Factors Affecting Eskimo Youth


Ann Stokes, M. S.


For many years villages have struggled to identify and eradicate social, cultural, economic, and educational limitations that are the core of many problems experienced by the Native communities in rural Alaska today. Many of the traditional value and belief systems that have sustained the Eskimo people for thousands of years are still in effect today in Native villages.


Rural villages differ from other areas of Alaska by their history, culture, environment, and economy. There are many other mitigating differences such as: Arctic darkness, health, transportation, isolation, few jobs, small population, little legislative representation, and many mental issues that have contributed to the despair of these unique people.


There is unresolved multigenerational anger in Alaska Natives toward the Russians and white Americans who exploited them for several hundred years. These people brought diseases that decimated the Native population. Having been forced to attend school and give up their Native languages and many of their traditions caused loss and grief that continue to this day. The first step to resolving the past is to acknowledge that the past did cause hurt and pain. Then the people must get in touch with their pain. The way to let go of pain is to forgive others and themselves. Then by living in the present, the people can begin to move forward from this point and begin to heal.


Historical circumstances lead to a group's economic, class, and political status in the social structure. Culture evolves, but is not simply determined only by ethnicity; other factors are the circumstances and experiences associated with certain beliefs, norms, and values. Shifts in ethnic diversity are not just about numbers, but also about the impact of cultural differences. In diverse environments the way in which a people survives also becomes a part of their culture.


The Native world view is holistic with a natural approach, while the Western view is scientific. In the villages Community English is spoken. This has been created when in the past Native students were sent out of their villages to attend schools, sometimes even in the lower 48 states! The education system requires more formal Academic English. The discourse system in the villages is Inupiaq or Yup'ik based, while the dominating Western system is Euro/American based. Because of this, reading and writing are challenging to the Native students of today. Even the communication patterns are different. The wait time is much longer in a classroom in which Native students are responding. In the sharing of information the Native way is non-elaborated, while the Western way is elaborate and detailed. The Eskimo people also have a tendency to repress negative emotions. Huge generational gaps have occurred because of the rapidly evolving culture. Electricity, television programs, video games, and DVD's have made a tremendous impact upon the Eskimo culture. Technology has given them rifles, microwave ovens, snow-machines, four-wheelers, VHF, and Global Positioning Systems.


Other important issues that impact these people are the lack of parenting skills and nurturing, trauma from family violence, repeated experiences of significant loss, resulting in unresolved pain. This erupts into anger, rage and grief, emotional abuse, physical abuse including incest and rape, abandonment, power and control issues, drug and alcohol abuse, and the lack of medical care. Talking Circles could be one way in which to help address and resolve some of these issues. Training could be offered to the community members to address specific areas such as parenting skills, anger control, and drug and alcohol abuse. Village clinicians could provide information about physical abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS, and mental disorders such as depression and anxiety disorders.


Another difference between urban and "village"* Alaska is the lack of Native representation through the legislators in Juneau . Geographical isolation is the most significant hurdle for villages, so a lack of standard means of transportation creates a problem. Travel to or from a village in the winter is by air or snow machine, weather and distance permitting. In the summer, transportation is by air or boat. Many people in the village ride a four-wheeler, snow-machine, or walk, depending on what season it is. During winter the strong winds, blowing snow, ice, and minus temperatures add to the difficulties of transportation. During the spring season, dense fog also inhibits travel.


Most of the people do not feel confident or trusting when dealing with the government.


Lifestyle changes, social change, and changes in society and environment are major determinants of health among the Inupiat and Yup'ik Eskimo. These changes began with the interactions with the Europeans. Today the most important group of health problems are the chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which are on the rise due to the introduction of western foods. Sugar and snack foods have largely contributed to this decline. Tooth decay is also a major concern due to the habit of continually drinking soda and eating candy and other sweets.


There are few doctors, dentists, or hospitals in "village" Alaska . Usually these professionals fly into a village once or twice a year. At other times Natives must fly to the nearest facility to obtain treatment. Many inhabitants experience a lack of sanitation facilities. In some areas proper sewage systems, running water, and washing facilities are unavailable. Some families do not even have electricity.


