Author Archives: aqukkasuk

The Arctic resource rush, enviros and Inuit poverty

A Foreign Policy Association blogpost last month points out one of the great ironies of Arctic environmental activism: the fact that all too often, environmentalists seek justice for the environment and animals like polar bears while Inuit and other indigenous peoples living in the Arctic are left out of the conversation. “Polar bears need icebergs and beluga whales need oceans free of sonar waves, to be sure,” the post’s author observes, but “people also need affordable food and warm homes – topics less news-friendly, but just as critical, to the future of the Arctic.”

Just last week Nunatsiaq News published two articles highlighting Nunavik’s severe health disparities and the staggering level of food insecurity in Nunavut. The data published in these studies and in others I’ve highlighted elsewhere in this blog paint a pretty grim picture of life in many Inuit communities, including in Alaska.

As rapid climate change ushers in an accelerating Arctic resource rush, these and other issues beg the question: will off-shore oil extraction and other “development” result in meaningful benefits to Inuit and other Arctic indigenous communities?

Indigenous peoples have always been told that we will benefit from resource extraction on our homelands, but our communities have generally received pennies on the dollar while more systemic challenges such as language shift, violence and suicide have continued unabated.

The financial success of multi-billion dollar Iñupiat-owned for profit corporations such as the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and NANA Regional Corporation has also not necessarily translated into action on issues such as household violence, child sexual abuse and educational attainment.
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Inuit communities need jobs, education and money, but large-scale resource extraction hasn’t been and won’t be a panacea to these and other issues without forward-thinking leadership.

In May 2013, Greenpeace organized an indigenous peoples conference ahead of the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden. The result was “The Joint Statement of Indigenous Solidarity for Arctic Protection,”calling for, among other things, a ban on all offshore oil extraction. The response to the Statement and Greenpeace’s incursion into indigenous affairs has been thought provoking.

Portrait Of Hivshu RE Peary

Inuit organizations such as Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Inuit Circumpolar Council have been vocal in their condemnation of Greenpeace, which they see as hijacking the indigenous voice to advance their own interests.

Inuit Circumpolar Council Alaska president Jimmy Stotts warned that Greenpeace’s actions signify a “new wave of colonialism” and called Greenpeace’s incursion into indigenous affairs paternalistic.  “Moratoriums and sanctuaries that would lock up our homeland goes against what we have been striving to obtain for our people,” Stotts wrote in ICC’s most recent newsletter. “If there are to be moratoriums or sanctuaries they must be on our terms.”

Yet perhaps more paternalistic than Greenpeace’s move into indigenous affairs is a message from another Inuk, Canada’s Minister for Environment Leona Aglukkaq. Aglukkaq is from Nunavut and chairs the Arctic Council, and is promoting accelerated resource development in the North.

“The North is open for business. There are massive opportunities North of 60, in everything from natural resources to the service industry,” Aglukkaq stated in a June speech in Ottawa. There is an “untapped work force that, with targeted training, want to make a living an invest in local communities, because this is their home,” she continued.  

Aglukkaq is a member of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet. Under Harper’s leadership, Canada has experienced some of the most destructive environmental policies in modern Canadian history and  seen the largest mobilization of indigenous peoples against a government ever through the Idle No More movement that swept North America. It is therefore disconcerting that the Harper government’s laissez faire approach to natural resource extraction is being promoted within the Arctic Council by Aglukkaq, who infamously rejected UN findings on indigenous food insecurity and threw her own people under the bus.

So what does this all mean?

It means that Inuit and other Arctic indigenous peoples find ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place as we seek to balance the seemingly unstoppable forces of capitalism and multinational corporate greed pressing in on the one hand, with the needs of our people. These needs include things like housing, food security, educational attainment and job creation, as well as more complex needs such as spiritual and psychological healing from historical trauma, effective suicide prevention interventions, child sexual abuse prevention, and resources for survivors of sexual assault and household violence.

It is these human needs and human resource development that must be placed at the forefront of the Arctic resource rush, because meeting these needs is elemental to the future health and well-being of our people. Doing so requires being realistic about the degree to which resource extraction has helped Inuit realize our international human rights so far, and what needs to be on the table in order to ensure that the Arctic resource rush can be leveraged in the interest of meeting these basic needs in the future.

