Colonialism wreaked havoc on Alaska Native peoples

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an excerpt from "Do Alaska Natives Get Free Health Care?" a reader compiled for the Books of the Year program at University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University. Wednesday evening, the universities sponsored a community forum discussing the effects of colonialism on Alaska Natives.

Alaska's indigenous peoples have experienced colonialism at the hands of the Spanish, British, Russian (1741-1800s) and United States governments (1800s on). The term "colonialism" refers to the expansion of a nation's powers of governance over lands, cultures and peoples outside its own national borders, thereby displacing and/or directly dominating the indigenous peoples. With colonialism, populations from the conquering nation generally settle in the new lands.

Although colonizing forces may bring some positive influences, the overall effect is to displace, if not extinguish, pre-existing cultures and societies. Being forced to give up an entire way of life and adapt to a new one often results in self-destructive or destructive behaviors.

Alaska Native citizens now experience higher rates of substance abuse and violence (whether directed at others or at themselves, as in suicide) than do non-Natives. Researchers have attributed the high rates of these problems to several factors, mostly related to the impact of colonialism.

Epidemics of smallpox, tuberculosis and influenza sparked by contact with non-Natives of European ancestry decimated vast proportions of Alaska's Native peoples across the state from the 1700s until the turn of the 20th century. Alaska's Native communities have struggled for generations with the emotional and physical trauma these plagues left in their midst.

Second, due to the rapid influx of non-Natives, many Alaska Native cultures have experienced the loss or serious erosion of entire, integrated ways of life involving languages, economies, kinship structures, educational and spiritual practices, community cohesion, and creative expressions. Such dramatic change has stressed many individuals and communities almost to the breaking point.

Only one or two generations ago, many rural Native communities were Elder-led, subsistence societies characterized by oral traditions, close-knit extended families, a communal view of the land, ancestral languages and almost exclusively face-to-face interactions. Almost overnight many villages have become dominated by TV, radio, telephones, computers, cash jobs, snowmobiles, the English language, private property and youth culture.

Deprived of the critical subsistence-provider role played by their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, and often lacking entry into the cash economy, many young Alaska Native males struggle with feelings of despair, grief and anger. The suicide rate for young Alaska Native males is among the highest of any group in the nation.

Although many missionaries and educators worked respectfully with and on behalf of Native communities and cultures, others believed the success of their efforts depended upon the destruction of traditional ways. Thousands of Alaska Native youth were exported from their villages to boarding or mission schools far away from home. Although some benefited from the experience, the practice left emotional scars on many others. To varying degrees, the price of a western education included severance of connection to family and culture as well as direct attacks upon traditional ways of life. Young people were sometimes physically punished for speaking their own languages or honoring their cultural traditions. The personal and cultural injuries and losses inflicted in such cases are still being healed.

A tragic piece of Alaska's history involves a minority of religious leaders serving in Native villages who perpetrated sexual and other forms of abuse against village children. The effects of this abuse then spread to future generations.

Some groups of Alaska Native peoples have experienced actual slavery and extreme economic exploitation and cultural violence at the hands of colonial powers. Russian enslavement of the Aleut peoples as workers in the fur seal harvest was replaced in the late 1800s by continuing exploitation by the United States government after Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. In addition, the internment of the Aleuts during World War II resulted in death and dislocation for many villagers. (In 1988, at the direction of the United Nations, the U.S. government issued a formal apology to the Aleut and Japanese-American people interned during WWII.)

Lastly, although the Anti-Discrimination Act was passed in 1945, discrimination against Alaska Native people (as well as other non-dominant groups) persists in subtle and not-so-subtle ways in modern society. Native people regularly report instances of mistreatment, ranging from long waits to receive service in business establishments to being on the receiving end of negative jokes and slurs to threats or incidents of physical or sexual violence.

Such mistreatment contributes to the stresses that can fuel episodes of drinking or violence.