Indigenizing Education in the North

“You are more likely to end up dead or in jail by the time you are 25 years old than you are to finish high school as an Alaska Native male.” It was 1989, we were 7th graders, many of us freshly relocated from isolated villages surrounding the interior settlement town of Fairbanks, Alaska. I was one of them, having just arrived from Vashraii K’oo (Arctic Village) with a thick village accent. School staff had pulled about 13 of us out of class to meet with a counselor. Those were his words to us as Alaska Native boys, part of a “scared straight”-type program.

Today, the underlying statistics of this threat remain similar. Alaska Native students have a graduation rate just above 60 percent—and a majority of the dropouts are male. I was one of those who dropped out of high school, but it wasn’t due to a lack of cognitive ability or interest in learning, as later demonstrated by my graduate degree and current role as a university vice chancellor.

Knowing that my Alaska Native peers were also more than capable of graduating from high school, this raised the question: Why are Alaska schools failing Alaska Native children at such alarming rates? More importantly, what can we do to address the issue? The answers are complicated.

The immediate answer to the first question includes an annual teacher-turnover rate of around 30 percent in rural school districts with the highest percentage of Alaska Native students, and a severe lack of culturally relevant curriculum and pedagogy. But to appreciate the full complexity of this picture, we must place the role of Western education in the broader historical context of the Alaska Native experience.

Our homeland was claimed by Russia in 1741 and then sold to the United States through the Treaty of Cession in 1867. That was in the time of my great-grandparents, when Indigenous peoples were not consulted on matters pertaining to their lives, lands, or resources. Following the Treaty of Cession, which referred to Alaska Native nations as the “uncivilized native tribes,” education was introduced to our peoples as a tool of U.S. colonization and assimilation.

Schools and religion were the primary mechanisms to attempt to eradicate Alaska Native languages, ceremonies, social systems, cultural practices, values, and identity. This legacy included isolated boarding schools—such as the Wrangell Institute, which my mother attended—that were rooted in the tenet “Kill the Indian, save the man.” This introduction to education was traumatic for many Alaska Native peoples, and it contributes to current issues of intergenerational trauma and tension in our peoples’ relationship with Western education.

At the same time, many of our grandparents saw the potential benefits of Western education. It was becoming a tool Alaska Natives used to advocate for human and civil rights. The late Dene’ Chief Peter John of Minto, born in 1900, recognized the power in education and shared his vision that our people would one day harness that power.

From an Indigenous perspective, we can view education on an evolving spectrum, with colonization and assimilation on one end and cultural revitalization and empowerment on the other. In Alaska, I believe that we will see increased student success as we move across the spectrum.

There is academic and administrative evidence that support this belief. In Hawaii, a P-12 Hawaiian-language medium school, Nāwahī School, epitomizes the transformation of education along this spectrum. The students are not only taught their Indigenous language, but learn cultural knowledge as well as core standards through the language. Nawahi School has an average high school graduation rate of 100 percent and a college-going rate of 80 percent. This starkly contrasts with the public schools, with their high school graduation rate at 82 percent and college attendance at 54 percent.

Over the past 50 years, Alaska Natives have been on a journey toward increased self-determination in governance, business and health care, and now is the time for self-determination in education. Our students’ success, and the future of our 20 distinct Alaska Native languages—all currently endangered—depend upon our being in the driver’s seat of our educational systems.

Considerable work has already been accomplished that helps move us in this direction. Since 1989, the University of Alaska system has graduated 2,405 Alaska Natives with bachelor’s degrees, 552 with master’s degrees, and 16 with Ph.D.s. And those numbers increase annually. The Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska has developed an Alaskan Inuit Education Improvement Strategy to support transformation of pre-K-12 education for Alaskan Inuit children. And the Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Yup’ik-language immersion school in Bethel has been running a K-6 program since the late 1990s. These are just a few of the educational foundations from across the state on which we can build. This is no small task, but substantive progress could be possible with a few key developments.

We need federal legislative amendments to allow Alaska Native tribes access to all Bureau of Indian Education programs, and new congressional appropriations to accompany the expansion of service. We need a partnership with the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development to support an Alaskan tribal school system. For example, schools with a majority of Alaska Native students could be placed under tribal control while maintaining their same amount of state funding. Finally, we would benefit greatly through increased partnership and investment from the University of Alaska system to support Indigenous teacher training, language-revitalization programs, and culturally relevant curriculum development.

Just as important, current efforts to advance Indigenous schools, programs, and initiatives must continue to grow. Together, we will transform Indigenous education in the Arctic and perhaps inspire the rethinking of how we educate our young people across the United States.


Originally published online by Education Week under the title "Alaska is Failing it Indigenous Students".

GLACIER Conference Remarks

Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic:
Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement, and Resilience (GLACIER)

Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center – Anchorage, Alaska
Monday, August 31, 2015

Luncheon Remarks of Mr. Evon Peter
Vice Chancellor for Rural, Community & Native Education
University of Alaska Fairbanks


Shalak naii, juk drin gwinzii. Dzaa nal’in geenjit shoo ihlii. Shoozhri’ Evon Peter oozhii. Vashraii K’oo gwats’an ihlii gaa Tanan gwiichi’. Neetsaii Gwich’in ts’a Koyukon ihlii.