In "village" Alaska , alcohol and drugs are a persistent problem. This contributes to suicides, murders, the breaking up of families, and the deterioration of the person using alcohol to excess. Women who choose to drink or do drugs while pregnant may have babies born addicted or suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome. A man who turns to liquor will not do his daily chores or go hunt. He may not get firewood, fish, or care for his family. Money spent on alcohol or drugs is needed for daily living. This may affect the family's ability to obtain the very basic needs of food, utilities, or heat. The children are the ones who are hurt most, often becoming angry or depressed. Obtaining help in these areas is not culturally acceptable, or even available.


Subsistence hunting is still a very important factor in the economy of "village" Alaska . How these people obtain their food strongly influences their social and political organization. It influences many other aspects of their cultures, such as the type of economy and degree of inequality, political system, art styles, and religious beliefs and practices. Successful whaling captains are still highly revered in the village. When a whale is captured, the meat is shared with the entire village. Hunters who supply meat are also held in high esteem, yet Native people living in villages are becoming more and more dependent on store bought food and clothing as the subsistence economy is more and more intermingled with the cash economy. The economy is one of money, barter, subsistence hunting, and welfare. There are few opportunities for employment in villages. Some members of a community rely on summer employment such as fishing, fire-fighting, construction work, or employment with the oil industry, but this is not enough to carry a family throughout the entire year. A few members are highly skilled in the art of carving ivory and their work sells for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.


The socioeconomic and political factors also have a significant impact on a group's or its members' psychological well-being. Social pathologies such as depression, violence, substance abuse, suicides, accidents, and other abuse of all types have a great impact on the pattern of ill health in most Eskimo communities. Suicide rates are higher in Alaska than the lower 48 states and the suicide rates for Alaska Natives are higher than for Alaska in general. The highest suicide rates in the United States are the young males in the villages. The stresses of life affect mental health, with the burden or co-morbidity increasing over time. There are usually many people of different generations living in one house and the houses are very small. This over crowding limits privacy and escape from illnesses. Cultural stress also contributes to a lack of self-worth and self-esteem.

Police protection is almost non-existent in most village communities. This not only affects villagers in times of crime but also in times of other needs such as suicide, drowning, accidents, and search and rescue. Disputes are common whether among family members or community members.

Acculturation of the Native people to the white culture increases problems such as identity confusion, especially of the younger people. Feelings of betrayal and guilt may arise when achievements are made in the non-Native world. Conflict within the village occurs as well as conflict with outside forces which contribute to Native life. Changes have occurred in attitude and values as a result of replacing a cooperative society with a competitive society. Sometimes a person experiences a feeling of self-hate, rejecting his own culture. Prejudice and racism, gossip, jealousy and envy are all readily evident in these small communities.


The goal of Native education was to develop cognitive, physical, social, and spiritual competence. In village Alaska , there is a long history of repetitious, unsuccessful educational experimentation with students, while ignoring the well-documented source of many of the problems.


In the past 25 years, American school reform has been to make sure each child acquires the knowledge and skills to become productive, responsible citizens and to sustain the economic welfare and democratic institutions in the United States . Yet there is a persistent cultural gulf between the teachers and the students, the school and the communities. Constant staff turnover results in a lack of both verbal and non-verbal communication and trust. For instance, just the raising of the eyebrows means "yes," but new teachers don't know this. Districts are now taking more responsibility by conducting staff in-services to educate their new staff. This helps, but the issues of isolation with few stores, restaurants, or other amenities of modern society contribute to a high staff turnover rate. Currently there is also a lack of "fit" between what we teach, how we teach it, and the content in which it is taught. Well-rounded education consists of much more than just the subject matter that is taught in school. It is unfortunate that the people most affected by school reform and the people most excluded from the school reform debate are the students, especially the Native American students, including the Alaska Native population, whether Central Yup'ik, Siberian Yup'ik, or Inupiat.


Students from "village" Alaska currently have a slim chance of succeeding in the quest for higher education. Many students have never traveled outside their own community, and most have never lived outside their own culture. This makes it extremely challenging to live away from their home and to become immersed in Western culture. It becomes evident that success in one culture is not considered success in another, as the pressures on rural Alaskan youth to remain within their own communities are strong.


