Tradition, culture, and the healing power of community

SPONSORED: Modern problems like substance abuse and suicide often have their roots in traumas that took place in the past — but looking to the past may also help Alaska Native people prevent and heal from them.

SPONSORED: Historical trauma. Adverse childhood experiences. The transgenerational impact of colonization. It’s increasingly clear that past events have the power to affect our health in the future, both among individuals and across entire cultures.

In Alaska, Tribal groups are looking to the past to solve the problems of today -- and prevent them in the future.

In recent years, programs within the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium have worked to identify "positive protective factors" -- resources, supports, skills and activities that help safeguard individuals and communities against the factors that can lead to serious troubles like suicide, sexual violence and substance abuse.

“When I think of positive protective factors, I think of anything that helps maintain health and wellness and, as the word says, something positive rather than negative coping behaviors,” ANTHC Senior Director of Community Health Services Tina Woods said.

While there are any number of potential protective factors, for Alaska Native people, there are particular benefits from activities that promote the deep-rooted cultural values of community and connection to the land: eating traditional foods, participating in traditional hunting and harvesting activities, singing and dancing to traditional songs, and building relationships with Elders and others. Some traditional activities, such as berry picking and fishing, are now even recognized as meditative “mindfulness” activities, Woods said.

“Our traditions, such as harvesting and hunting traditional foods, were a protective factor,” Woods said. “Our songs and dance were ways that our Elders passed on knowledge. Being connected to the land kept us strong physically, mentally and spiritually."

Healing from historical trauma

A term first coined in the 1980s, “historical trauma” refers to the cumulative, transgenerational harm done to groups of people who have experienced events like colonialism and genocide. Alaska Native people don’t have to have personally experienced boarding schools and forced assimilation to feel the effects of historical trauma. The loss of language and traditions like song, dance and subsistence has transgenerational consequences that include increased rates domestic and sexual violence, suicide, depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

An even more recently understood phenomenon, "adverse childhood experiences" (ACEs for short) refers to a set of traumas like abuse and household turmoil that, experienced in childhood, have been shown to have impacts on physical and mental health later in life.

“For us, it’s really important to address historical trauma and adverse childhood experiences,” said Dana Diehl, director of ANTHC's wellness and prevention department.

Diehl oversees a variety of programs focused on preventing disease, substance abuse and injury, many of which incorporate cultural practices as positive protective factors.

“The things that our ancestors experienced still impact us today,” Diehl said. “Just being able to understand that and talk about it is one of the ways that we’re trying to move toward our vision of Alaska Native people as the healthiest people in the world. We can’t get there unless we talk about it.”

Gathering of Alaska Natives is one such program that approaches approaches historical trauma, substance use, and suicide prevention through an indigenous lens, focusing on protective factors. The Alaska Blanket Exercise is another program that uses an interactive history lesson to tell the story of colonization and how this history has impacted the overall health and well-being of Alaska Native people. The exercise was adapted from KAIROS Canada with the intent to foster reconciliation through truth and understanding. Culture camps, held in multiple regions around the state, are another way to help Alaska Native youths connect with their traditions.

The subsistence activities that young people learn through these programs can be powerful protective factors, Diehl said.

“That’s physical activity, and it promotes a connection to the land and our ancestors,” she said.

The traditional cultural practice of storytelling is a vehicle for healing and prevention. Diehl’s department manages an initiative called Tell Your Heart Story, which approaches suicide prevention by sharing individual experiences.

“It’s encouraging people to share their stories and what they went through to help them understand and cope -- but also for others to be able to hear how they got through adversities and how they’re healing today,” Diehl said. “The overall message is to encourage people to share their stories, because that’s a part of healing.”

Healing circles and the power of song

Debbie Demientieff works with Diehl as the project coordinator for ANTHC’s domestic violence prevention initiative. One of the efforts she and Diehl both say they’re proudest of is Garden of Roses, a camp for girls ages 8 to 17 who are survivors of sexual abuse.

“The first day, the girls come in, naturally, with a lot of unknowns, not quite sure,” Demientieff said. “There’s fear involved. There’s uncertainty involved. They’re quiet.”

By the second or third day of facilitated healing circles, games, cultural activities, songs and drumming, it’s a different story.