The “sustainable development” favored by ICC and other Inuit organizations will be futile unless the result is, in part, an equal investment in the human resource development of Inuit families and communities.

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2013 Iñupiaq Language Conference & Workshop keynote address

The 2013 Iñupiaq Language Conference & Workshop was held June 4-7 in Kotzebue, AK. I was invited to give remarks on June 5. Other speakers included land claims leader and author Willie Iġġiagruk Hensley of Kotzebue and University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Ron Aniqsuaq Brower of Barrow. The event was organized as a collaboration between the Robert Aqqaluk Newlin, Sr. Memorial Trust  and the regional Iñupiaq Language Commission. About 50 people attended, the majority of them elders. This was somewhat disappointing because in order for language revitalization to be successful, young people need to be in the driver’s seat. Nevertheless, I had a great time visiting with our elders and practicing my Iñupiaq. 

I participated in this same conference in June 2012, and I will discuss the overall outcomes of the two conferences in more detail in a subsequent post, including my thoughts on how they could be improved.   

I wrote my brief remarks in Iñupiatun with the assistance of Kapniaq Lorena Williams, a friend of mine from Kotzebue who has taught Iñupiatun at the university level, and who provided many corrections to drafts of my short speech. Writing a speech in Iñupiatun required a great deal of effort for me. I have studied our language off and on since 2008, and have spent only several months working directly with fluent speakers in Kotzebue during brief work stints. The rest of my language comes from grammar books, dictionaries, sporadic encounters with fluent speakers at conferences, and by communicating with other Inuit in Greenland and Canada via social media. Unfortunately there are few other young people in our region actively re-learning our language. As someone who grew up mainly in Anchorage and Juneau and lived in/visited the Arctic infrequently, I wanted to emphasize and demonstrate that anybody can learn our language, even without much exposure to it growing up. I also had a political motive in that I wanted to show that if I can prioritize Iñupiatun speaking and learning as a person from Anchorage without a living fluent speaker in my family, then our leadership and people with daily access to fluent language speakers have few excuses.

My keynote address and the English translation are below.  (You can also read the line-by-line translation of my remarks here.)  

Paġlagipsi. Uvlaallautaq. Tautukkama kiiñaqsitñik nakuullapiaġataqtuq. Aasii tusaaruni Iñupiałiġmik nunaptikni quvianaqtuq. Quyanaqpak Manuluk aiyugaaġluġikma, aasii quyagivsi maungahusi nunaaqqipayaannin. Uvanga Aqukkasuk. Amauġmanun atchiutingagaatnga, Kenneth Mills. Nalauġmiutchisiġa Tim Argetsinger. Ipnatchiaġmiungurunga aglaan iñuguqtunga Anchorage-mi. Ukiupak iñuuniaqtunga Massachusetts-mi. Angayuqaaka Don Argetsinger-lu Lynda Simiitaq Hadley-lu. Atautchimik aniqatiqaqtunga, aapiyaġa Sapsauq, John Argetsinger. Aanam Sarah Sarich atchiutigaa Joseph Hadley-mun, amaułukpuk. Saupsauq qunngiļaaqaq Ipnatchiami. Taimmani Saamimium nunaptikniitmata ilisuatrigaat qunngiļaaqaułłiġmik. Aana tuquruq tatqimi aqulliġmi, 82-nik ukiuqaqtuaq. Uqaluitka aanamnun, aasii sivullaiptinnun. Akkupak iļitqusiŋata nayuġaatigut.

Uvlupak quliaqtuaġluŋa uqaqatigisukkivsi sivuniġmik uvakŋamin. Aanam aakanga tuqupman TB-kun, Kenneth Mills nuuttuaq Nautaaġmun. Sapsaum tiguaqługu aanaga aasii iñuguqtitlugu. Iñupiaraałhaiñaqtuak. Aglaan taimmani sivulliich Nalauġmiut aggiqmata mauŋa, isumaptigun atanniqsimaniallapiaġataġaatigut aglagviŋñi. Tavraasiiñ, iñugiaktuat iñuvut tammaqsimarut.

Willie Iġġiagruk Hensley talks about growing up in Kotzebue.