Friends, Dignitaries, and Guests,

Good afternoon and once again, welcome to Alaska. I’m happy that you have chosen to visit this beautiful and bountiful place we call home.

Before I get into my remarks, I would like to acknowledge the presence of my wife Enei Begaye Peter, we celebrate our twelfth wedding anniversary today. We can think of no better way to celebrate than being here with you all and taking part in these historic and pressing conversations.

Today, we meet on the land of our southern Dena’ relatives, the Dena’ina. I come from the Gwich’in, the northernmost of the Dena’ peoples in Alaska. The village I come from is called Vashraii K’oo. In English they call it Arctic Village, it is five hundred miles north of where we now sit, nestled in the southern foothills of the Brooks mountain range and only accessible by small plane.

As a boy I lived in a single room cabin with my grandfather and uncle. I packed water from a hole in the river ice, kept a wood fire going throughout the long winter, and relied on candles and kerosene lanterns for light.

From the mountain creek we had clean water, fish from the lakes and streams, berries from the tundra, and the caribou would return each fall on their annual migration. There were also ducks, geese, muskrat, beaver, moose, and many other flora and fauna that nourished our body and spirit, as well as filled us with appreciation and wonder for what had been bestowed upon our people as a place to live and way of life.

Our elders taught us to respect the land and animals, to understand that we are in an interdependent and intimate relationship with the world around us. I remember thinking that as long as our people hold onto our culture and balance in our relationships with the natural world, in the same way our ancestors had done for over ten thousand years before us, we would be fine.

But when my mother moved us to the city of Fairbanks so that my brother and I could pursue a stronger school-based education everything changed. I transitioned into my teenage years in the city and was struck by the inequalities and imbalance I witnessed in my new environment. We lived in low-income housing projects, went to charitable organizations to receive donated food, and were immersed in social settings that often involved the abuse of alcohol, drugs, and violence.

Like many of my peers I picked up social habits that were pulling me down a dark path. Then the traumatic loss of a close friend and a powerful dream woke me up to a simple truth -- that I have the power to alter my life’s path.

At seventeen years old I made a silent personal commitment -- that I would pursue knowledge and work to achieve my full potential, so that I may better understand the history of what brought us to where we are today and have the capacity to help my people. Little did I know that this pursuit would bring me from being a high school dropout to a college graduate and tribal chief, and later would take me around the world working with indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in places as distant as Africa, Peru, India, and New Zealand. A much broader appreciation for and perspective on humanity grew within me over those years.

As I studied, traveled, and worked, I came to understand that every society has been impacted by a history of colonization and yet this history has been rarely acknowledged. Recently, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to a gathering of Native American youth and acknowledged that history. Her words gave hope and inspiration to Indigenous peoples throughout this country and we thank her. And just yesterday her husband President Barack Obama, took this acknowledgement a step further by restoring the official name of our great mountain to its most well known Alaska Native name, Denali. We are grateful for these actions, as they move us in the right direction, but there is much work left to do.

The harsh impacts of this history have reverberated through several generations of my people and other Arctic Indigenous peoples. For well over a hundred years our identity and right to self-determination were under attack. The attacks were aimed at dismantling the social, cultural, and spiritual systems that had successfully provided for thousand of years of survival in the harshest environment inhabited by man. The goal was to erase our sense of indigenous self and to assimilate us into the dominant cultures. Tth’aii dzaa draadii. But we are still here and our Indigenous identity remains intact. My home of Arctic Village and the people of my community continue to live a life dependent on this land.

Today, I stand before you as both an indigenous leader and a vice chancellor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to share with you just a few reflections on what I have come to understand.

The need to address the impacts and effects of a history of colonization is critical. And as I see it, we can achieve this goal. The solution is two-fold and within it rests the opportunity for the circumpolar North to demonstrate to the world the impact reconciliation with indigenous peoples can have on society. We have the opportunity to usher in a new paradigm of sustainability and respect.

First, we must continue our work to reverse the trends of linguistic and cultural loss in Arctic communities. Within our languages and cultures is imbedded a world of Indigenous knowledge. We have only scratched the surface in researching the practices and systems employed by Indigenous peoples to maintain sustainability. I often reflect on the fact that our people are among the most forgiving in the world. We know that despite the circumstance, we must work together in order to survive. I foresee that Indigenous knowledge will serve a critical role in guiding humanity to balanced relations with one another and the natural world.

Second, we must continue to advance self-determination among Indigenous peoples. The Arctic Council founders were visionary in this regard, making a place at the highest decision making table for Indigenous peoples to represent themselves. Research within the United States has shown that the simplest path to addressing the social and economic challenges faced by Indigenous peoples is through self-determination. This becomes a direct benefit to state and national governments, strengthening the position of circumpolar health and economy, and increasing capacity for partnership with Indigenous peoples.

At Troth Yeddha’, the hill upon which the University of Alaska Fairbanks sits, our leadership has prioritized the building of an Indigenous studies center that will serve to educate a new generation of Indigenous and non-indigenous researchers, scholars, teachers, and administrators to support meeting these challenges.

On a broader scale, the challenges my people face are tied to a set of global issues that impact us all. My generation of leaders inherits these issues at a time when the world is on the verge of crisis. The impacts from climate change, growth in human population, and natural resource depletion are headed toward a breaking point. Most people around the world are already experiencing impacts from one or more of these global issues.

