ALASKA NATIVES COMMISSION
A Reader's Guide To Volume I
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Volume I of the Alaska Natives Commission's Final Report was prepared by the Commission staff for the purpose of providing an overview and summary of the Commission's substantial work product compiled through hearings, research and deliberations carried out since July of 1992. Mike Irwin, the Commission's Executive Director, is editor and principal author of Volume I. Other writing credits for this and subsequent volumes go to Edward Deoux, Ph.D., Bart Garber, William Hanable, George Irvin, Alexandra J. McClanahan, and Harold Napoleon.
This volume conveys the flavor, sense and direction of the Commission's conclusions and recommendations based an the three "Overarching Principles" found on page 20. A complete listing of all recommendations made by the Commission based on findings of its various task forces can be found in Part Three of this document. Volume I serves as an introduction to, and summary of, the Commission's full body of work. Those looking for greater detail including findings, discussions, and conclusions on particular issues should also refer to Volumes II and III of the Final Report. Each section of these additional volumes contains the full text and language crafted by the Commission and its task forces, as edited and adopted by the full Commission.
D E D I C A T I O N
Commission's work was concen-
trated over the course of about 18
months. During that time
Commission members and staff
traveled throughout Alaska,
gathering data and testimony for
the report to Congress and the
Governor. We were looking for
answers to complex problems.
The real story behind the scene
as we were doing our work, how-
ever, were the 1,217 Alaska
Natives who died and the more
than 5,100 Alaska Native babies
who were born.*
We regret that we were unable to
do more for those who passed
away before this work was com-
plete, and we earnestly hope we
have laid the foundation for a
better future for the children.
report is dedicated
to those in the Native community
who died and those who began life
while we worked.
*Figures are based on records as kept by the State of Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics.
A READERS GUIDE TO
Volume I contains the essence of the Commissions findings, discussions, and recommendations. It is not all-inclusive. Rather, it attempts to present the most fundamental components of a "blueprint" for change in the course of Native affairs.
The volume begins with a preface by Dr. Robert Alberts, a former practitioner with the Indian Health Service who, for many years, has studied the effects of acculturation on Alaska Natives. His thoughts set the tone and the spirit for Volume I.
PART ONE is a documentation of the physical, social, and economic changes over the past two centuries that have affected the situation in which Alaska Natives find themselves today. It sets the stage for the recommendations of the Commission in hopes that, through a better understanding of Alaska Natives history since contact with Western society, a greater appreciation of their present social and economic situation can be attained.
PART TWO contains the fundamental recommendations of the Commission in key issue areas. These recommendations and accompanying discussions relate directly to the overarching principles of Native self-reliance, self-determination, and the integrity of Native cultures. (Additional recommendations pertaining to each area of study can be found in the "Table of Recommendations" in Part Three of this volume.) Also included in Part Two are discussions entitled "Native to Native." These discussions, or essays, present the issues in basic human terms without unnecessary legalese or governmental jargon.
PART THREE, in addition to the "Table of Recommendations" referred to above, contains key statistical facts and findings of the Commission. Again, while not being all-inclusive, the analyses and data contained in this section relate to the themes and recommendations of this volume. Also contained in Part Three is information on the Alaska Natives Commission and its members, and demographic and geographic information based on census and other current data.
Dispersed throughout this volume are excerpts from the Commissions significant body of hearing testimony. These selections, identified as "Alaskan Voices," reflect the spirit of concerned Alaskans Native and non-Native alike who came forward at the Commissions request and, collectively, gave the entire undertaking its legitimacy and life.
P R E F A C E
Robert Alberts, M.D., M.P.H.
As I wrote these words, I remembered my feelings during the first few months after my arrival many years ago in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta area. I had gone through some difficult times in my own life, and I was not sure what Alaska would have in store for me.
It was difficult for me, in those early days, to understand why there was so much frustration, anger, and violence among the people in the villages. For these were people abundantly capable of support and genuine friendship and so free of prejudice toward others. It took time to develop insight into the sickness which had spread through the Native communities and which was causing so much self-destructive behavior, especially among the young people.
Mental health is the positive attitude toward life, together with the skills to cope successfully with lifes stresses, which makes it possible for us to reach our highest potential as human beings. Our coping skills are important to help us maintain a state of well-being. Equally important are an understanding of the stresses we encounter in life and the support we receive from our support systems: our families, friends, and the communities we belong to.