Some young Natives are able to read, write and understand the ways of the cultures outside their own immediate world. They are successful in the western culture, and therefore choose not to return to their villages where their abilities are most needed. This creates a shortage of literate members in the village council, contributing to the lack of a governing body. Since the Eskimo are such a minority people, their "voice" is seldom heard in Juneau , where governing decisions are made. This also contributes to a powerless situation in which they feel they have no meaningful role in society. Thus, as people without a sense of autonomy, they come to see themselves as pawns in a world where others control their destiny. There is a desperate need for native graduates to return to their communities in order to take an active part in the governing bodies and schools to make a positive difference.


The function of the educational system is not to just teach basic subjects like reading, math, science, etc., but to teach "life" skills. Recognizing core values allows the creation of an environment of mutual respect and trust in which this can be accomplished. Only then will there be a sense of wholeness. Students need to be prepared in such a way that they can become responsible, capable and whole human beings in the process of learning. School personnel must systematically document the indigenous knowledge system of the Alaskan Native people and develop educational policies and practices that effectively integrate indigenous and Western knowledge through a renewed educational system. The schools must have a significant service-learning program that is linked to curriculum and allows the students involved to address real community issues. Curriculum must be relevant for the students it services. Curriculum, in its conventional usage, refers to the "scope and sequence" or the entire selection and organization of specific information included for that topic, the order in which it is presented in the materials, and the operational structure of the school. The materials and topics must be of interest to the students in order to further the educational process. Currently, formal learning focuses on the detached acquisition of knowledge and high stakes testing. A student who has completed the required number of credits during the high school program must also pass the written High School Graduation Qualifying Exam in order to earn a diploma. Otherwise, that student will only receive a Certificate of Completion when graduating. Only through direct experience can a critical understanding of cultural processes be achieved. Schools need to pursue the situational and cultural implications of alternative approaches to structure and method, which together make up the instructional process.


Non-formal education has many of the characteristics appealing in the development of an alternative educational approach for cultural minorities. An experience-based, process-oriented learning program has been suggested by Ray Barnhardt. * * He proposes that ‘cultural eclecticism' should be the goal, have the ‘processes' as the content, and have the ‘projects' as the means. Using this approach would create widespread interaction between schools and the community participants. This could help maintain cultural identity and help serve useful social functions, while students learn how social systems operate and what forces act upon them to create change. If the students were able to choose flexibly structured projects, they would be better able to match these projects with their needs, abilities, and their individual learning styles associated with differences in thought, communication and social interaction. The values, norms, and cultural practices of the community could be continued with little interruption. Instead of the teacher being the authority for the control of learning and the keeper of knowledge and skills, this responsibility would shift to the students and communities. The teacher would not be the source of skills and understanding and instead this would originate in the setting. Teachers from the "outside" would contribute their exposure and experiences, a goal that is included in the agenda of cultural eclecticism. The goals of education must extend beyond the boundaries of the minority group if students are to be prepared for their role in life, whether it is in their Native community or in the larger social reality.


The Native Eskimo students retain values, attitudes, beliefs, and social behaviors that are unique to their cultures. Schools are agents of the dominant society and as long as they reflect the structure, social organization, and underlying cultural patterns of that society within an implicit framework of assimilation, the Eskimo youth will not learn the requisite skills, the status differentials will continue to be reinforced, and the access to societal resources will be further impeded, thus making it almost impossible for them to reach their aspirations. So much of the public school program is now about control, conformity, and accountability.


There are many issues that contribute to the unresolved problems among the Eskimo people and the dominant white culture. These issues include unresolved, multigenerational anger; a very different world view; a different definition of success; a different environment, and therefore, life style; a lack of representation on both the state and federal levels of government; the different social pathologies that include depression, suicide, violence, drug and alcohol abuse; physical, emotional and sexual abuse; the lack of adequate medical care including mental health; almost non-existent police protection; unemployment; and poverty. The Eskimo people have been challenged to cope with the rapid changes in technology and the constant impact of Western society. With cooperation, communication, listening and understanding on the part of all the stakeholders involved, the existing issues can be resolved. It will take effort and patience, but the goals are realistic. All students need validation of their self-worth, and people of all cultures are valuable and unique. It takes many cultures to contribute to the richness and diversity of the world community!


* Village Alaska
**Culture, Community and the Curriculum - click on Alaska percent20for percent20Week percent2010.htm