Columns 2006

Some Elders lack credibility in Alaska Bush

In last week’s column, I spoke about the death rates in Bush Alaska and specifically in Alaska Native villages.  Their death rates for suicide, accidents, and drug or alcohol overdoses top the charts for Alaska.  In the lower 48, similar trends are evident on Native American reservations.

I find myself frequently listening with a sympathetic ear to people from the Bush as they attempt to work through these problems and possible solutions.  And I once again find myself staring at the big pink elephant in the middle of the room that no one wants to acknowledge.

Among the reasons we see the cycles of suicide, domestic violence and addictions repeated so often is that many in the generation that now expects to be treated as respected Elders have done precious little to earn that respect.  Their credibility among their youth comes with such a large dose of skepticism that it is basically non-existent. That’s one heck of a big elephant in the room.

When I first arrived in Barrow in 1972, the majority of Elders had rightfully earned their status.  They had lived good, honorable lives and worked to feed their family and community while respecting the laws of their god and nation.  Not at all a bad legacy.  But there were other Elders who raised their families while drunk and had only recently sobered up, if at all.  They did not necessarily deserve much respect even though they obviously still felt it was their due for having reached a certain age alive.

Over the next thirty years, I watched as many couples raised their children in drunken and violent homes.  Now these people are older and some have sobered up either because they saw the light or because they contracted some illness that meant they had to choose to either continue using and die or clean up their act and have at least a chance to live into old age.  These are the people who are now often found raising their grandchildren because their own children are lost in a miasma of alcohol and drugs. These are the people who wonder why their own children are so mad at them that they frequently have to fear that the anger will turn into physical violence against them.

You simply can’t wake up one day after fifty years of drinking and drug use, of domestic violence and child abuse, and decide to become sober and expect automatic respect be accorded to you based on your ripe old age.  Yet this is exactly what happens.

And so children find themselves being raised in a home in which a generation is missing. Their parents are either absent or only occasional visitors to their lives. Their grandparents raise them but the kids feel a disconnect because of the vast age difference and so discipline in the home is sometimes hard to maintain. When the kids get mad because their grandparents won’t let them do what they want, they go stay with their parents. When drinking and violence makes that a hellishly untenable situation, they return to the grandparents.  It’s like watching bouncing balls.

And when their drunken parents accost their grandparents with accusations of childhood abuse and neglect, these children learn that they do not need to respect their Elders because their Elders aren’t always deserving of that respect. Even those Elders willing to come clean with their grandchildren about their past often find themselves on the receiving end of cynicism and disdain.

Youth in Alaska Native villages desperately need role models, people who can show them a better way.  But just being an Elder does not make it a given that you can be that role model.  You can’t live a drunken, violent life and then expect instant respectability when you hit a certain age.

Youth aren’t dumb. They know when someone is trying to pull one over on them.  When a panel is formed to address alcohol and drug abuse in the village and half the people on the panel are either adults who are still using or Elders who have only recently become sober, you have a real credibility problem. Which might be why the cycle of substance abuse, violence, despair and suicide have become such a entrenched phenomena in so much of this great state.