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Volume I: Part One


"No one man or one person
or anything like that
is going to come to save us.
I think it’s clear to us
that if we as a Native people
are to be saved, we’re going to
just have to do it ourselves."

Pete Schaeffer



A 1988 Pulitzer Prize winning series in the Anchorage Daily News characterized them as "A People in Peril." Farley Mowat, a Canadian author writing about the similarly situated Inuit of his country used the term "A Desperate People."

Whatever words are chosen to depict the situation of Alaska's Native people, there can be little doubt that an entire population is at risk. At risk of becoming permanently imprisoned in America's underclass, mired in both the physical and spiritual poverty that accompany such social standing. At risk of leading lives, generation to generation, characterized by violence, alcohol abuse, and cycles of personal and social destruction. At risk of losing, irretrievably, cultural strengths and attributes essential for the building of a new and workable social and economic order. And at risk, inevitably, of permanently losing the capacity to self-govern — the capacity to make considered and appropriate decisions about how life in Native communities should be lived.

This report, mandated by the United States Congress and supported by both the federal government and the State of Alaska, paints a picture of 86,000 U.S. citizens living in the richest state of the union who, despite such fortunate geographic placement, have experienced — and are today experiencing — economic deprivation and social impairment at sometimes incomprehensible rates.

The roots and causes of this economic and social displacement are numerous and complex, and may never be fully understood nor adequately appreciated by anyone, even those who live with them daily. Likewise, it is difficult to imagine that appropriate, timely and, above all, adequate solutions can ever be found to fully satisfy requirements of social and economic justice for Alaska Natives. So much cultural destruction has taken place, such a large proportion of Alaska's most valuable natural resources have been taken from Natives' ownership and control, and so much potential for social and political equity has been foregone that it is difficult to envision, let alone articulate, a basis for achieving total fairness for this and future generations of Alaska Natives. The mandate of the Alaska Natives Commission, however, was to attempt to do so.

Although limited to only 18 months of study and analysis, the Commission took on the challenge of finding ways to improve the social and economic status of Alaska Natives as the 20th century comes to an end. What the Commission found is, in many ways, less than hopeful. The lack of emotional, physical and social well-being on the part of countless individuals, families and even entire communities is startling, if not completely staggering, in scope. This lack of well-being, or "dysfunction" as it is commonly referred to, was precipitated, the evidence suggests, by a century-long policy of cultural, social and economic assimilation. Rampant unemployment and the virtual non-existence of other economic opportunities for large portions of the Alaska Native population — together with the spiritually and psychologically debilitating intervention of governmental services to fill the social and economic void — has created a culture of dependency. If one theme can be identified as having emerged during the course of the Commission's work, it is Alaska Natives' seeming inability to take responsibility for local economies, governments, and schools and other social institutions.

Whether in the area of economic development or social "advancement," the impact of government on the villages during the past quarter-century, while often materially beneficial in content, has been destructive in process. The federal government appears to have believed that "development" — social, political, economic, and cultural — is something that can be done to one group of people by another. A more constructive belief that development is something one can do only for oneself and that the best others can do is to support those efforts seems never to have been recognized. If recognized, it certainly never took hold as a guiding principle. For its part, state government's interest has historically been the development of resources, not people.

The result of this systematic assumption of responsibility and control by outsiders is that village people lost hold of their communities and their children's lives. That is a fundamental fact underlying the contemporary Native social and economic crisis.

Of a

Social scientists have struggled for well over a century with the true meaning of culture.

The question has never been fully answered. It can be said, though, that culture is an essential weapon against the chaos of life and death. It is a means by which continuity from generation to generation can be ensured, and an endorsement of order and meaning. Though the lifeways of present-day Alaska Natives still resonate with the unique cultures of their forebears, social chaos permeates their lives. A sense of order and meaning, to a large degree, has been misplaced.

