A culture fighting for its life

Posted: Sunday, January 02, 2005

Ernestine HayesEdge of the Village

A man has forced himself into a woman's home and beaten her nearly to death. Good thing he's a doctor, neighbors say. But other persons, some of them future health care providers, resent the bandages and aspirin he takes from their medical closets and with which he treats her mortal wounds. They turn away from her suffering and debate responsibility.

Colonizers assaulted indigenous people with the specific intent of destroying their cultures. It's certainly generous of the government to provide free health care, many say. Others resent the dollars spent to treat alcoholism, diabetes, cancer, suicide, depression, abuse, and trauma with crisis intervention and bureaucratic budgets. They draw the hems of their skirts away from the suffering and debate Native benefits in their homes and in their classrooms. There are students and professionals who believe that government-funded Native health care ought to be abolished. If that happened, many Native people now paying the physical, social, and emotional costs of conquest would be dying in their homes and in the streets. And those who now begrudge free health care would complain about the stench.

In the 1950s, my mother, Daisy Hayes, had half a lung removed due to tuberculosis. She smoked cigarettes for most of her life. Her use of tobacco, together with the residual effects of tuberculosis, contributed to the respiratory failure that caused her death. My mother's brother, Eugene King, also suffered from tuberculosis, which also contributed to his death. Both of their parents died of tuberculosis. The incidence of tuberculosis has decreased in the last 50 years, but among Alaska Natives, tobacco use continues at a deadly rate, alcohol abuse remains a top killer, and changes in the Alaska Native diet have caused deep-seated harm. Two of my aunts died from complications of diabetes. The deaths of two of my grandparents and the deaths of two uncles were alcohol-related. Sugar, alcohol, and tobacco directly cause and indirectly contribute to the deaths of Alaska Native people at rates that under any other circumstance would be perceived as epidemic. These death throes of our culture are not pretty - the death throes of a strong culture will last for several generations as the people fight to remain alive. As the culture fights hard for its life.

When I was a child, I contracted rheumatic fever. Doctors at the Indian hospital were unable to diagnosis or treat my condition. I was sent to St. Anne's, which at the time was the hospital for white people, where my condition was diagnosed and I received treatment. Several months ago, my granddaughter complained of symptoms that turned out to be classic indications of acute appendicitis. A local Native clinic diagnosed her condition as the flu and sent us home. Early the next morning, her appendix burst. Back at the clinic, we were sent to Bartlett Hospital, where her condition was diagnosed and her appendix removed.

Whether a culture survives or fails will not rest on accurate diagnoses of rheumatic fever and appendicitis. The culture will not live or die according to indirect costs and new programs. Our cultural resilience can overcome all of these plagues and all of these assaults. Our culture can endure in spite of those who harm us with good intentions and in spite of those who mean us ill. Bandages and aspirin will not save us, but receiving them with complacency can kill us. We patch ourselves together with programs, but what we must do is strengthen our culture and help it fight hard for its life.

A man has forced himself into a woman's home and beaten her nearly to death. In public and in private, neighbors debate responsibility. In homes and in classrooms, current and future health care providers and their families challenge her rights. Let her continue to receive bandages and aspirin while she remembers who she is. She will reclaim her identity, and then she will heal herself.

• Ernestine Hayes is assistant professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast, and a member of the Wolf House of the Kaagwaantaan clan.

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