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AFN 2012: Native elders seek ways to re-establish cultural ties with youth

Jill Burke
Loren Holmes photo

Hundreds of Alaska Native youth and elders from all corners of Alaska are in Anchorage this week to share their lives and learn from one another. The annual Elders and Youth Conference, hosted by First Alaskans Institute, precedes by three days the Alaska Federation of Natives convention. It encourages youth to take pride in their Native identity while linking today's young people with living culture bearers -- village elders. Woven together, these generations can be the fabric through which lives and communities change.

The three-day event, held at the Dena'ina Convention Center in downtown Anchorage, includes keynote speeches, cultural presentations, and workshops on a variety of aspects of modern Native life: education, health, culture, law and policy.

One of the afternoon sessions Monday brought young adults, elders and educators together to talk about reforming Alaska’s education system to better address the needs of Native students. A discussion on how to “indigenize education" offered ideas on how to better serve Native youth through Native-controlled education systems.

What was lost to decades of colonization, segregation, and language eradication in schools, must be reestablished, according to session participants. How can grandparents cheerfully greet young grandchildren speaking English? asked one attendee, when speaking their Native language can teach much more.

"Everything's been wrong ever since I went to school," said David Chanar, an elder from Toksook Bay, who now lives in Anchorage.

Others recognize that small villages risk losing their schools due to too few students. Lose schools and many fear villages will follow. Some suggested eliminating the federal “No Child Left Behind” requirements and allowing rural communities to figure out the best way to meaningfully educate their children.

What does it mean to indigenize a school? Offering students a strong sense of purpose, place and people while preparing them to "navigate both worlds" -- their Native home and Western culture. It also means providing Alaska Native history lessons created and taught by Alaska Natives. "It's as if we don't exist," Dolores Churchill, an elder who will turn 83 next week, lamented about the state of Native history curriculum in Alaska schools.

Indigenizing education also means language preservation and teaching traditional arts like weaving, hunting and food preparation -- and learning geography through traditional place names. One attendee suggested a GPS mapping system could help. Picture Google Earth programmed to see the world through Native place names.

In a separate panel discussion, young people gathered with a handful of elders to talk about how to stop Alaska's epidemic of suicide among teens and young adults. The state has the highest suicide rate in the nation. And, according statistics provided by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium:

• 50 Alaska Natives die by suicide each year;

• Three of every four suicides involve males;

• Alaska Native males 15-24 are nearly nine times as likely to die as all U.S. males in the age group, while Alaska Native females in the same age group are 19 times as likely to die compared to all American females ages 15-24.

Where the education panel focused on connecting youth to culture through schools, this panel focused on connecting youth in pain to someone who can help. In fact, the panel emphasized, every member of a village can be a life saver through the smallest of acts.

That this year's conference even discussed suicide awed Barb Franks, a suicide prevention educator with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. Two days apart in 1997, weeks before the Christmas, Franks lost her 23-year-old son to suicide and her husband to cancer. "Being in front of you today is an answer to a 14-year-old prayer, because we are here talking about it (suicide)," she told session attendees.

When Frank first starting speaking out about suicide years ago, she was warned to not talk to young people out of concern she might put the idea of suicide into a teen's head. But more is known now, and bottling up emotions and keeping suicide as an unspoken topic can be harmful.

When suicide takes place in a community today, friends, family and neighbors offer support and prayers. But few speak openly about the death itself.

"The people don't talk about the suicide itself. How it happened. Why it happened. They don't discuss it," said Pearl Chanar, who is married to David Chanar.

Jonisha Wilson, a young attendee from Unalakleet, acknowledged that suicide is a sensitive topic among young people. Talking about someone else's suicide, or thoughts of suicide by a friend, requires trust that there is help if someone reaches out. "Tell somebody. It's not a good thing to keep that big of a secret," she said.

The panel, facilitated by the suicide prevention group Hope4Alaska, encouraged participants to think about how to incorporate positive networks in their home communities. It might be providing a safe place for someone to stay, encouraging sobriety, or speaking out when you know someone is at risk. They also recommended attendees consider obtaining more suicide prevention training.

You don't need to be an expert or have the right words to say to someone who is lonely or hurting, Franks told the group of young people and adults at the convention center. "All they need to know is that you're an arm's-length away when they need you."

The Elders and Youth Conference continues through Wednesday. A second suicide session called "Three Reasons to Live" takes place 10 a.m. Tuesday, the second full day of presentations. In the evening, teens are invited to a teen dance. Closing ceremonies take place at noon Wednesday.

The Alaska Federation of Natives convention, the largest gathering of Native people in the United States, begins Thursday. More than 4,000 people are expected to attend. This year’s convention theme is "Success Beyond Barriers."

Discussion topics will include: the Native community's relationship with the state of Alaska, energy and economic development, educational reform, and strength of body, spirit and mind. In addition to discussions on political priorities and social and economic well being, the convention offers traditional dance performances and boasts one of the best places to buy early Christmas gifts -- the state's largest Alaska Native arts and crafts show. 

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com

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