In pursuing the general policy during the past century of bringing Alaska Natives into the social and economic mainstream of Western society, Americans have required that the aboriginal peoples of Alaska dismantle their value systems, their traditions, their ways of acquiring knowledge, and their ways of living together as families and communities. They have been pressured — and in many instances forced — to replace their interpretations of life and the world around them with the sometimes ill-defined and little understood tenets on which Western ways are based.

Alaska Natives face social and behavioral health problems that threaten the future existence of the unique cultures on which healthy lifeways were once based. Over the past several decades the lives of Alaska Natives have improved in a purely physical sense. But the quality of their lives, by many measures, has deteriorated. Improved housing and community infrastructure, greater life expectancy, and security against widespread hunger and many forms of once deadly diseases have not brought a sufficient amount of comfort or inner peace. Alcohol abuse and violence running rampant in Alaska Native society have disheveled family and village life. Death, physical and psychological injury, and apathy touching all generations of Alaska Natives are of alarming, and ever-increasing, proportions. Cultural values and mores that in the past provided clear instruction to tribal members and assured the social order of communities have been seriously eroded and, in some instances, virtually lost.

Root Causes

It is difficult to make generalizations about the various Alaska Native tribes. But Native groups have enough in common to make it possible to refer to them as, collectively, "Alaska Natives."

Their view of the world was, and remains, quite different from the Western perspective. Alaska Natives are descended from peoples who believed in a dual existence: the physical and the spiritual. That is, the physical world that they lived and walked in was only one aspect of existence; controlling the physical and giving it "life" and character was its spiritual counterpart. This basic belief was the foundation of all Alaska Native cultures and was their "world view." The expression of this reality — a reality that non-Natives, to this day, do not understand — is the sum total of Alaska Native cultures: the arts, ceremonials, songs, feasts, social and political organizations, use and treatment of the resources, and ways of passing on knowledge that enabled a people to survive and co-exist for millennia in a hostile physical environment.

The achievement of harmony with each other and with all other living things was the essence of what their cultures provided to Alaska Native peoples. The fact that contemporary Native society is fraught with disharmony is testament that the crippling — and in some cases near eradication — of Native cultures lies at the heart of what is wrong in the lives of Native people.

There is no singular villain in the story of the long-term and concerted assault on Alaska Native cultures, nor is the story unique in the world. But it is one that must be told and understood. As Ann Fienup-Riordan asserts: "The ongoing impact of epidemics and other traumatic disruption of Alaska's Native peoples should be kept firmly in mind in future discussions of issues of personal identity among Alaska Natives."2

The changes that occurred in Native cultures came, in large measure, suddenly. In time, as measured by the development of intricate cultures and world views, the changes were almost, in fact, instantaneous.

Disease and Famine

In organizing the history of encounter between outsiders and Alaska's aboriginal peoples, Fienup-Riordan lists seven overlapping stages: resistance, co-existence, population disruption, attempted assimilation, global incorporation, dependency, and empowerment.3 The first two stages, which have been richly documented, occurred mainly in the Alaska maritime climate region (Aleutian Islands and North Gulf Coast). The initial intrusions of Europeans came primarily from Russian fur traders and explorers, with the Aleut people of the Aleutian archipelago bearing the brunt. Enslavement, physical abuse, and even annihilation of entire villages of Aleut and Koniag people at the hands of the Russians was commonplace during the first few generations following Vitus Bering's initial landing in Alaska. But for the vast majority of Alaska Natives scattered throughout the territory, contacts with Europeans did not become as widespread or deadly until well into the nineteenth century.

Both Fienup-Riordan and Harold Napoleon, a Yupik Eskimo born and raised in Hooper Bay, view the period of population disruption as the time when the seeds of the severest and most widespread destruction of Native cultures were sown.4

These population disruptions were caused primarily by the introduction during the nineteenth century of European diseases against which Alaska Natives had no natural immunities. Brought by traders and miners and explorers, the plagues would take their toll in staggering numbers well into the current century. Famines throughout Alaska during this same era accompanied the deadly march of disease. By 1910, the Native population of 25,331 was only one-third the size it was estimated to have been prior to European contact.

