Ernie Turner Center Carries the Name and Legacy of an Alaska Native Pioneer in Addiction Treatment

A new era begins for Cook Inlet Tribal Council’s (CITC) Ernie Turner Center (ETC) on August 2 when a new recovery facility — bearing a name steeped in history — opens its doors in Chugiak. The ETC, located on Eklutna Lake Road, is the latest iteration of a program that has, since 1993, supported the recovery from addiction.

Ernie Turner was a pioneer in recovery services for Alaska Native people. CITC’s Ernie Turner Center was named in his honor.

While the new ETC represents a strengthened partnership between Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley in the effort to provide more treatment options for those struggling with addiction, the history of ETC dates back almost three decades, when CITC began to explore the idea of providing outpatient services for individuals looking for help battling addiction.

In 1991, CITC had received approval to provide outpatient services from the State of Alaska. That same year, the CITC Board of Directors authorized Esther Combs, CITC’s Executive Director at the time, to pursue funding for a new treatment facility. By 1992, CITC had negotiated with the Department of Health and Human Services to open the Alaska Native Alcohol Recovery Center (ANARC), a predecessor to what would eventually be known as the ETC.

Meanwhile, a man named Ernie Turner was becoming a pioneer in the establishment of treatment programs for Alaska Native and Native American people. Turner, an Athabascan, had started life in Alaska before moving to Seattle after contracting tuberculosis. He became a barber and a father of three — but as his alcoholism grew worse, his marriage fell apart and he lost his job. Eventually, he became what he described as “a hopeless street drunk.”

Then a judge sent him to treatment in 1968. That decision would ultimately change Turner’s life: He achieved sobriety and made it his mission to learn everything he could about alcoholism, which he came to view as a biological disease. By 1971, Turner was dedicating his life to creating treatment centers that could directly address addiction among Alaska Native and Native American people.

In 1988, Turner returned to Alaska after having established the Thunderbird House, a residential treatment center in Seattle. Turner became the director of ANARC in March of 1994; by that September, ANARC received accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities and was being touted as a “national role model for Native American treatment programs.”

Turner would go on to serve as the Director of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Programs for the State of Alaska and would act as a gifted counselor, a treatment director, and a training director over the course of his career. To honor his innovation of and commitment to creating recovery resources for Alaska Native people and others, CITC would eventually rename its ANARC program after Turner. For twenty years, the Ernie Turner Center operated as a residential inpatient center located on Elmore Road, near Anchorage’s Alaska Native Medical Center.

The Elmore Road ETC was operated by CITC’s Recovery Services department from 1996 to 2016, when CITC sold ETC to Southcentral Foundation. In September 2016, the CITC Board authorized the negotiation for land and for the construction of a new ETC facility in Chugiak. A partnership between CITC, the Native Village of Eklutna, Eklutna Inc., and Cook Inlet Housing Authority made possible the construction of the new treatment center on a secluded parcel of Eklutna Inc. land where those seeking recovery support can find the peace and healing they need to be successful.

When time came to name the new facility, it only seemed right to continue the legacy of Ernie Turner and the Therapeutic Village of Care model originated at ETC, which emphasizes a drug- and alcohol-free residential environment where people live together in an organized and structured way that reflects a “miniature” Alaska Native village and facilitates change and long-term recovery.

The new ETC opens its doors on August 2, 2018, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house event. Learn more here.