First of two parts.
I am a white woman raising Alaska Native children. It is an experience filled with love and also loaded with self-judgment, insecurity and fierce mama-bear protectiveness. I am a participant in one of the historical traumas hurting the hearts and minds of Alaska Native people in 2016: I am part of a family that is raising Alaska Native children outside of their home village, inside a home headed by non-Natives.
From my narrow, privileged view this is not a bad thing; our children are safe, protected and have opportunities to create the life they dream for themselves.
I worry about the sadness their families feel at the dislocation of these children from their home of origin, despite our efforts to stay connected to family and culture.
This family -- this beautiful, strong, resilient, family -- has eroded my naivety. That's a good thing.
Work is being done to qualify more Alaska Native families to take in foster children. More on that in part two, which will appear later this week.
Before I lived in Alaska, before I started thinking about the forces at work that suppress entire groups of people and either stunt or nurture social, emotional, health and economic well being, I was a white kid in a white, middle-class neighborhood living a mostly comfortable life.
I say mostly because the same social ills that touch the lives of many Alaskans touched our white family in Colorado: addiction, mental illness, sexual abuse, household conflict, divorce, jail. I had thought then that if we just tried harder, loved more, did more, didn't give up, everything would heal.
But families and the world don't change with the willpower of an isolated individual.
Now, as I've moved into the roles of parent and spouse, my blended family is filled with modern children we are raising to be global citizens, an effort that starts at home with their two white adoptive moms, their biological Yup'ik mom and biological Yup'ik dad and the countless aunties, grandmas, grandpas and cousins on all sides who can't get enough of them.
Once, when our oldest son was struggling with a major depressive episode, a psychiatrist at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute -- after soliciting the briefest family history from us and upon our first meeting with him -- suggested that our son's problem had its origin in being an Alaska Native boy being raised by white parents.
Talk about a shot to the heart. A fury rose inside me that some white, pompous, inaccessible psychiatrist, who'd barely had any time to get to know any of us, had distilled our son's problems down to a racial identity crisis.
It is true that our oldest boy missed his village life, memories made as a toddler and young child, and which, to any modern teen anywhere in the world, might also sound like a slice of heaven: being able to leave his house, unnoticed, to go play somewhere with friends. To roam free wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted.
He fondly remembers the freedom and lack of restrictions and only rarely dips into the memories filled with hunger and life-threatening danger.
He resented living with us, where people paid attention to what was happening to him, to where he went and what he was doing. In a nutshell, his issue was with being parented. Which is not to say he doesn't miss what the change of seasons brings to landscape and lifestyle in Western Alaska. That special sensibility, that gift of connectedness to people and the earth, is part of who he is.
I was furious with that API psychiatrist. What about the abuse and neglect our son had suffered as a very young child, abuse that started in the womb with alcohol consumption and continued in other ways, usually fueled by alcohol, after his birth? What about the trauma of being torn from his parents, a wound that would be felt regardless of any adoptive family he might have ended up with?
So many nuances. And so much anger at having it boiled down to a poorly delivered statement that I couldn't parent this child the way he needed simply because I was white.
Raising my children and trying to keep them connected to culture and family has taught me that I must, absolutely must, embrace discomfort. That I must move beyond recognition of disparity and inequity to actively doing something about it.
So now we are at the uncomfortable part of this piece that I hope will lead to thoughtful, important dialogue: privilege.
That psychiatrist who intimated we were bad moms exposed me to something I don't run into very often: someone of authority, with power over my child, telling me I wasn't up to the job. That if I were better, did better, tried harder, things would be different. Not that we are bad moms in general, or that our whiteness has anything to do with how well we parent, but that our whiteness was a fundamental, inescapable part of the problem.
In the psychiatrist's eyes, it wasn't love, or good parenting, or kindness that was hurting our boy, but our culture. Our "non-Nativeness."
My children live with the reality of who they are every time they walk out the door and go to school, or to jobs, drive cars or shop at stores. We are raising them to be proud Native youth. Expand the limited experience of their lifetime to that of their parents, their grandparents, and even further back, and the good and bad influences on their existence and the formation of identity is exposed as interwoven, multigenerational and complex.
I am a white woman raising Alaska Native children. My children are loved. My children are safe. They are growing into remarkable young adults.
Would they have been better off in a Native home? A village home instead of a big-city home? I can't say. It hurts my heart to think so. But that ship has sailed. So we continue to do the best we can.
I do know that Alaska's children in need would benefit from having more caring families to take them in, and even more so if more of those families are Alaska Native.
This column was difficult to write because I believe that children have a right to be safe, fed, loved. In my mind, race and ethnicity are secondary concerns in the face of these urgent needs. But I know differently now. As with so many things that seem so simple, simple isn't really simple at all.
Part two of this story continues Wednesday.
Jill Burke is a longtime Alaska journalist writing from the center of a busy family life. Her father swore by "Burke's Law No. 1 -- never take no for an answer." Meaning, don't give up in the face of adversity. The lesson stuck. Share your ideas with her at email@example.com, on Facebook or on Twitter.
The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.