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Historical basis of the crisis in rural Alaska

Part 3 of a 5-part series

Posted: March 1, 2012 - 1:12am

As we begin the second decade of the 21st century, the urban centers of Alaska have become similar to those in the lower 48 states. A city dweller visiting Anchorage is in familiar surroundings. But away from the major urban centers of Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau — away from the paved roads and shopping malls — another world emerges. Here live the Aleut, Yupik, Inupiaq and Alutiiq (Eskimo), the Athabaskan, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimsian — the true Natives of our Great Land. Here the English language yields in varying degrees to Native languages. Customs that city dwellers would not recognize dominate. The economy changes as one moves into the rural areas. Subsistence hunting and fishing emerge as a way of life. This is bush Alaska — a region filled with more than 500 small villages.

While each Alaskan Native group has a unique history, the common thread they share is the challenge of adapting to the arrival of outsiders, first the Russians, then the white Americans. The experience of the Yupik people specifically illustrates these historical challenges which confronted all Alaska Native people.

The Yupik reside in the Delta between the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. They were one of the last Native Alaskan groups to come into sustained contact with non-Natives. The Yupik resisted the efforts of the Russians to colonize them and maintained their own culture and way of life. They looked upon the arriving white man with curiosity and indifference. Prior to the sustained presence of large numbers of these newcomers in the Yukon/Kuskokwim Delta, the Yupik received a devastating gift from the strangers arriving in their land, a harbinger of things to come.

The flu pandemic of 1900 swept across the North American continent with minimal disruption to an optimistic America about to begin a new century. To those of European and African descent, with generations of exposure to the various forms of the flu virus, the flu season of 1900 was harsh, but not devastating. Not so for the Yupik. Having no resistance to the virus introduced by traders and whalers, the Yupik succumbed to the flu in large numbers. Estimates for Yupik mortality range as high as 60 percent. The world of the Yupik suddenly turned upside down. There were villages where no one remained to bury the dead. The pandemic, known among the Yupik as “the Great Death,” left behind a generation of orphans and a people numbed by tragedy.

The Great Death was the first of a series of catastrophes to strike Alaska Native people. The Spanish flu of 1918 further exacted a toll across Native Alaska. The flu epidemics were soon followed by measles, whooping cough, and tuberculosis. Exposure to these new diseases left the Yupik physically weak and emotionally traumatized. The surviving generations were born into a state of shock as the trauma passed from one generation to the next. A great silence descended on the survivors. No one talked about the Great Death or succeeding epidemics. The pain was too great.

The purchase of Alaska from Russia and the expanding American control brought more changes to all Alaskan Native people. Historian and linguist Richard Dauenhauer notes that there were never more than 500 Russians in Alaska and that most of these were males. Many of these Russian men married Native women and their children inherited their father’s status. Their children were, by today’s definition, Alaska Natives. Most were bilingual, speaking Russian and their mother’s Native language. They inherited the rights and privileges of their father’s caste and occupied many of the managerial positions in Russian Alaska. Alaska Natives were considered citizens of the Russian Empire. This changed radically as America exercised political control over the territory of Alaska.

Certain of their ethnic and cultural superiority, the Americans deprived Native Alaskans of their citizenship and basic civil rights. Under American law, Alaska Natives were not allowed to vote, neither run for nor hold office, appear in court except as a defendant, or initiate a court case. Alaska Natives were not allowed to own land. The Tlingit, Haida, Aleuts, Athabascans, Inupiaq, and Yupik were disenfranchised in their own homelands.

American education brought more challenges to Native Alaskans. Richard Dauenhauer writes in his paper “Conflicting Visions” that there were numerous accounts of physical punishment if a teacher heard a student speaking Aleut. “Mouths were taped, knuckles were rapped; one teacher used to swab students’ tongues with a stinging solution. Even adults were verbally reprimanded for speaking Aleut in the presence of whites.” School became, in the words of Father Michael Oleksa, “…the place they were attacked and humiliated for being who they are, for speaking the only language that they knew.” This policy of linguistic and cultural eradication damaged the lives of generations of Alaska Native peoples.

The introduction of the boarding school system resulted in Native adolescents being sent away from home and thrust into an alien culture for which they were unprepared. Alaska Native families lost their young people during their formative teenage years. Family ties were strained or shattered. Language, cultural traditions, subsistence skills and basic child rearing skills were lost. For several generations Native families were deprived of having teenagers in the household. The succeeding generations, raised in institution during their formative teenage years, were deprived of the opportunity to learn how to raise adolescents in a family setting in their home villages. This legacy remains one of the most damaging and long-lasting effects of the boarding school program.

Another negative effect of the boarding school program which has left an even deeper scar on the Native community was the abuse which took place at these institutions. Boarding schools varied in the quality of the experience provided to the students. A minority of Alaska Native students, especially those who attended Mount Edgecumbe in Sitka, felt that the experience was a positive contribution to their lives. But not all the boarding schools achieved the high standard set by Mount Edgecumbe. Up to one third of Alaska Native boarding school students may have experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse from staff or older students. The current Alaskan epidemic of sexual crime had its genesis in the physical and sexual abuse of generations of Alaska Natives in the boarding schools. Since the 1990’s, the conspiracy of silence about these crimes has been broken. Literally hundreds of cases of physical and sexual abuse have come to light in both the church and state sponsored institutions. Civil suits and criminal prosecutions for these crimes continue in Alaska courts to this day.

The accumulated trauma experienced by the Alaska Native population continues to exact a price. Yupik author Harold Napoleon in his book, Yuuaraq: The Way of the Human Being, notes that Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is widespread in rural Alaska. As with war veterans, the disorder appears when the trauma victim attempts to suppress the painful memories and feelings, which merely serves to drive the trauma deeper into the soul. The sufferer may be crippled by guilt and unable to deal with even minor difficulties in life and often seeks the narcotic effect of alcohol to suppress the pain. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Alaska can be found with a complication which is not well understood by many mental health professionals: the symptoms are passed from one generation to another, a condition referred to as Secondary PTSD. The crisis in rural Alaska is feeding on itself by creating a continuing pattern of crippling traumatic events which affect the young.

Alaska Native people have been traumatized by epidemics, racist policies, boarding schools, and forced acculturation. Are all these negative occurrences merely the artifacts of history? Is it possible that our current age is continuing several of the mistakes of the past? Are we unintentionally extending the crisis in rural Alaska? And can we muster the integrity and courage to critically examine our assumptions and practices in an effort to critically examine and overcome the human tragedy unfolding in our great state? The good news is that we can. In the fourth article in this series, we will explore these issues further as we examine education in rural Alaska.

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