I grew up in an era when you did not say anything if someone lit up a cigarette in your house. In fact, ashtrays were a ubiquitous part of the furnishings of just about every home I ever entered, whether the homeowners indulged or not. Smoking was a socially acceptable norm.
This all changed, not because laws were instituted that forbade smoking in public places, but because those laws followed an attitudinal change that empowered people to protest being forced to inhale the noxious fumes of someone else’s exhales. The laws we now accept as the norm that ban smoking in public places would not exist had not society’s attitude towards smoking changed first. Societal pressure is ultimately one of our strongest motivators for change.
This year at AFN and the AFN Elders and Youth Conference, we glimpsed a shift, a slight movement that could be the portent of a sea change in attitudes towards substance abuse and domestic violence. A group of young people got up and spoke bravely and openly about what it was like to be brought up in dysfunctional homes. They spoke of substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide from an intimate perspective.
They had the courage to call out people craving the title of Elder, with all the respect that comes with that designation, who had spent their lives drunk and abusive and felt that simply surviving until their sixties entitled them to those privileges. These young people had the unimaginable courage to say that simply no longer worked, that they would no longer stay silent and pretend that these older people deserved a respect they’d never earned.
These young people had to return to their villages and their families after the conference and I’m guessing that some of them would not exactly be treated as returning heroes for speaking truth to power. Instead, they might find an already difficult existence made even more difficult by their honesty in describing what life was really like for them. Their testimony to reality made it clear that speeches about cultural values and life are nothing more than meaningless sounds if not accompanied by the courage to walk the walk and live clean, sober lives. It is hard to feel pride in your culture when your culture is predominantly viewed through the keyhole of your bedroom door watching yet another drunken and violent night unfold in your home.
The other seismic shift seemed to occur when Tanana Chiefs Conference President Jerry Issac spoke aloud the truth, all too often only whispered, about the wall of silence that surrounded the actual lives being lived by leaders who purported to uphold traditional values. He broke both the silence and the hypocrisy that surrounded Native leaders who encouraged sobriety and traditional values publicly while privately living a life the diametric opposite of those values. Like with Elders who feel they should automatically be accorded respect because of their age despite the wreckage they left behind them due to the life they lived, so too were some leaders of the Native corporations and traditional governments leading lives that should have accorded them no respect or responsibility. But people looked the other way and pretended all was fine.
All of us who have learned just how amazingly wonderful Alaska’s traditional peoples and cultures can be when they are truly living their values can only be heartened by this change. The fact that it comes from those most affected, the fact that the cone of silence has been breeched and the words said out loud about the reality of life in far too many village homes, will hopefully be the start of change. Eventually it can lead to a time when being drunk, being abusive, hurting your family and community will be a matter of public shaming by the people affected, people who no longer feel pressured to stay silent and pretend.
Fifty years ago, ads appeared in magazines in which doctors touted the benefits of cigarette smoking. Public approbation changed all that. My prayer is that fifty years from now, this year’s AFN will be viewed as the turning point for Alaska’s First Peoples in tearing down the walls of silence that have made addressing their most pressing problems almost impossible. It can happen. It has to happen. Hopefully the silence, once breeched, will not return.