Within Alaska and the Arctic this is certainly the case. In my lifetime, I have experienced substantial climatic changes impacting the land and animals that our people depend upon. Major floods along the Yukon River have devastated entire villages and the earth is literally falling from beneath homes as the permafrost melts. Last summer, for the first time in the living memory of our people, we had to stop subsistence fishing for chinook salmon because of the declining population. This is a critical source of physical and cultural sustenance that greatly affects the food security for thousands of people living along the river.

We must take bold action on these issues. Decision-making needs to be based on a set of solid criteria that incorporates scientific data, technological capacity, and Indigenous knowledge. An analysis of long-term, multi-generational sustainability is essential. As human beings we depend upon natures’ capacity to replenish and sustain itself.

My generation has grown up in a technologically connected world. While we respect the boundaries of nations, we see the bigger picture, that our fate is woven together as one. The world’s government and business leaders will be challenged to reshape long-held preconceptions of national and corporate identity in the coming years. Unwieldy competition and distrust will not get us to where we need to go, if we are to ensure future generations have similar opportunities as we have enjoyed.

We are the generation tasked with collectively ushering in new paradigms that bring together the best of all cultures and technologies in a way that will challenge us to expand our imagination and expectations. This is not a choice; it is simply what we must do.

Together, we have the ability to hand those to follow a future in which their families thrive, communities flourish, nations cooperate, culture is embraced, and the land and waters provide.

Together, we have the capacity to develop a prosperous Arctic, founded upon solid governing-institutions -- an Arctic where sustainable economies of scale, incorporating innovative energy systems, strengthened educational institutions, and protected ecosystems, provide for our economic, social, cultural, physical, and environmental health and wellbeing.

Thank you for inviting me to share these few thoughts with you today and I wish you all blessings in this work.

Senate Testimony on Alaska Native Hunting & Fishing Rights

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Field Hearing
“Food Security and Viability of Alaska Native Villages”

Saturday, October 26th, 2013
Carlson Center
Fairbanks, Alaska

Written Testimony of Evon Peter
Former Neetsaii Gwich’in Chief and Founder of the Indigenous Leadership Institute

Shalak naii. Dzaa gihshii geenjit shoo ihlii. Vashraii K’oo gwatsan ihlii. Neetsaii Gwich’in ts’a Koyukon ihlii.

Welcome to the lands of the Dine (Athabascan) people of Interior Alaska. Our people have lived here for more than 14,000 years and we had food security. We are the longest standing continuous residents of Alaska. Our ancestors effectively managed the natural resources to ensure future generations would thrive from the bounty of our lands and remain a strong healthy people.

Then 146 years ago, void of dialogue with our Tribal Chiefs and leaders, the United States claimed ownership and plenary power over our Indigenous nations, lands, waters, and resources. We were declared ‘uncivilized’ and denied basic ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’, the founding tenets of the United States Constitution. This colonization perpetuates injustice and is the foundation upon which a continuing violation of our human rights persists. Over the last hundred years, our people have patiently advocated to acquire basic rights; such as to own land, to end segregation, and to acquire voting citizenship.

In the 1960’s Congress failed to afford Alaska’s Indigenous Peoples the opportunity to enter into government-to-government treaty negotiations to settle federal land claims. We are a respectful sharing people. If we had been invited into a fair treaty negotiation we would have transformed world history and paved the way toward a harmonious sustainable co-existence.

Instead, Congress chose to unilaterally enact the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, extinguishing aboriginal hunting and fishing rights and aboriginal claims based on use and occupancy. Still, despite this Act, Congress placed a clear expectation on the State of Alaska and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to protect the subsistence needs of Alaska Native peoples. This expectation was never fulfilled, resulting in Congress passing provisions in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980. Alaska Native leaders called for a restoration of Alaska Native hunting and fishing rights. Instead, Congress opted to provide a subsistence priority for rural residents, with the intention to protect Alaska Native hunting and fishing practices. This attempt failed to protect our way of life.

The State of Alaska and Federal agencies have failed us, leaving our traditional food systems under imminent threat. Our resources are being decimated at alarming rates; our people are being denied access to traditional hunting and fishing; and we continue to be excluded from a meaningful role in the management of our renewable hunting and fishing resources. The harvesting and sharing of fish, game, and other resources, and the ceremonies that accompany these practices, provide for the social, cultural, spiritual, and economic survival of our communities. 

Unfortunately, we can no longer remain patient as our people and communities are  dying from cultural genocide, being denied our way of life. This is resulting in high rates of substance abuse, suicide, domestic violence, anxiety, and generational trauma. Our villages lack economic opportunity, lack access to quality education, lack adequate infrastructure, and lack access to affordable, sustainable healthy food systems. 

I grew up with my grandfather, he and others in my village taught me the ways of respecting the land and animals, so that they would return to us every season to nourish our body and spirit. It was explained to me that there are appropriate times and conditions to harvest each species, so that the health and number of animals would not be adversely impacted. If certain species began to overwhelm others or block the capacity of regeneration, such as a beaver dam in a critical spawning stream, we would take action to help sustain a balance in the ecosystem. As a child, I thought that this way of life and knowledge handed down to me would simply last forever, as our tribe was so remote.

