Natives must face their twin demons
Natives must face their twin demons
(Published: October 31, 2007)
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 put dividends into
What was more impressive was the voicing of feelings that were, until very
recently, not said out loud. For instance, 75 percent 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 seen 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. Men
aren't the ones who wake up with a black eye or fat lip.
Native or not, 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 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.
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 nonprofits 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 have rarely 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 than 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
Elise Patkotak is a writer who lives in Anchorage. Read her blog at