Often cited as being among the deadliest of plagues is the smallpox epidemic of the 1830s. Ravaging communities in many parts of the state, the epidemic virtually wiped out entire villages.5 It is estimated that in the lower Yukon area alone, up to two-thirds of Alaska Natives lost their lives.6 Across Alaska and throughout the 1900s, Natives would feel the deadly hand of measles, influenza, diphtheria, and pneumonia. Later, polio and tuberculosis, among others, would join the list of killers.

These epidemics decimated the Alaska Native people physically. A reasonable assumption can also be made that their entire world, including the most important aspect — the spiritual — was thrown into disarray. Researchers have found that the populations of survivors, many of whom had lost their entire families and most of their fellow villagers, dispersed and shifted. The population decline also undermined leadership, disrupted personal relations, and demoralized the people.7 The following is an excerpt from an eyewitness account by ethnologist Edward William Nelson upon his arrival on St. Lawrence Island in the late 1800s. The scene that he found and the survivors that he encountered might be viewed as microcosms of Alaska Natives' reality during the times of widespread death:

The two families living there consisted of about a dozen people; the adults seemed very much depressed and had little animation...A curious trait noticed among these survivors was their apparent loss of the customary fear, which the natives usually show when near a spot where many persons had died. The death of all their friends and relatives seemed to have rendered them apathetic and beyond the influence of ordinary fear of that kind.8

The extent and depth of the damage such massive death and illness would have on Natives' cultures and societies is only today being explored and identified. But it stands to reason that the damage was profound. To the plagues and famines were lost spiritual and social leaders, elders and parents, uncles, aunts, children and siblings. Artisans were swept away, as were those who knew best the oral traditions of the people, the historians.

For a people whose existence was tied intimately to the spiritual realm, the failure of their medicine men to bring cures struck to the core of their cultural beliefs. The spiritual void that now existed for the survivors stumbling away from mass death was filled by American missionaries who made greater inroads into the Alaska Native community as the nineteenth century neared its end. For a people whose social and cultural infrastructure was collapsing at their feet, it is little wonder that Native lifeways would become subservient to the alien social, political, and economic systems and beliefs being brought to their shores.

Collapse of the
Cultural Framework

Social scientists and historians generally view the period of attempted assimilation as a sea-change in the transformation of traditional Alaska Native cultures. At the vanguard of the march of Western civilization across the Alaskan territory were three major groups: miners, trappers, and assorted agents of Western commerce; religious missionaries; and school teachers and other government agents.

The potential richness of the Aleutian fur mammal trade was the impetus for European expansion into Alaska. Throughout the next century, miners, traders and other merchants made scattered inroads throughout most regions of Alaska. But, the most significant effects of the European mercantile system on traditional Native culture were confined largely to the Aleutian Islands, Kodiak, Bristol Bay and other maritime regions.

The latter half of the nineteenth century was a period of significant cultural dislocation, profoundly affecting the traditional economic system: subsistence hunting, fishing, gathering and bartering. Expansion of the whaling industry in north and northwest Alaska and the commercial fishing industry in southwest Alaska resulted in population shifts towards centers of economic activity during this period.9 The fur trade and general commerce expanded into areas previously unsettled by traders and resource exploiters. Reindeer herding was introduced into the western and northern Eskimo regions by the federal government in the late 1800s. Again, centers of economic activity were created, drawing in the survivors of disease and famine. Major gold discoveries in west and northwest Alaska and in some areas of the interior brought new waves of outsiders to points seldom seen by non-Natives.

The effects of the widespread introduction of Western commerce in Alaska were significant from a cultural and social perspective. First, the trend toward relocation of populations to areas of centralized economic activity was in direct contradiction to the practical requirements of the traditional subsistence economy. Subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering activities, which require small, scattered settlements able to move freely with the seasons and with the game, sea mammal and fish migrations, were difficult to undertake, given the population patterns emerging in the late 1800s.