Our state of well-being is determined, then, by these three forces: stressful life events, individual coping skills, and social support systems. Well-being is also a state of harmony between the individual and his or her total environment. It requires successful adjustment in the areas of physical, mental, cultural, spiritual, and economic interaction.
All of us living in this world are constantly exposed to the stresses and hardships of life. Groups of people, as time goes on, develop ways to ease the impact of these stresses in the form of cultural traditions. These traditions guide us throughout life and become a healing force when we are faced with events that threaten our well-being. When changes happen too rapidly and are forced upon us, our traditions may not be able to adapt and may thereby lose the ability to guide us. This is especially true when outside forces are destructive to our own culture.
Looking back on the recent history of Alaska, it appears that many of the problems of today are related to the attitude of the non-Native caregivers who came to the state in great numbers to "save" the Native people.
With some exceptions, these outsiders were thoroughly convinced as is typical of members of most dominant societies about the superiority and rightness of their own culture. Due in part to ignorance and cultural nearsightedness, they believed that replacing the Native culture with their own was beneficial and, therefore, justified.
Before the newcomers came to Alaska, the Native people were not in need of salvation. For many centuries their cultural traditions and their knowledge had provided them with the skills to survive successfully in their own environment. The disintegration started when the non-Native culture, totally foreign to the natural environment of Alaska, caused great disruption between the land and the Native people.
First came the devastating epidemics of diseases to which Native people had never before been exposed. More recently, after the Native way of life became increasingly influenced by the dominant culture and society, the Native people themselves either by choice or by coercion became dependent on the outside world. This dependency, which is the single-most damaging force with respect to Natives self-esteem, gives the artificially created situation its life by means of the scores of federal, state, and private agencies that are still in the business of "saving" the Natives.
In this context, it is not difficult to understand the anger and frustration of Alaska Native people. Natives cannot help but observe that with the arrival of every new service and each new non-Native provider comes more damage to the Native way of life and to the pride and independence of the people.
The unwillingness on the part of many non-Native providers to give up control has left Native people unprepared for the changes which have taken place. It continues to foster a state of dependency that destroys the self-esteem of the people who find themselves caught between two worlds.
Dependency is a terribly destructive force. As individuals, we are born with a sense of being special. But this sense of self-worth develops only if we have the good fortune of growing up in a healthy environment. If that positive force is missing during our childhood, the tension between the natural need for self-fulfillment and the doubts about our self-worth leads to a chronic state of frustration. This frustration, in turn, creates anxiety and anger; anger toward oneself as well as toward a world which fails to support us or, even worse, stunts us in our growth.
THE STRENGTH OF CULTURAL TRADITION
It is impossible to make life meaningful unless we have been given the means to do so. In a rapidly changing world, this often becomes a serious problem.
When parents do no have the skills to prepare their children for changes yet to come, they often transmit their feelings of helplessness to their children. Overwhelmed by the technical skills of the dominant culture, they fail to recognize the strengths which lie in the spiritual values of their own cultural heritage. As a result, the parents do not share those values with their children.
These children grow up without the spiritual foundation of their parents, but neither are they comfortable in the dominant culture, which to them is foreign and confusing. When control of life is lost and decisions surrendered to others, the spirit weakens and depression sets in. When, on the other hand, spiritual values are alive and supported by a living cultural heritage, the chances of succeeding in a changing world are greatly enhanced.
Only after hope has been restored and depression has lifted can people become aware of their own strengths and the spiritual strength of their cultural tradition. The thought that cultural traditions retard development is totally wrong. As long as a culture remains alive and can incorporate new ideas while remaining true to its basic spiritual foundation, development and progress can become living realities.
After many years of research, I agree fully with what Alaska Native elders have told me. The true nature of the sickness which has spread throughout the Native villages is the state of dependency which led to the loss of direction and self-esteem. Everything else is of a secondary nature merely symptoms of the underlying disease. Programs which are aimed at relieving the symptoms but refuse to relate to the sickness itself are doomed to fail and may even make things worse.
The healing will have to come from within the Native community. And it will have to come by means of the reawakening of the independence, the pride, and the sense of purpose which at one time guided the people in their journey through the centuries. New skills are needed for that journey to continue and succeed. But most of all, there needs to be a return of the spiritual strength of a cultural tradition in order to make the journey meaningful again and provide future hope for those who have become lost on the trail.
Dr. Robert Alberts is a psychiatrist in private practice and a member
Advisory Council of the Alaska Native Foundation.
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