Little did I know that Alaska Natives across the State were already suffering greatly from the failure of Congress to protect our peoples’ civil and human rights. Little did I know that as an adult I would be a criminal for practicing the sustainable way of life that I inherited from my grandfather and ancestors. Little did I know that political posturing and mismanagement of fish and wildlife between the State and federal governments would result in a critical threat to the food security of our peoples. Little did I know I would be sitting here today to defend our way of life.

I have to tell you that our Native grandmothers, grandfathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, and sons are suffering. Fishermen’ nets are being cut; Hunter’ moose are being seized from their freezers; Elders are fined for practicing the way of life they were taught by their elders. We are criminalized every day of the year for simply being who we are and have always been. When traditional foods are made to be inaccessible, we are left to rely upon highly expensive processed foods. This is a very difficult situation in remote villages where household incomes fall far beneath the poverty line and unemployment far exceeds national rates.

I have to ask, has the federal government and State of Alaska not benefited tremendously from the wealth of resources in Alaska over the last hundred years? Have our people not treated you with respect? Is it too much to ask for justice and equality in our own homeland?

This is a critical moment in the history of Alaska. It is not too late for the federal government and State of Alaska to turn the tides of injustice and bring our people into the fold of equality. It is not too late to make the necessary investments in our cultures and villages, so that we may all face a more secure future. 

The first steps toward food security and equality are simple.

  1. Alaska Native peoples right to hunt and fish must be restored.
  2. Our tribal governments must be recognized with equal co-management authority.

The Alaska Native wisdom that provided food security for over 14,000 years would contribute greatly toward sustainable resource solutions for all people. Today, you have the opportunity to fix a failed system, ensure cultural survival, and literally put food back on the table for Alaska Native peoples.

Senate Testimony on Preventing Native Youth Suicide

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Field Hearing
“H.O.P.E. for the Future: Helping Our People Engage to Protect Our Youth”

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011
Dena’Ina Convention Center
Anchorage, Alaska

Written Testimony of Evon Peter
Former Neetsaii Gwich’in Chief, Founder of the Indigenous Leadership Institute, and Director of the Maniilaq Wellness program

Shalak naii. Dzaa gihshii geenjit shoo ihlii. Vahsraii K’oo gwatsan ihlii.

I give thanks for being invited to share with this Committee and our People. It is humbling to be asked to share my experience and understandings about the tragedy of suicide, which has in someway affected nearly every Alaska Native person today. It is imperative that we proactively address this issue and its related contributing factors with conviction, so I am grateful to help raise awareness in this way. I also give thanks to all those leaders who came before me, breaking trail on this path to healing and wellness, many of whom are still with us today working diligently within their families and communities. It takes great courage and commitment to acknowledge that we have problems and to face them with honesty, love, and determination. We can no longer afford to live in denial about the daunting reality many of our people face on a daily basis.  We can no longer afford to live in fear of the consequences if we choose to raise our voices and take a stand.

Within my culture, we speak from personal experience because that is the story we know best. Our stories shape who we are and reflect the learnings we have garnered about life. They also enable us to identify our relationships to one another.  Additionally, in order to fully address the complexity of suicide in Alaska Native communities, time must be taken to briefly detail a history of colonization. This history may not initially seem relevant, yet is inextricably connected to the breakdown of the cultural, political, spiritual, and social fabric that sustained Alaska Native peoples for thousands of years prior to western colonization.

Research has shown that colonization is one of the single largest factors driving the abnormally high suicide
rates within an Indigenous population. Therefore, in order to fully engage in the battle against suicide in Alaska Native communities it is crucial to ask a couple questions:  Just what is colonization?  And how has the colonization of Alaska impacted Alaska Native populations historically and in the current time?  I will attempt to answer parts of these questions through sharing with you part of my story, how I am here before you today.

I was born to a Gwich’in and Koyukon mother and a Jewish father. I lost my father to divorce when I was five and I did not see him again before he died, for these reasons I was raised as a Gwich’in person from my earliest memories. But my story begins further back; my grandmother was adopted at a young age after losing her parents to disease -- one of several diseases that had caused a great number of deaths among Alaska Native people between 1870 - 1950.  As a child, following the adoption, my grandmother was sexually abused by men in her new community and she did not realize until adulthood that this was not a normal part of what childhood was supposed to be. This later weighed heavily on her relationship with my grandfather and their ability to raise my aunts, uncles, and mother in a secure and openly loving way.

My grandparents chose to send my mother away at a very young age to California to receive a better western education.  At the time this was highly encouraged and sometimes forced during a time period of federal government policies that is now widely recognized as an era of tribal termination and forced assimilation. It was in this same time period that the territory of Alaska was successfully desegregating; in our own homelands signs that read “no dogs, no Natives” were finally being taken down from business windows. Few of our Alaska Native people were western educated at that time. Stories of the treatment of American Indians in the continental United States made it clear to our leaders that we would need to learn the western ways better to be able to defend our rights to our homelands and to our way of life against a dominant culture that had already shown our people great disregard. My mother was lucky to return to Alaska after only three years and she remained home until leaving again for high school on the east coast of the lower forty-eight.