Second, commercialization of species created a downward push on the availability of fish and wildlife stocks for subsistence taking. Commercial pursuits also placed restrictions of time on traditional hunters and fishers.

Accompanying European mercantilism were American missionaries taking the path of the Russian Orthodox Church. Throughout the 1800s, missionaries other than those representing the Russian Orthodox Church had found only limited success in making new converts among Alaska Natives. One of the reasons commonly given to the Russian missionaries' success among the Aleut and Koniag is the emphasis they put on use of the Native languages in their teachings.11

It appears, however, that the final blow to the spiritual will of Native peoples was dealt by the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1900: "Before 1900 progress was slow except in the Aleutian Islands and on the Pacific rim, where the Russian Orthodox Church was firmly established. But following the epidemic of 1900, whole villages elsewhere converted."12 Frequently referred to as the "Great Death" by Native survivors, the newest and most widespread plague appears to have made survivors ripe for Christian conversion: "The Jesuits established the mission of Akulurak at the mouth of the Yukon River in 1893, but it was not until after the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1900 that they began to make converts."13

In keeping with their humanitarian traditions, many American missionaries built hospitals for and otherwise tended to the sick and dying. They built orphanages for the children whose families the plagues and famines had ravaged, and they built missions to help feed and shelter many others. But the missionaries were, first and foremost, agents of Western culture bent on "civilizing" the Natives and converting them to Christianity.

Notwithstanding their humanitarian practices, there is little to suggest that American missionaries gave any regard to the cultures, languages, and rich traditions of the Native peoples they encountered. Playing heavily on the guilt of those who had not succumbed to disease and famine, some missionaries convinced many Natives that they were dying because of who they were, the way they lived, and what they believed.

To the physically, psychologically, and spiritually mangled Alaska Native people at the turn of the century, the message of the missionaries finally became compelling. Fienup-Riordan postulates that Natives, with all they had been through for one-and-one-half centuries, now saw the Christian teachings as "a novel spiritual solution to an unprecedented social and economic crisis."14

With passage of the Organic Act in 1884, the United States took on the role of "educating" Alaska Native children. Hand-in-hand with the missionaries, the government teachers, who in many instances operated as de facto, all-purpose agents of government, set about the task of making modern Americans of the last of the continent's aboriginal peoples: "We have no higher calling," wrote William T. Harris, head of the Bureau of Education between 1889 and 1906, "than to be missionaries of our idea to those people who have not yet reached the Anglo-Saxon frame of mind." 15

Several generations of Native people — many of whom are still alive today — would become targets of a tragic, frequently successful campaign of cultural elimination. Demanding that Natives abandon the cultures and languages of their grandfathers and grandmothers, Natives were given a clear message that one way of looking at the world was superior to the other. That the survivors did as they were told — abandoning their feasts and ceremonials, their dances and even their languages — is testament not to the correctness of the Western message but to the survivors' states of mind. Having lost multitudes of spiritual and political leaders, artisans, historians, and elders, those who were left were orphans — spiritually as well as physically — destined to live in a world of emotional and material poverty.

In the schoolhouses and boarding schools, in the churches and in the orphanages, Native children would learn how to become good Christians and good Americans. As the Rev. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister assigned to oversee the education of Alaska Natives, would state: "The children must be kept in school until they acquire what is termed a common-school education, also a practical knowledge of some useful trade. We believe in reclaiming the Natives' improvident habits and transforming them into ambitious and self-helpful citizens."16

The Loss of

Alaska Natives occupied Alaska's formidable land mass for at least 10,000 years prior to Vitus Bering's arrival in 1749. The reality of Alaska's hostile environment on both land and sea is common knowledge even among America's elementary students.

It is almost rhetorical to point out that in order to survive in the face of raging seas, arctic storms, and oftentimes scarce food supplies, Alaska Natives were capable, independent, and strong of will. Ethnographers and other scientists traveling to areas of Alaska prior to the onset of significant Western influence in those areas confirm these very attributes among Alaska Natives. In addition, technological inventiveness, physical and mental resilience, and a keen awareness of all the requirements for survival were among the many other noted traits.

