Columns 2007

AFN Survey

For most of us who have spent any time living in Native villages in Alaska, the survey done by the First Alaskans Institute and recently discussed at AFN offered few surprises. 

Most Alaska Natives feel they are doing better than their parents.  That’s probably to be expected considering that the new generation is able to take for granted what their parents had to fight so hard to achieve – self determination, local education, corporations that puts dividends into their pockets.

What was more impressive was the voicing of feelings that were, until very recently, not said out loud.  For instance, 75% of Alaska Natives surveyed now believe that telling their kids to get an education while at the same time wanting them to retain their culture and stay in their village is an inherent cause of confusion and conflict.  Simply put, “How you gonna keep them down on the farm after they’ve see Paree?”

I have friends who admit, with tears in their eyes, that leaving their village was their only choice if they were to pursue their career or have a job or give their children something more than the village could offer. They aren’t abandoning their culture. They are trying to span both worlds, trying to be a bridge for their children into both places. Their children may do better in the city when it comes to educational opportunities. But they miss out on the cultural immersion that only happens when you live the life. Summer visits or going home for the spring hunt may help, but it will never substitute for living there.  That’s a lot of conflict for young, urban Native parents and their kids to handle.

I’ve had other friends tell me they left the village because they were simply done with the harsh life. They wanted their world to be easier as they aged. They wanted their arthritis to not hurt so much. They wanted their doctors to be closer. They wanted to simply buy fresh fruit that they could afford that didn’t go rotten in one day.

Perhaps most eye opening was the finding that “young Native men saw substance abuse as less of a problem than did Natives as a whole, and Native women saw domestic abuse as more of a problem than Native men did.” Well, in a perverse way, that makes sense. Getting drunk is often not a problem for the drinker. But it is a problem if you are a Native woman and on the receiving end of the domestic violence that frequently follows. That domestic violence is not much of a problem for the men because they aren’t the ones who wake up with a black eye or fat lip.  In fact, I would guess that for men everywhere who abuse alcohol, Native or not, drinking, getting drunk, beating up the wife and then waking up in the morning to start all over again is pretty much a workable system so long as the law doesn’t get involved. The wife or girlfriend beaten up the night before usually forgives them because they are so darn sorry and the status quo is maintained. No problem for the drinker there except for maybe a hangover.

In Native villages, the law is often quite far away and the abused woman doesn’t have many options.  So it seems to me perfectly logical for Native men to not see abusive drinking as serious as the population as a whole does, and even more logical that it’s the women who see domestic abuse as more of an issue than the men do. If you’re the one getting hit, you’re apt to find it a big problem.

I’m glad to see the information in this survey being made public and getting discussed at AFN.  Because there is a definite void in the leadership of Alaska’s Native groups when it comes to confronting the twin demons of substance abuse and domestic violence.  While the non-profits try to find creative ways to get a handle on problems that are more threatening to the future of Alaska’s Native cultures than any development or out migration from the villages will ever be, the for profit corporations and political leadership has rarely stepped up to the plate and taken a firm stand on the issue.

The reality is that if the problems of drinking and violence aren’t honestly acknowledged and dealt with, then the future of Native cultures is even dimmer that the dimmest forecast.  And if we lose them, we will lose a unique and irreplaceable part of Alaska, a loss so large as to not be calculable.