Like many Alaska Native people of my grandmother and mother’s generation, my mother endured the emotional, psychological, spiritual, cultural, and physical duress of a rapid transition from a traditional way of life on the land to the twenty-first century “city life”. Federal policy and practices, implemented through schools and some churches, enforced the assimilation of Native peoples through the direct and indirect eradication of rights, language, culture, and philosophy. My mother’s generation was born into a world that immediately told her, both in popular culture and in government policies, that she must change.

The policies and practices of colonization brought with it the social illnesses of sexual abuse, alcoholism, and neglect, which can be passed from one generation to the next. This is often referred to as intergenerational trauma, which equates to an experience of post-traumatic stress disorder among many Alaska Native people. In many ways, my mother’s generation was born with the scars of assaults carried out in previous generations of our ancestry as the colonizing culture attempted the eradication of who we are and the undermining of our control over our destiny as a people.

These multiple layers of stress and pain associated with generations of assault, abuse, and loss are all too easily numbed with alcohol and drugs. Yet drugs and alcohol do not heal the pains, they amplify it.  Alaska Native communities have seen an epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse, which has resulted in continuations of the cycles of social illness and suicides.  My family has not been immune to this; my story, until recently, was not an exception to this cycle.

Shortly after my father left we were living in Anchorage, but my mother felt a calling to send me north to my grandmother in Gwichyaa Zhee (Fort Yukon) and my grandfather in Vashraii K’oo (Arctic Village). She felt it was important that I be raised traditionally among our people -- the reverse of her experience being assimilated into the western ways. The following years, until I was a teenager, I moved from village to village and sometimes back into the urban ghettos of Anchorage, I lived with grandparents, uncles, relatives, and my immediate family. Within those times, I faced hunger, sexual abuse, bullying, neglect, racism, confusion, exposure to heavy alcohol and substance abuse, and suicidal ideation, which started at the age of ten when I once held a knife to my throat for two hours.

Simultaneously, I was immersed in an “Indigenous worldview,” I received a traditional education from the land, animals, and people.  All of this shaped my understanding of what it means to be Gwich’in, to be human. I had to grow up fast and my grandmother later reflected to me as an adult, that she knew when I was thirteen years old that I was already an independent young man, admittedly one who was unconsciously broken, hurting, and naïve. 

It was then that my mother moved my brothers, sister, and I all back together under one roof into the low-income area of Fairbanks. We ate food bank rations and I hunted ptarmigan and rabbits in the willows with my brother near our apartments, until the police told us “no more hunting in the city.” My mother had made courageous changes in her life through her own healing process by that time. She began to implant the expectations of success into the minds of us children, and kept our home free of alcohol and drug abuse. There is no one I respect more than my mother, her strength and determination demonstrated to us what was possible in the face of great adversity. She opened the door to this path that I now follow.

It was during this same time that my generation of Alaska Native youth, in particular young men, began to die by suicide at an alarming rate. I remember being brought into a private room at Ryan Jr. High School with about twelve other young Alaska Native boys, where we were lectured by a non-Native about how we were far more statistically likely to go to jail or die by the time we were twenty five years old than to finish high school. It was the early days of behavioral health intervention, with attempts made to scare us into following a different path. Within a year, one of us died by suicide and, over the next six years, only two finished high school. I was not one of them. The rest of us started to abuse alcohol and drugs during this same time period. Some are still self-medicating their pain and suffering, using alcohol or drugs to make life feel bearable.

I was lucky to survive my teenage years. Then at seventeen years old, I had an epiphany, my consciousness awakened in a new way. I realized that I was not doing okay and neither were many of the Native people around me. I thought about how I would become a father one day, and that I had the power to choose the life path I would walk for my children. I knew that transforming my life would require a great deal of courage because I would need to acknowledge and face my problems. I chose to heal and develop myself as a person so that I could be there for my family, and to be there for my people.

My first steps after finding this clarity were interrelated. I needed to pursue my education, both western and traditionally in my culture, and I had to investigate the history of what our people went through that led us to our current condition. It did not take long for me to find other young Alaska Natives who carried similar interests. Together we began what has become my lifelong work, the pursuit of truth, healing, knowledge, and self-determination among Alaska Native peoples.

The emphasis in my early work was on youth leadership development, with the first gathering hosted over sixteen years ago. As we honed the process and approach to leadership development over the years, we realized early on that a necessary first step towards healing is to create a confidential space, without judgment, for people to share what they had been through in life.

For most it is like being able to breathe freely for the first time, to sit in a safe environment among Alaska Native peers and realize that we are not alone in feeling the pain, pressure, and loss in our generations. To have our feelings affirmed and have people acknowledge that much of what is happening on a social, political, and economic level is not okay and that anger, frustration, confusion, and depression are natural emotional responses to the experiences we are living with as Alaska Natives.

There are natural stages that follow as we deepen our awareness of what our past generations had to endure. We most often feel forgiveness and compassion towards our parents and grandparents as we realize that they too must have suffered tremendously in their lifetimes due to great deaths from epidemics, boarding schools, racism, assimilation, abuse, and other traumatizing circumstances. It is not an excuse for unhealthy or negative behaviors, but it provides for insight into how it came to be.

In sharing our stories with one another in a healthy setting we began the process of re-weaving the social, spiritual, and cultural fabric that once before sustained our peoples. We found support, encouragement, and guidance from each other and began making a commitment to ourselves to no longer live life as a victim, but to face our personal challenges and those of our people as compassionate warriors.