Willie Iġġiagruk Hensley talks about growing up in Kotzebue

Aanaga aglakman Ipnatchiami, iļisuatrim Iñupiaraaqmata anauviñaqtaqługich iļilgaat uuktuutimik. Taipkua iļisuatrit sivuuġanaġniqsuat.Tavraasiiñ, aanam nalauġmiuraałhaiññaqhuni aakamnun, aakaga uqapiaraallaitchuq. 2008-mi, iññiaqtuŋa Yupiit Nunaŋatnun, aasii tusaagigitka nutaġaat uqapiaraaqtit.

Arigaa, tusupaluksimaruaŋa! Utiqama Anchorage-mun, utuqqanaaqaġviŋmi Eva Heffle-gum iļisautigaanga qanuq iñuk iļitchuġipkaġnaqmagaan uvamnik Iñupiatun. “Uvaŋa atiġa Aqukkasuk…”Arigaa, suaŋaniqsuaq! Ilaa sivullaipta nipiŋatigun uqaqtuaŋa. Tavraŋŋa qaŋa iļisaqtuŋa uqapiaraaqtitlu Iñupiatun makpiġaatigunlu. Ukiaġmi 2009-mi atautchimi tatqimi, savaaqłuŋa nuuttuŋa mauŋa, aasii utiqtuŋa upinġaami 2011-mi. Rachel Adams-lu, Aġniglu, Kapniaġlu, Ada Apaurak Ward-lu, Maqiġlu iļisuatripiaġaatŋa. Arigaa iļisuatripiaŋuplusi mikiruuramik Iñupiaraallaruŋa.

Ataramik aptaŋitpata apiqsruutiqaqtuni isiqattaaġayaġitka. Aglaguuruŋa uqalutchianik uvani. Aimmiamma anaqami iļisaqpauraqtuanga. Aptarivalukkitka aglaan iñullautaupłutiŋ uqautiŋitkaatŋa. Tavra kisupayaaq uqapiaraaqtiŋullaruq. Uvlutauġman iñugiaktut utuqqanaavut kisimiŋ aimmiruat. Isiqattaaqtuni alianaitchuq, aasii iļitchukkuvisi iļisuatigisigaasi.

Elders Minnie Gray of Shungnak and Barbara Wesley of Noatak

Elders Minnie Gray of Shungnak and Barbara Wesley of Noatak

Uvagut nutaġaat iļisimagivut uqapiaraaqtivut. Aasiin uvva iļisautilugich iļisautravut qanuq iļiññaqmagaan. Siļaliñiġmiutitun atautchikun sivutmukta, NANA-tkutnilu, Borough-kutnilu, Chukchi-kutnilu, School District-kutnilu savaqatigiigsa. Aglaan utaqqiñasi maniŋmik. Uvagut kisipta uqapiaraałiq utiġmun tasullagikput. Nalauġmiuraaqapta Nalauġmiutitun isumarugut. Nalauġmiutitun isumagupta, piigungniaġikput Iñupiatun ilitqusiqput. Uvagut nutaġaat uqavut siñiktut qaniptigni. Akkupak itiġnaqsiruq. Sivutmukta.

Tavra, quyagivsi tusaaplusi.


Welcome. Good morning. It’s extremely good to see all of your faces. And to hear Inupiaq in our land is cause for happiness. Thank you Manuluk for inviting me, and I’m grateful to all of you for coming from all of the communities. I am Aqukkasuk. They named me after my great grandfather, Kenneth Mills. My English name is Tim Argetsinger. I am from the Ipnatchiaġmiut, but I grew up in Anchorage. This year I am living in Massachusetts. My parents are Don Argetsinger and Lynda Hadley. I have one sibling, my older brother Sapsauq, John Argetsinger. My aana named him after Joseph Hadley, our great, great grandfather. Sapsauq was a reindeer herder in Deering. The Saami taught him about herding reindeer when they were in our land a long time ago. My aana passed away last month – she was 82. My words are for my aana and for all of our ancestors. Their spirits are watching over us right now.

Ron Aniqsuaq Brower shares an unipkaaq (legend) during some downtime.

Ron Aniqsuaq Brower shares an unipkaaq (legend) during some downtime

When my aana’s mother died from TB, Kenneth Mills moved to Noatak. Sapsauq adopted my aana and raised her. They only spoke Iñupiaq. But back then when the first white people arrived here, they tried extremely hard to control our minds in the schools. Consequently, our people started to become lost. When my aana was a student in Deering, the teachers would strike the children with a ruler for speaking Inupiaq. Those teachers were terrible. As a result, because my aana spoke only English to my mother, my mother does not speak our language.

