johns couldn’t remember her name or anything other than the town she was from. He knew there must be a better way to help Native homeless people connect with the families who have lost track of them. After about a week he came up with the idea of using Facebook. He started a group that he named after the Alaska state flower, the forget me not, and within a day and a half over 3,000 people joined.

Members can post pictures of homeless people they encounter on the street and list their names and village of origin along with any message they might want to send to their loved ones. Connections are made and the word spreads. Of course, some homeless people don’t wish to participate, which is fine. “I’m not trying to sell them anything,” Johns said. Family members seeking homeless relatives can also post pictures and request the group’s help. That’s how Jerry Riley found her brother Johnny.

Using Facebook to connect the homeless Natives of Anchorage with their families in far off villages opens a channel more profound than most people realize. Native identity is often reestablished as friends and relatives reach out across cyberspace. The surface appearances of homelessness and alcoholism, which is all many see, lose their illusion of permanence when a channel of communication with the past is opened. Homeless Natives remember who they really are and begin the path back to wholeness.

On a recent visit to Bean’s Cafe, a soup kitchen and homeless shelter in Anchorage’s Ship Creek area, Johns brought a Native drum and handed it to Teddy Segevan, an Inupiaq from Wainwright. Teddy, his brother Wyman, and two others began spontaneously performing a Native dance. Teddy sang an Inupiaq song and drummed while the others leapt and gestured with their arms like expert members of a Native dance team. There on the street generations of tradition sprang to life. The stigma of defeat to the pressures of the big city momentarily melted away. Pride returned to their eyes. Johns photographed the event and posted it. Teddy said this in his message, “I’m still here. I’m alive. I wish I can go home. I miss all of you. Please come down and show me more songs. All of the songs I once knew [are] coming back to me.”

Johns, who has been sober for eight years and regularly travels all over Alaska giving motivational talks to young people, didn’t understand the power his simple idea had at first.

“When I first created Forget me not, I didn’t expect much. I thought it would have 500 members maybe.”

But since then business owners and even a regional Alaska Native corporation have offered to help. People send him boxes of donated items to hand out. Code writers are donating their services to create a more efficient website. A new Forget me not-Spokane group has been formed and another is planned for San Francisco.

“This is only the beginning,” Johns wrote in a recent posting, “and together we will do some amazing things. Every time I do motivational speaking, I always ask the crowd, ‘What is stopping YOU from making a difference?’ The answer is: NOTHING!”

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