Alaska News

Elders & Youth Conference: First Alaskans Institute hosts truth and healing tribunals

For several years now, First Alaskans Institute staff have been working on a project to bring greater awareness to and acknowledgment of the truths of the past and generational trauma and how they continue to impact what happens today.

They are calling the project Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) and it’s similar to work that’s been done in other northern countries in recent years.

“It’s essentially a truth and reconciliation process — something that we are getting more familiar with here in Alaska,” said Elizabeth La quen náay Medicine Crow (Haida/Tlingit), the president and CEO of First Alaskans Institute. "We’ve seen in Canada our brothers and sisters have their own truth and reconciliation process and we’ve heard from our leadership, from our Elders and from our communities, we need something like that here in Alaska.”

But there’s a specific reason the word “reconciliation” isn’t to be found in the Alaska project title. It’s not accurate, Medicine Crow said. It doesn’t reflect the truth of what has happened in this state.

“As a part of advancing that priority, one of the things that we had to recognize is that a reconciliation requires that there must have been good feelings — a good relationship — in the beginning, in order to reconcile back to that,” she said. "But to be honest and to be truthful, that’s not the history of this country or the history of Alaska with the indigenous peoples of this place. So, rather than focusing on a false narrative and calling it something that’s inaccurate, we’re calling it Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation because that’s what we want to see happen.”

Medicine Crow highlighted the work as a way of letting people, who may end up participating, know ahead of time that this would be happening. She didn’t want anyone to feel rushed or taken by surprise, she said, but wanted people — especially Elders — to have time to think about what they might want to share as part of the process.

"We want that vision out in front of us — something that we’re working for,” she said. "What that requires, what that means, is that we are looking to create a space for people to tell the truth of our experiences, to right wrongs, to work with institutions and systems who have a legacy that needs to be repaired with our Native people, and we want to make sure that as we go through that process, that it is our people leading it and the vision and solutions that our people want to see happen are driving the actions that come from it.”


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Throughout this year’s Elders & Youth conference, presenters have worked hard to make space for some of those stories to be shared. On Monday, several Alaskans who have worked on the groundbreaking PBS Kids show “Molly of Denali” shared personal stories and then screened an episode for the audience.

The episode featured an Elder who had been forbidden to speak his language, play his drum, or sing and dance when he was forcibly taken away to boarding school as a child. The main character, Molly, attempts to help the Elder find his songs once again. It was an honest and challenging look at the legacy of boarding schools in the state and one that was welcomed by the audience.

“Something that we know to be true about that episode and other instances where our people are telling the truth of our history is that for many of us, it’s knowledge we never encountered in school,” said Ayyu Qassataq (Iñupiaq), vice president and o]indigenous operations director for First Alaskans. "In school, we didn’t learn about the true history of what happened in Alaska with boarding schools and how the things that happened during that era continue to affect us today through the generations. We can feel the impacts of what happened at that time. So, an important part of the truth-telling is finding ways for more people to encounter what the true history of Alaska is so that we can be, as leaders of our communities, understanding why things are the way that they are now.”

To be effective leaders in the future with thriving, healthy and strong communities, Qassataq said, there also has to be space for people to acknowledge what happens when the truth doesn’t come out. The truth can be a painful place to be in, she said, but not speaking the truth means there’s no chance to understand “where the hurt is coming from.”

“Healing comes from speaking truth in our stories, as well,” Qassataq said.

“The pain doesn’t define us, but talking about the pain helps us heal together,” said Anna Ts'aayeneekeelno Clock (Koyukon Athabascan/Eyak), the indigenous and intergovernmental affairs coordinator for First Alaskans.

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Clock said it’s important for all Native people to have their place in the dialogue, regardless of how historical events or trauma have touched them personally or generationally.

“One of the things we talk about in TRHT is separation,” Clock said. "In language gatherings, the people who have been separated from our languages are just as essential as the people who still speak. So, the hardship that our Elders have gone through not being allowed to speak their languages, not being able to celebrate who we are, that’s as essential as everybody else to our healing process.”

As part of the TRHT process, First Alaskans staff have reached out to traditional healers, the faith community and those who can provide mental and behavioral health services to be part of the conversation. It’s critical for everyone to be healthy and safe while sharing their stories and hearing those of others, Clock said.

“One of the things that has been disbanded by missionaries across the state was our ability to use our Native scientific knowledge of our plants, our lands and our knowledge of spirits to heal, and so that’s one of the things we love to uplift in our healing endeavor through this work,” she said.

First Alaskans staff and others who have worked on this project plan to launch a formal creation of healing and truth-telling spaces soon. They hope to get both feedback and guidance throughout the process.

“What we’ve been doing in terms of preparing ourselves to be able to host these spaces where the truth must be told is trying to understand our ancestors’ wisdom about how careful they were with one another,” said Medicine Crow. "How we treat each other with so much love and kindness, even when we may not see eye to eye, and that we take the lessons of how to handle those moments of conflict or those moments of pain.”

Within the next year, she anticipates being able to begin putting out calls and invitations to participate in these tribunals and conversations, with the end goal of working toward “… this greater vision of us achieving the fullness of who our ancestors have always dreamed us to be.”

Shady Grove Oliver

Shady Grove Oliver writes for the Arctic Sounder, covering Northwest Alaska.