“When our Elder drums, a girl will respond to that in a way that we can’t speak to,” Demientieff said. “They become comfortable enough where they’re just being girls.”

Every day, girls participate in a healing circle facilitated by an advocate who has extensive experience working with children who have experienced severe abuse. The advocate is supported by the Elder, who provides guidance throughout the activities.

“It’s really based on traditional values of support,” Demientieff said. “We really uplift them and the beauty that they have within them, that they don’t have to carry this feeling with them throughout their lives.”

Demientieff said it's clear that there can be a therapeutic effect from embracing Alaska Native traditional values.

“I’ve seen a real need for healing from grief,” Demientieff said. “I just really feel like it’s returning to our cultural ways that will really help us.”

Feeding the soul

Young people aren’t the only ones who can benefit from positive protective factors. Melissa Castaneda is the program manager for ANTHC’s Elder Outreach program, which provides visiting services and traditional foods luncheons to Elders from rural Alaska now staying in Anchorage for care. One of her favorite parts of the job is hosting traditional foods luncheons at Prestige Care and Rehabilitation Center and Providence Seward Mountain Haven.

“There’s just so much to food,” Castaneda said. “You really find that memories are attached to foods that you had growing up.”

Traditional foods provide health benefits in multiple ways, she added. Physically, they have excellent nutritive benefits, but there are also positive emotional, spiritual and mental effects on the Elders’ quality of life. Traditional foods evoke community in part because they are so often gathered in community, she said. Hunting, harvesting, fishing -- they’re not done in solitude. They’re done with other people.

“Having care in Anchorage, the accessibility and availability of traditional Alaska Native foods can be difficult,” Castaneda said. “It’s a protective factor to have that food, that nourishment, but also that familiarity: ‘I can eat this and I know I’ll be OK.’ That really does help with feeling like you’re cared for, feeling like you’re seen, you’re heard, you’re understood."

Traditional foods for the luncheons are often donated by people who have extra moose, ducks, salmon or berries in their freezers. When donated food can’t be sourced, NANA Management Services works with the program to cater dishes like fish soup.

Some requests are hard to satisfy because the ingredients can’t be sourced or because the foods are difficult to prepare safely. Stink flipper and other traditionally fermented foods, for example, carry a risk of botulism. But other foods are prepared and stored traditionally whenever possible, and in that way the program serves another purpose: carrying on cultural food practices to preserve them for the next generation.

“That’s so meaningful, to have the food and be able to talk about ‘How was it growing up?’ or ‘How did you prepare seagull eggs?’ or ‘How did you prepare seal?’” Castaneda said. “The Elders have so much knowledge, and they are so open to share.”

While the meals are planned with healthy nutrition in mind, there's more to the meal than just wholesome calories, protein and healthy fats.

“Visiting together while enjoying a meal nourishes the body and spirit,” Castaneda said. “For our people, this experience is healing and a culturally relevant practice.”

Culture and community

"Resilience" is a popular topic in psychology, referring to a person's ability to "bounce back" from trauma or crisis. There’s an analogy about resilience, Woods said, comparing dandelions and orchids. Orchids are beautiful but delicate; they have to be nurtured. But a dandelion will always pop up, regardless of its environment.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a dandelion or you’re an orchid,” Woods said. “We just have different needs.”

That’s why, she said, it’s important to know that positive protective factors aren’t one-size-fits-all. Basketball might be the solution for one person; subsistence activities for another; art and music for a third. Options are important, along with identifying the unique needs for each community.

“I really feel that there are answers for healing within our culture,” Demientieff said. “I think we’re at a time right now where communities and community members are really seeking that. They want to be healthy. They want to have healing.”

And it's the healing power of community that's at the heart of many of these culturally informed programs -- finding support through shared traditions and meaningful connections with other people. In fact, Woods said, research has identified a correlation between healthy relationships and a decreased risk of heart disease.

“Relationships are a very powerful protective factor,” she said. “The same message that any Elder will give -- love, forgiveness, taking care of each other -- those are protective factors.”

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization working to meet the physical, behavioral, and environmental health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska so that they can fulfill the vision of being the healthiest people in the world.

This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.