Alaska Native men are being asked to look inward, and then step forward as mentors and role models to help break cycles of abuse across Alaska. Can a single generation of men transform our society?
On a cold winter day in January, men from around Alaska journeyed to an office building in Anchorage for a meeting unlike any they'd attended in their lives.
Inside a conference room at the Cook Inlet Tribal Center, with no women present, they spent hours speaking with each other about their lives, their hopes and dreams, and the individual role they each might have in offering tangible hope of a better life for their family members and neighbors.
"The solutions have to come from Native men," said Patrick Anderson, the chief executive officer of Chugachmiut -- a nonprofit health consortium of seven tribal organizations in the Chugach region -- and the man who convened the meeting.
More than 200 villages dot Alaska, many that have struggled with alcoholism, suicide, sexual abuse and violence. At times, it feels like there is no cure for the problems that plague rural parts of the state. Some villages have access to larger communities via the road system, but many do not, and isolation can add to the sense of helplessness in turning things around.
Anderson is convinced there is a way. Part Tlingit Indian from Yakutat and Alutiiq from Cordova, he is his own survivor story, someone who found a way out of a childhood he describes as full of adversity. And he believes other Alaskans can, too. In addition to his work at Chugachmiut, Anderson also serves on the boards of Sealaska Corp. and the Alaska Native Heritage Center, as a commissioner on the Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission and as chairman of the Alaska Native Justice Center.
His formula is a classic grassroots effort: he is trying to combat social ills by going straight to the source, the people who are living the very statistics that politicians, law enforcement and medical providers are working to reduce.
Anderson claims his approach is different than what others in the state have tried, including Gov. Sean Parnell, who is in the beginning stages of a 10-year quest to end Alaska's "epidemic of violence," and his plan calls for tougher prosecution, better protection for victims and doing more to help victims heal. Ideally, all of these things well help prevent abuse.
Anderson has little faith in what he calls the governor's "blame and shame" tactic. "He's recycling old ideas that are worthless in my mind," said Anderson.
While Alaska's child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and drug abuse problems are complicated to unravel, Anderson believes they are simple at their core. Childhood traumas increase the potential for risky and abusive behaviors as adults, he says. Factor in no job opportunities, lack of education and a fractured sense of self, and individuals can easily get caught in a downward spiral with no clear way out. The equation can be further complicated for men, whose identities have historically centered on being good providers, bridging the gap in lifestyle between old and new ways, Native and Western ways, and living off the land versus earning an income.
Anderson believes going directly to the source -- traumatized boys who've grown into men without resolving their childhood issues -- is the most potent antidote.
"This is the deepest (issue) and may have the greatest impact for life altering experiences in Alaska's Native community that I could have imagined," he said.
Alaska Native men replicate 100 Black Men
Anderson was about as far away from Alaska as one can be in the United States when he stumbled upon an idea that he knew, one day, he'd want to put in motion. During a business trip in Florida, he caught a news story about how a local school district had, with great success, partnered with a group called 100 Black Men of America.
The mission of the group, which was founded in the 1960s, is to improve the quality of life within communities and to enhance educational and economic opportunities for all African Americans. According to its website, 100 Black Men "seeks to serve as a beacon of leadership by utilizing our diverse talents to create environments where our children are motivated to achieve, and to empower our people to become self-sufficient shareholders in the economic and social fabric of the communities we serve" and "is committed to the intellectual development of youth and the economic empowerment of the African American community based on the following precepts: respect for family, spirituality, justice, and integrity."
Anderson tucked the information away and has just now, years later, put it into motion. "I wanted to find a way for successful Alaska Native men to be involved in the fabric of social change within the Native community," he said. "My ideal would be if there was 100 Native Men organization that could carry this dialogue to all of Alaska."
Anderson calls for men who are struggling to realize how their childhood experiences may be causing them to make poor choices in their adult lives, and to begin work resolving those issues. And he's calling on successful men to step up and start making a difference in the lives of younger men, intercepting, perhaps, those who need guidance through rough circumstances or in navigating a future they can't quite map out yet.
"Sometimes I feel like Pollyanna in speaking about this, but I have come to truly believe it," he said.
Have you ever had a parent or adult swear at you or put you down? Push, shove or hit you hard enough to hurt you? Touch you in sexual ways? What about just not being made to feel loved or protected? Did your family every run short on food? Did you ever go hungry? Did drinking alcohol interfere with your parents' ability to take good care of you? Were you taken to the doctor when you were sick or injured? Did you witness someone hurting your mother or stepmother? Did anyone in your home abuse drugs or alcohol, or suffer from depression or mental illness? Did anyone in your home ever try to kill themselves? Did your parents divorce? Did one of them ever go to jail?
Researchers call these types of abuse, neglect and family dysfunction "adverse childhood experiences," and a long-running study, has shown that the more traumatic experiences a child has, the more they are at risk for unhealthy behavior as adults.