Three years ago leaders from several regions in Alaska asked me to expand the focus of my efforts to the prevention of suicide. Since that time I have worked with a number of “compassionate warriors” to develop approaches to suicide prevention and healing that are rooted in the traditional values, knowledge, and practices of our peoples. And we continue to learn, grow, and make improvements to these approaches. I believe that we have the capacity and the knowledge in our communities to address the issues surrounding suicide, however it requires people in each community to take a stand by cleaning up there own life and then taking the risk to apply healthy pressure within their families and community. In the past, our elders held such a deep personal integrity and respect among the people that they were able to be this healthy foundation for their villages. This is something that we need to return to, but which can only happen if enough people begin to hold themselves to a good self-disciplined path in life.

Research shows that Alaska Native people are much more likely to go to their peers or a family member than to a western-based counselor, therapist, or psychologist when experiencing depression or suicidal ideations. This makes sense because we know that other Alaska Natives will understand what we are talking about when we express our feelings about the experiences we are having as Alaska Natives. In the past few years, I have listened to the stories and witnessed the pouring of tears from hundreds of Alaska Native youth and young adults. I can attest to the fact that the current level of suffering and pain being felt by Alaska Native people today is staggering.

The path to our recovery will require several factors to be acted upon simultaneously. All are rooted in the need for expanding control over our destiny as Alaska Natives through self-determination. Self-determination is something that we must take upon ourselves to practice as Alaska Natives, but it is also something that the federal and state governments can choose to support or not. This kind of decolonizing process is linked to decreased rates of suicide and substance abuse in tribal communities.

As Alaska Natives we must step into leadership and responsibility. We must lead by example; ask ourselves if our behaviors and decisions are ones that we would feel good to have our children follow? We must be honest with our families, our community members, and ourselves. We must recognize and acknowledge the problems we have, because that is the first step to addressing them. We must demonstrate the love for our children, family, and people through our actions. The solution is in every one of us, we just have to believe it is possible and then we will make it so. Yet, we must also have patience for ourselves and those around us, because the process of healing takes time.

I believe that you, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and the Federal government have a key role in helping build better futures for Alaska Native people. In the late 1990’s, I took a trip upriver from Fort Yukon to another Gwich’in village that happens to be in Canada, called Old Crow. While there, I was astonished to see they had running water, electricity, and a solidly recognized tribal government that was well supported by the Canadian government. They were in control of their local school and were in the midst of a decade long treaty negotiation over land, resources, rights, and royalties to developments in their traditional territories.

It was one of the first times I clearly realized that of the billions of dollars annually taken from our traditional lands in Alaska in the form of oil, salmon, mining, and timber, we were still living in third world conditions compared to our cousins upriver. Our tribal governments have never been afforded a treaty negotiation with the United States government. Our people have not truly been afforded the opportunity to decide for ourselves how we would like to best organize ourselves for self-governance and economic development.

Instead, the United States passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971 as an experiment in modern colonization that has reaped some economic benefit for Alaska Natives, but also a great deal of division, cultural degradation, confusion, and frustration among Alaska Native tribes and people. In addition, ANCSA extinguished our Indigenous rights to hunt and fish despite Alaska Natives being arguably the most dependent of any Indigenous peoples in North America to that way of life.

More directly related to our behavioral health needs, the federal government provides funding through IHS that is restricted to meet behavioral health service standards that were not developed to meet the needs of our people. We may not have all the solutions yet, but there is no doubt that we will be more effective with the freedom to develop and implement our own services based on our intimate understanding of the issues our people are facing. Lifting the restrictions on federal funding for behavioral health services would lift the burden of administrative time required to meet western standards and enable us to provide more effective services to Alaska Native communities. We would benefit greatly from an expanded autonomy in the use of current and recurring federal and state behavioral health dollars.

Furthermore, I would like to suggest that an equal, if not greater, scale of investment that was put into eradicating our cultures and assimilating Alaska Native peoples into western ways be invested into healing, wellness, and leadership development to help us recover.

There are a great many factors that lead into the number of suicides in Native communities such as high unemployment rates, lack of adequate housing, and limited control over our educational systems that are failing our children at an alarming rate. As representatives of our Federal government you have a great opportunity and responsibility to ensure initiatives that usher greater self-determination for Alaska Native peoples so that we may further enhance our work towards a holistic healing and recovery of our people.

Thank you for this opportunity to share from my experience and I wish you all the best in your life and work.

Falling in, Finding balance

I was standing nude on the tundra, ten years old with my water drenched clothes drying by a fire. A short stand of arctic spruce trees provided little protection from the frigid breeze that bit at my skin. Spring snow still spackled the ground, and just down a small hill behind me was the narrow but deep ice-cold creek I had only a few minutes earlier fell into. I was lucky to get out that day, the creek fed into a lake that was still frozen solid about twenty feet down stream. I rotated my body front-to-back, front-to-back, thankful for the warmth of the fire. My hunting partner Roland had helped pull me from the creek and built the fire.  Roland was ten as well but he spoke with a calm confidence, “I’m going to take a look around while your clothes dry.”

