In recent years, research has revealed symbiosis between seemingly disparate public policy areas such as education, health, housing, indigenous political, cultural, and socio-economic self-determination and development, and suicide prevention. Some advocates and policy makers are utilizing this research to identify the web of through-lines that run across policy areas, with the policy implication being that as advocates and researchers, we can no longer focus exclusively on one area without considering its interrelation with a range of others. This more holistic understanding and approach to advocacy and public policy development places emphasis on developing whole communities and societies, rather than narrowly concentrating on progress within isolated policy areas. The idea is that improving the health and wellbeing of any society requires a more coordinated approach. In Indian Country, the term “nation building” is the metaphor used to describe this practice. In Alaska, we might think of this approach more appropriately as the mapkuq of policy making, research, and advocacy.
The mapkuq is the walrus or bearded sealskin blanket used by Inupiat coastal communities to throw community members high into the air during celebration, and in the past was also used to fling hunters into the air to spot whales breaching on the horizon. The metaphor is appropriate because it more accurately symbolizes the nature in which policy research and advocacy must be undertaken if there is to be improvement in the health and wellbeing of Alaska Native peoples. During celebration, community members surround the mapkuq, holding on to its rope rungs. They must work in perfect synchrony in order to hoist the participant on the blanket high into the air, and to hold the blanket bellowed upward in order to catch and ensure a graceful landing. These blankets are made from rawhide and are not soft, and participants are frequently injured when those holding the mapkuq are not able to move quickly enough as a coordinated unit to catch participants. Similarly, Alaska Native communities are being hurt by the inability of advocates, researchers, and policy makers to utilize policy through-lines cross cutting issues that negatively impact us, resulting in slowed progress toward healthy communities and societies. We are not moving in synchrony as a community, and as a result we are failing to catch our own people.
Inadequate education for Alaska Native peoples and the absence of sustained advocacy and leadership on this issue is at the heart of social, economic, political, and cultural inequity for Alaska Native peoples. Not only does the quality of schooling that we receive suffer, but the ideological and philosophical orientation of schools in Alaska Native communities tend to be subtly racist, often evident in the conspicuous absence of curricula focused on local people, language, culture, history, and land. Shockingly, 22% of enrolled K to 12 students are Alaska Native and more than half of all school districts are majority Alaska Native, yet a mere 4% of teachers are Alaska Native. Many parents today are educational products of the present day power imbalances and tend to view the status quo as normative. In only two known cases have school districts – prompted by internal Alaska Native leadership – reached out to communities to seek direction and feedback in the development of schooling.
Formal schooling has always failed Alaska Natives, and our communities have never been equal partners in the conceptualization and development of school programs, with potentially debilitating socio-psychological consequences for children and families. It is within the education field that the urgent need for a mapkuq approach to research, advocacy, and policymaking is most clear to me. The need is clear because formal schooling has such profound, far reaching effects that permeate every layer of our respective societies, and yet when advocacy does happen, it almost always focuses on the need to close the achievement gap between Alaska Native students and their white peers. Below, I demonstrate the great potential for Alaska Native education by highlighting policy areas that correlate with the education field:
- Suicide: In her 2005 dissertation about Inupiat youth suicide in Northwest Alaska, social scientist Lisa Wexler drew a casual relationship between schools’ persistent failure to arm Inupiat youth with the intellectual tools needed to understand our own subjectivity in relation to the larger framework of colonization in which our ongoing colonization and oppression take place, with prevailing social dysfunction the most obvious symptom. In a region with only a 50% high school graduation rate in 2010, Wexler questions the psychological impacts of school failure being interpreted by youth as an additional failure of themselves and their communities.
- Mental Health: A longitudinal study of at-risk blacks who attended a high quality preschool program between 1972 and 1977 found that at age 21: those who had not attended the childcare program showed higher levels of depressive symptoms, and 37% met diagnostic criteria for clinical depression. Among the childcare attendees, 26% scored high enough on tests of depressive symptoms to be considered clinically depressed…[i] Significantly, the correlation between a bad home environment and depression risk did not apply to the young adults who had participated in the program because “The program buffered the effects of that difficult home environment.”[ii]
- Life Expectancy: Between the 1980s and 2000, life expectancy increases in the U.S. occurred nearly exclusively among high-education groups.[iii] “Low education” was classified as 12 years or fewer of formal education while “high education” was classified as at least 13 years of schooling.