Anderson believes these recent traumas experienced by Alaska Native men compound existing, historic traumas the Native community as a whole has suffered from outside influences like the church, government, boarding schools, and illness brought from afar, serving only to make a bad situation worse. The issue of how these historical traumas affect current generations isn't new. In 1996, Harold Napolean, in a work written from jail, advanced the idea in his book "Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being," which chronicles the effect contact with whites had on Alaska Natives, and details the negative consequences like addiction, death and disease that ensued.
Does this mean every child of adversity is doomed to a wrecked life in which they may also wreck others? Certainly not. Anderson himself is proof of that. He says he grew up with six of the risk factors, including an abusive home, divorce and hunger. The Princeton grad who went on to get a law degree from the University of Michigan credits his survival to adults at his high school who kept him on track and pushed him to go to college.
"Our house was full of stress and trauma," Anderson wrote in a recent consortium newsletter, going on to explain that while he made it through those experiences, his sister, who had become a teen mother and an alcohol and is now deceased, did not. "I know that every one of our children are born with the potential for great achievement: in life, in academics, and work. What they need is less trauma, and more of what I had that my sisters didn't: a stress free home life with positive encouragement and opportunities for active learning."
Earlier this month Anderson made good on his vision, organizing the first-ever "Alaska Native Men's Dialogue" in conjunction with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council and First Alaskans Institute. The gathering focused on inspiring successful Native men to emerge as community leaders and take on the incredibly difficult problems Alaska and its communities are facing.
"Many of our Native families are in crisis," the event's letter of invitation explained. "Many Domestic violence shelters are full. There are not enough substance rehabilitation centers available. Suicide among Alaska Natives is far greater than the national average. Our high school dropout rates are extremely high. Poverty and unemployment are rampant. Our rates of disease are also above national norms. The list goes on and on for a significant segment of our population. Many of our leaders seek resources from the Federal and State governments to address these issues. We believe that we need to address many of these issues from our side -- the involvement of Native men in pursuing community health and prosperity."
The one-day event focused on "building a new vision for men's identity through family roles and community wellness, with an emphasis on developing good leadership skills for men in the context of Alaska Native culture."
With about 40 men in attendance, Anderson said he hoped it would be "an igniting event" that would "provide wholesale change within our generation or within the next 25 years."
Alaska Native men react: It gives us hope
As men left for the day, some, like Jerry Isaac, president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, were so impressed with the program that they wanted to book Anderson to bring the message to their regions in rural Alaska as soon as possible. "It was a longtime coming," Isaac said in a brief interview on his way out. "A lot of stuff we talked about, people don't want to talk about."
A basketball coach from the village of Nanwalek was similarly moved. "It opened my eyes that there is a foundation of men willing to acknowledge the need for men to raise their voices and be heard," said Auggie Seville, who also works as a teacher's aide in the village and who has previously served as the community's tribal police officer. "It showed me there are leaders and men in other communities across the state that are trying to help and who want to instill good morals, beliefs and values and help young men have an identity."
Seville, the son of a white father and an Alaska Native mother, describes his childhood as one in which he always felt like an outsider, credits an uncle with helping guide him through rough times, particularly anger at his estranged father. With the uncle's guidance, Seville reconciled with his father before his death -- something he remains thankful for to this day.
Still, there could have been more support, he said, and he now works to make sure young men in Nanwalek -- both those who are doing well and those who need an extra push -- know someone is there to cheer them on.
"It is tough for young men just graduating from high school to understand who they are and what they are doing in life," he said, adding that he's consciously working to provide mentorship he missed out on while he was growing up.
Still, his uncle's advice made a world of difference and helped him gain a sense of self. "Your identity is who you are, your beliefs and the cultures you uphold," he said. "If you understand those things then you better understand who you are."
Nick Pavloff of Eagle River also knows the struggle first hand.
"One of my goals when I started my journey was to be unafraid to speak," he said in recounting his life after the meeting.
Abandoned by his parents at age four and raised by his grandparents in the village of Karluk on Kodiak Island in a home he called "very stable," Pavloff said alcohol and drugs ultimately "destroyed the world [he] knew."
Pavloff recalls being an angry child, something he attributes in part to missing his parents in his life and never developing a sense that he truly fit in, of conflict reconciling his Russian Orthodox upbringing and its history with the Native community, and struggling to incorporate the Native spirituality and strong connection to land and place instilled by his grandparents with competing tenets of the church, which his grandparents taught him must also be respected.
"The more I got older, the more 'wrong' people told me I was. So I crawled into a jug of booze to make them go away," he said.
Pavloff said after getting drunk one time and falling into a pool of water and nearly dying -- he says he had to be revived -- he realized he was on a slow suicide mission. He's since found sobriety, has spent nearly the last two decades of his life living near Anchorage and has committed himself to helping struggling families get on the right track.
"I feel a deep passion for kids who are hurting because I've experienced them, growing up in a blended family and being angry," he said.
Like Seville and the other attendees of the men's dialogue, Pavloff thinks there's something to it.
"We all agreed that we have all had the answers for a long time," he said.
Asked to sum up what he thought about the program, Pavloff offered a single word: "Hope."
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com