We were out among the tundra lakes on the southern edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to hunt ducks on our peoples’ ancestral lands. Earlier that day we had put on our rubber boots, warm coats, and packed hunting sacks for our day on the land. I had been carrying my uncles’ sixteen-gauge shotgun with a sawed off barrel and no sights.  We had crossed the large frozen lake, which had overflow on parts of it, carefully; using poking sticks to make sure the ice was solid enough to hold our weight. There was a breath of relief when we made it to solid ground. Then we had to cross a creek that wasn’t very wide, we were able to jump across. It was on our return that I lost my balance and fell into the creek. 

I was fully submerged and the strong current was quick to pull me deeper, towards the underside of the frozen lake.  I could see the inner wall of the creek moving by rapidly.  With my shotgun still in hand, I knew I would have to let it go to make it out. I dropped it and reached with my hands toward the edge of the creek and upward. The whole thing happened in seconds; completely soaked, happiness spread through me that I was once again on the solid tundra. Roland and I already knew by that age if I tried to walk back to the village in that condition, I might not make it. So, we made the plan to build the fire, dry my clothes, and prepare ourselves better for the walk home. 

It was the mid nineteen eighties and our isolated village of a hundred Neetsaii Gwich’in had just a few years earlier acquired electric power. I was five years old when my mother first sent me to the village, after my father left us never to be seen again. Without my mother or father and into the hands of my elderly grandfather and uncle, I had to grow up quick. I learned early to depend upon and provide for myself. Later I realized that this characteristic of ‘hard work to provide for oneself and the community’ is a fundamental aspect of our culture. A good part of the healthy pride we carry comes from being self-sufficient providers, able to do for ourselves.

Yet, as the years went by I became a little extreme in my sense of independence, I developed a hardened emotional shell. I cared about people around me, but felt I needed no praise or positive attention in order to ‘be okay’. I had a difficult time allowing others to become close to me or show me love in any way. At seventeen years old, after glimpsing my emotional blockages and childhood wounds, I made the choice to grow up. It took a conscious decade long effort before I felt successful in peeling back many layers of the shell I had built to protect myself as a child.

I have seen that it is easier to run from hardship than to face it, especially when we sense that it is generated from our own patterns of thought and behavior. It is hard to acknowledge and accept that something is out of balance within us. I have learned that when we face challenges with grace and determination, we move ourselves toward a balanced life, which generates less unnecessary hardship along the way.

Reach Out and Come Together

It’s 5:45pm. The small, single engine plane bounces to a landing on the hard packed snow-covered runway in a remote Alaskan village. It is -15 below zero. There are no trees, just a vast frozen ocean, ice, snow drifts, small hills in the distance, and what would look like a suburb of homes if it were not in such an isolated location. The land and horizon is majestic and still. The bounty of sea and land animals have provided for generations. And for a moment I feel the relief of being away from the stresses of city life, of being home on the land.

Among the possibility of a simple, peaceful life on the land, rests one of the most tumultuous challenges our people have ever faced. It has been the focus of my attention for a couple years, although the cultural, spiritual, mental, and social breakdown that fosters it, have filled my thoughts on many occasions. As the plane slows to a stop on the runway and the snow machines pull up, my mind is drawn back to my mission: healing, wellness, prevent suicide.

Although we deal with many kinds of losses, suicide is one of the hardest tragedies to face, because there is rarely a straightforward answer to the question: Why? Even when the person was faced with big problems, there is still the question: What brought them to decide that suicide was an answer? Unlike many tragedies, suicide is not an accident. It is not forced upon someone. And it is clearly preventable.

Suicide is a reflection of social suffering. The pressures and complexity of life Indigenous people face on a day-to-day basis are astounding. We often navigate personal trauma, communal dysfunction, unresolved grief, family losses, and addictive behaviors, while having to also deal with oppressive and assimilative parts of imposed systems (governance / education) and behaviors (racism / indifference) from a dominant culture. After generations of intentional actions to break down a peoples’ spirit and take control away from them over their destiny, it is no surprise that social illness is able to take hold. Even though there is cause for hardship felt by so many Indigenous people, this is not the end of the story.

There are many people who positively face their inner discord, face the traumas of their lifetime, and deal with the current context in which they live. They are choosing the very challenging path of healing. It requires an awareness and acceptance of the truth. It is a daily practice of reminding oneself that life is a blessing, full of challenges, yet ours to live as we choose. This path also requires support from others in the community. It is more than a “me against the world.” It is a “together we will prevail.”

There is great power in reaching out to another person in your community. While in the village, a friend shared that she baked a couple pies for elders because it was what she used to do for her grandfather before he passed. She was feeling sad, missing her grandfather, and thought she would turn her grief into caring for others. She made her teenage daughter come along as she showed up at elders’ homes with the unexpected gift of a pie. Her daughter was surprised at how happy the elders were and how good it made her feel as well. The next week was consumed with making pies and bringing them to all the elders in the village! When we act in kindness, ask someone how they are doing, or share a compliment with them, we can help shift the course of a persons day or maybe even their life.

When the personal choice to live a healthy, positive lifestyle is combined with pro-active outreach to others, we begin the process of bringing wellness back into our communities. Our strength comes from the closeness in our healthy relationships with others. Many of our people simply need someone to listen to their stories and not judge them for what they have been through. Our compassion and empathy can go a long ways. I am grateful for all those who are working to be there for others in their family and community in this way.