This image of an independent, self-reliant people contrasts sharply with many of the images seen today within the Alaska Native community. Without necessarily even knowing that it was happening, Alaska Natives gradually adjusted to the relentless interference of non-Natives and, to a large degree, yielded their choices and decisions to outsiders who appeared to know what should be done and how to do it. The result is that several generations of Alaska Natives have been bound in a relationship of ever-increasing dependency on public service, subsidy, and control by others.

The situation did not come about overnight. Rather, the process from which it blossomed took hold and began to accelerate during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Over the next 60 years, Alaska Natives and their cultures would be transformed forever.

The influenza epidemic at the turn of the century was followed by yet another in 1918, tearing the fabric of life even further for Alaska Natives. Missions, orphanages, and schools proliferated during the first three decades of the 1900s, and Natives' dependence on others to feed, educate, and guide them and their children grew proportionally. The threads that tied them to their forebears and to their traditional lifeways were becoming fewer and fewer, even as their families and villages were growing increasingly unhinged due to the loss of parents and teachers and leaders. Discontinuities with respect to ancient, time-honored beliefs and traditions abounded.

New forms of disease, mainly tuberculosis and polio, took over where smallpox and influenza left off and, in the post-World War II era, a new agent of social and cultural disruption — the boarding school program — emerged.

In 1931 the Secretary of the Interior transferred responsibility for education of Alaska Natives from the Bureau of Education to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. When World War II came to Alaska in the early 1940s and Native and non-Native contact intensified throughout the territory, the BIA adopted a policy of assimilation. instead of converting entire Native groups to Western culture, individual Natives would be conditioned for assimilation.

To facilitate this new policy, the BIA in 1947 opened a high school for Natives (Mt. Edgecumbe) at the site of a World War II Naval air station at Sitka. When Mt. Edgecumbe became full and could not accommodate all the Natives that the BIA sought to immerse in Western education, Alaska Native students were shipped off to boarding schools operated by the BIA in other states. The bureau also operated an elementary school at Wrangell for children from communities with no school facilities at all. Significantly, the philosophical emphasis of the BIA program changed from keeping Native children in their home communities to taking them out of their communities and encouraging them not to return.17

From an economic perspective, the first six decades of this century — or, the period of global incorporation — set the pattern that still exists today: i.e. Alaska Natives, though integrating in varying degrees into Alaska's expanding mercantile and resource extraction economies, remained largely on the sidelines. During the early part of the twentieth century, exploitation of Alaska's resources kept pace as the United States industrialized. "Alaska Natives rarely reaped advantages from this development. Non-Native entrepreneurs employed them when it made economic sense and ignored them when it did not."18

In the Aleutian Islands, the federal government operated a lucrative fur seal industry. While Aleuts were employed in that industry, the role of the Aleuts has been characterized as one of "virtual involuntary servitude."19 And in Bristol Bay and Kodiak, where commercial fisheries were expanding year after year, most of the jobs in canneries and aboard for-hire fishing vessels operated by the canneries went to imported laborers. The following passage, which pertains specifically to the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta area during this time period but which has a much wider descriptive application, is instructive:

Although the Yukon-Kuskokwim region was integrated into the worldwide economy, albeit in a peripheral way, the Natives had less access to information, productive resources, and capital, and less control over local business than did their white counterparts.20

At the same time, pressures on fish and wildlife resources — brought about by Alaska's escalating non-Native population and intensified commercial harvesting — compromised the ability of Natives to adequately meet their subsistence needs. Heightening political battles over resource rights and allocations compounded the growing problem. Subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering as traditionally practiced by Alaska Natives was the epitome of self-reliance. Yet, this one avenue still open to Natives to meet their own needs independent of outside interference or involvement was, itself, becoming narrower.

and Self-Destruction

If two centuries of physical, spiritual, and cultural death were the seeds of self-destruction, those seeds burst forth in the 1960s when the pressure just to keep physically alive was eased by the programs of President Johnson's War on Poverty.