- In 2000, a 25 year old with a high school diploma could expect to live until 75 while a person the same age but with some university education could expect to live until 82.
- Smoking: By 2000, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) death rates were twice as high among low-education white men and women and black men, compared to the more educated in these groups. There are two main forms of COPD: chronic bronchitis, defined by a long-term cough with mucus, and emphysema, defined by destruction of the lungs over time. Smoking is the leading cause of COPD.[iv]
- Housing: Social scientist Frank J. Tester has demonstrated a correlation between overcrowded housing and food insecurity for families in one Nunavut community, as well as domestic violence and other social issues that place stress on children and youth.[v] Food insecurity and social stress and trauma at home affect student performance in schools. And in turn, educational attainment determines economic security, mobility, and housing. Overcrowding is an issue in Alaska Native communities, especially in the Arctic. To what degree remains unclear as there are no available data, but the policy implication is that housing, social and economic indicators, and educational attainment are closely related.
- Employment and income: In the most comprehensive longitudinal study of the long-term effects of pre-school found that at age 40: significantly more of the preschool program group than the no-program group were employed (76% vs. 62%), which continues the trend from age 27 (69% vs. 56%). The program group also had significantly higher median annual earnings than the no-program group at ages 27 and 40 ($12,000 vs. $10,000 at age 27 and $20,800 vs. $15,300 at age 40).
- Culture and Language: American schooling for Alaska Natives has almost always prioritized language stealing as a first step toward the erosion of the cultural, intellectual, philosophical, and religious foundations of indigenous societies, weakening our spirits and expediting assimilation into the dominating society. This is ongoing today, obvious in the fact that K to 12 bilingual Alaska Native language schooling has never existed as an option, and all Alaska Native languages are either endangered or severely endangered, and at least in the case of Eyak, now extinct.
- Leadership development: For many Alaska Native high school and college students, learning about our history, cultures, political development and layers of governance, issues and challenges is a highly incidental, extra-curricular affair that often begins during an internship, or during employment with an Alaska Native organization. This lag time in understanding, the highly incidental nature in which it takes place, and the variability of action-oriented leaders in our community is preventing or slowing progress on key issues. We praise those who graduate from college and participate in the discourse on Alaska Native issues, yet have done little as a community to take sustained action to guarantee this same outcome for all Alaska Native students from K to post-secondary.
Alaska Native advocacy organizations need to exploit these areas of overlap in their work, and in doing so will ensure that other important issues such as suicide, housing, mental health, and leadership are not neglected. The mapkuq approach is not new – we have always worked in cooperation to adapt and move forward as distinct societies – yet we are currently exhausting our energy and resources attempting to surmount each obstacle individually. Beginning with the prioritization of educational reform as the most vital policy issue facing Alaska Natives, the mapkuq approach to policy advocacy will be the key to Alaska Native health and wellbeing.
[i] McLaughlin, A. E. et al, “Depressive Symptoms in Young Adults: The Influences of the Early Home Environment and Early Educational Child Care” (2007) Child Development, Vol. 78, Iss. 3, p. 746
[ii] Harding, A., “Good day care boosts poor kids’ later mental health” (May 22, 2007) Reuters, Retrieved: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2007/05/22/health-good-daycare-dc-idUKCOL24828920070522 February 25, 2011
[iii] Meara, E. R., Richards, S., and D.M. Cutler, “The Gap Gets Bigger: Changes in Mortality and Life-Expectancy, By Education, 1981-2000, (2008) Health Affairs, Vol. 27, No. 2, p. 353
[iv] National Center for Biotechnology Information (National Institute of Health: October, 9, 2009), Retrieved: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001153 February 3, 2011
[v] Tester, F. J., Iglutaq (in my room): A Case Study of Housing and Homelessness in Kinngait, Nunavut Territory (The Harvest Society, April 2006)