I spend a day in the school with about fifty 7th-12th graders in the gym. We play games, draw pictures from our life, and learn of the history of our people. We also talk about the rapid cultural change we are experiencing, tell stories, and discuss the many challenges we face in our families and villages. They are happy to share their knowledge, concern, and then also laugh with one another.

We all need someone to talk to, not just those we think need help. So, please find a trustworthy person if you need support. There is no shame in asking for help. There is no shame in mourning the losses and hardships in our lives. There is no shame in feeling the support of others. Lets all be a part of the solution by reaching out and coming together.

Alaska 101 for Presidential Candidates

Alaska 101 for Presidential Candidates
Published 10/2/08

McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin for his vice-presidential running mate has opened a political window into Alaska. The world is peeking through in hopes of discovering sordid information about Palin’s life. A close look reveals approximately 130,000 Alaska Native people facing ongoing violations of their fundamental human rights. Politically speaking this image, one that Republicans and Democrats alike fail to acknowledge, may snowball into a series of events reminiscent of India’s liberation from the British. There is a powerful and well-informed movement building among Alaska Native peoples to address root causes of the cultural, spiritual, social, political, and economic challenges people are facing. It is a movement of healing, awareness, truth, and action.

We must look within history to uncover the solutions. In 1867, the United States paid Russia pennies on the acre for Alaska through the “Treaty of Cession.” Russia did not have dominion over Alaska. At best Russia had claim to a few trading posts and some land on the Aleutian Islands. In the “Treaty of Cession,” Alaska Native peoples were referred to as the “uncivilized tribes”, a title given to those excluded from decisions regarding their lands, lives, and resources.

In addition to being deemed ‘uncivilized’, the United States sent military convoys throughout Alaska and determined that Native peoples ‘posed no military threat’. These determinations furthered the United States agenda of resource exploitation and cultural genocide. My grandfather, who helped raise me as a child in northern Alaska, was born in 1904 into an ‘uncivilized’ status. He was not a United States citizen, he could not vote, and had to endure business signs that read “no dogs, no natives”. This diminishment of Alaska Native status enabled the United States’ unjust and illegitimate claim to control Alaska’s land and vast resources.

In 1924, my grandfather became a United States citizen. In 1943, my tribe became one of the few federally recognized American Indian reservations in Alaska through the “Indian Re-organization Act.” The government quickly disallowed other Alaska Native peoples from following suit, realizing they would lose claim to most of Alaska if the process were allowed to continue.

World War II opened peoples’ eyes to the horrendous nature of genocide. Subsequently, the “United Nations Charter” established a list and framework for the decolonization of non-self-governing territories. African and disenfranchised European nations were excited to begin the process of reclaiming their right to nationhood and self-governance. The United States voluntarily added the territory of Alaska to this list, an acknowledgement that it did not hold legitimate control over Alaska Native lands and lives.

However, in 1959 the United States violated its agreement pursuant to the “UN Charter” and ushered Alaska into Statehood, less than twenty years after the non-Native population surpassed that of Alaska Natives. The government and colonists were interested in securing access to oil, gold, timber, and salmon among other natural resources. Alaska was also in a militarily strategic position in relation to the USSR and Asia.

Still, the United States had not established legitimate dominion over Alaska and there was growing pressure from industry to exploit oil on the North Slope. The government and oil industry needed a solution that would prevent Alaska Native lawsuits over the unjust taking of lands and resources. In 1971, the U.S. Congress enacted the “Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act” (ANCSA). It was the greatest legislative theft of American Indian lands since the Dawes Act of 1887. The Dawes Act resulted in the loss of approximately ninety million acres of Indian treaty lands in the continental United States.

ANCSA was not a treaty settlement with Alaska Native peoples - it was a unilateral Congressional act. It extinguished all federal Alaska Native land claims, resulting in the theft of approximately three hundred and twenty one million acres of land, three and a half times the amount of land stolen pursuant the Dawes Act. In addition, ANCSA extinguished all but one Indian reservation and all Indigenous hunting and fishing rights.

ANCSA provided a corridor for the trans-Alaska pipeline. The oil industry, State of Alaska, and federal government have benefited over a hundred billion dollars. On the other hand, Alaska Native tribal governments were undermined as ANCSA established thirteen regional for-profit Native led corporations. The Alaska Native corporations were provided lands not taken and a one-time payment, equivalent to approximately 1/20th the profits made from Alaskan resources in one year.

As a tribal leader, I have experienced the direct correlation between this history of colonization and the overwhelming challenges Alaska Native peoples are encountering today. As Alaska Native peoples, we are among the only Indigenous peoples whose traditional hunting and fishing rights have been federally extinguished and we are the most dependent on this way of life. We have among the highest rates of suicide and are among the most economically impoverished in all of the United States. Our traditional leadership systems and rights to self-governance at a tribal level have been undermined and fragmented. The result of these human rights violations has been devastating.

Simultaneously, I am confident that a just and equitable resolution can be reached between Alaska Native peoples and the federal government. It is a pivotal time to enter negotiations with the federal government to address the atrocities of a past rooted in blatant injustice, manipulation, exploitation, and cultural genocide. We now have a deepening holistic knowledge of the past and its impact on our present situation. With this knowledge humanity must work to confront injustices and heal dysfunction within all aspects of our lives.