By the time of statehood, Alaska Natives were seen in general as an extremely disadvantaged people. The economic position of Alaska Natives had fallen further and further behind nationwide averages, reflecting a stagnant economic position of Alaska Natives compared to the rise in the U.S. standard of living.22

In a physical sense, the federal War on Poverty — designed to close the gap nationwide between economic classes — brought benefits to Alaska Natives. But, finally able to catch their collective breath after generations of pursuit, Alaska Natives found themselves a culturally and spiritually crippled people. Rather than feeling comfort in government-built homes and contentment in government-funded food supplies, Alaska Natives felt, instead, emptiness and an overwhelming sense of loss. The statistics show that when the levels of public expenditures over the past 30 years are placed side-by-side with the data on individual, family, and societal well-being, the social and psychological condition of Native people has varied inversely with the growth of government programs intended to help them.

It was during the period when anti-poverty programs were being introduced throughout Alaska that Natives began to turn to alcohol in alarming numbers. Sadly, the result would be a new cycle of trauma and death — but this time self-inflicted. By the early 1970s, alcohol was identified as being a leading cause of death among Alaska Natives. The Alaska Native suicide rate, which did not significantly differ from nationwide averages through the 1950s, began to take a dramatic turn upwards.23 Other indicators of serious social and behavioral health breakdown — e.g., assault, murder, sexual crimes including those against children, avoidable accidents, and psychological depression — began to multiply throughout the 1960s and 1970s. As with Native suicides, these anti-social behaviors and conditions were, by and large, directly related to the use and abuse of alcohol.

These trends continued into and throughout the decade of the 1980s. Dramatic rises in social pathologies marched along in lock step with massive infusions of the state's oil wealth into rural programs, services, and capital projects. A successful mid-1970s lawsuit (Tobeluk v. Lind), requiring construction of high schools in even the tiniest and remotest of Native villages, brought the children home from the boarding schools. And, yet, hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of lives later, the social and psychological condition had spiraled ever downward to a situation characterized by the Alaska Federation of Natives as a crisis.24 The "Native industry" that had evolved to encompass all aspects of life within the Alaska Native community had failed; things had not improved, they had only gotten worse.

A New Approach: Native Solutions
for Native Problems

Alaska Natives experience some of the highest rates of accidental deaths, suicides, alcoholism, homicides, fetal alcohol syndrome, and domestic violence in the nation. Alaska Natives — many of them young men — fill the state's jails at a rate exceeding 250 percent of their numbers in the general population. Native children are not obtaining adequate educations, and Alaska Natives remain on the economic fringes of one of the richest states, per capita, in the union. Just as in the times when attempted assimilation was most blatant and pronounced, the validity of the Alaska Native cultural perspective continues to be ignored.

Because the most serious problems Alaska Natives face are uniquely their own, the solutions will have to come from the Native community. Alaska Natives must be empowered to carry out the solutions.

Dealing with unresolved transgenerational grief borne of epidemics, religious persecution, and attempts at eradication of their cultures will not be easy; but Alaska Natives can deal with the issues facing them. Answers will come from their inherited strength and wisdom.

What the federal and state governments can do is offer mutual respect and assistance. They must be willing to give control of local issues back to Alaska Natives. They must step aside in many areas so that Alaska Natives can attempt to reconstruct honorable and dignified lives for themselves.

This will not be an easy task. People who have become accustomed to living without power tend to avoid the obligations that accompany it. Likewise, the external forces that take power — even with the best intentions — generally resist giving it back. In that regard, the following words from the works of Leo Tolstoy are appropriate to consider:

"I sit on a man’s back choking him
and making him carry me.
Yet, I assure myself and others
that I am sorry for him
and wish to lighten his load
by all possible means —
except by getting
off his back."

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