Then in 2008 I visited the Yup’ik region, and I heard the young speakers. Wow, I sure became envious! When I returned to Anchorage, Eva Heffle taught me an Inupiatun introduction (how to talk about who I am, where I am from, etc.) at the senior center. “Uvaŋa atiġa Aqukkasuk…” Wow, that was powerful! It was like I talked through the voices of our ancestors. I have been studying since then with speakers and through Iñupiaq language books. In the fall of 2009, I moved here for one month for work, and returned in the summer of 2011. Rachel Adams, Aġnik, Kapniaq and Ada Apaurak Ward, and Maqiq (Mary Schaeffer) really taught me. I can speak a little Inupiaq because you are excellent teachers.

If they weren’t busy I would always visit them in their homes with questions. I’d write new words in here (my notebook). I studied really hard at night when I was at home. I probably annoyed them, but because they are nice people they didn’t tell me. Anybody can learn to become a speaker. Everyday many of our elders are in their homes alone. It’s entertaining to visit and they will teach you if you want to learn.

We younger people know our speakers. Now based on this fact, we must show them, our learners, how to learn. Let’s move forward together like the people of the North Slope, with NANA, the Borough, Chukchi, and the School District working together. But don’t wait for money. Only we alone can reclaim our language back. When we speak English, we think like white people. If we think like white people we will forget our Iñupiaq spirit. We young people, our tongues are asleep in our mouths. Now it’s time to wake up. Let’s move forward.

That’s all, thank you for listening.

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The Nunavut Suicide Follow-Back Study and Alaska Native Suicide

During a recent trip to Kotzebue (an Iñupiat town of about 3,200 in Alaska’s Northwest Arctic), I took a walk one evening and passed a house where a man was screaming at a young child. The little girl must have been about four or five, and she was sweeping the floor of their storm shed with a small broom. An adult male (presumably her father) emerged from inside the house and as he passed her, he yelled, “Stop sweeping the fucking floor, you’re making a fucking mess!” The little girl put the broom down and went back inside the house as the man sat down outside and lit up a cigarette. I wondered if that negative experience and others would leave an imprint on the girl’s brain as she grew up. I wondered if the man had had similar experiences as a child, and I hoped that what I had witnessed was an isolated incident rather than a glimpse of much worse.

In an earlier post, I shared some of my thoughts on the elevated suicide rates experienced by Alaska Natives. I talked about how suicide prevention efforts could benefit from understanding the role of traumatic experiences like sexual assault, child sexual abuse, and other risk factors in suicidal behavior. Since this information is not readily available from the Alaska Native regions with the highest suicide rates, we’re dealing with an incomplete picture when developing strategies to prevent suicide. Yet new research from Nunavut, Canada looking at some of the life experiences of Inuit who have died by suicide gives us clues about the situation in Alaska.

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The Nunavut Suicide Follow-Back Study 2005-2010 published in June 2013 examines the lives of 120 Nunavut Inuit who died by suicide between January 1, 2003 and December 31, 2006. (You can find a news article summarizing the study here.) More than 400 interviews were conducted with the family and friends of the deceased, as well as with 120 individuals who made up a comparison group of living individuals whose backgrounds closely matched those of the deceased. The purpose of interviewing living individuals was to identify risk and protective factors associated with suicide. In other words, to attempt to understand why individuals with similar backgrounds to those who died by suicide are still alive today.

As might be expected, individuals in the comparison group of living individuals were more likely to be married or in a common-law relationship, employed or in school, and to have more formal education than the 120 people who died by suicide.

Significantly more individuals in the suicide group had experienced child abuse than the comparison group, including physical and sexual abuse.

  • 21.6% of the suicide group had experienced physical abuse during childhood compared to 13.3% of the comparison group.
  • 15.8% of the suicide group had experienced sexual abuse in childhood compared to 6.7% of the comparison group.

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Diagnosed psychiatric illness, personality disorders and addictions were also higher among the suicide group.

The report “indicates that the risk factors of unemployment, child maltreatment, sexual abuse, impulsiveness, aggression, current and lifetime diagnoses of major depressive disorder, alcohol abuse or dependence and current or past cannabis abuse or dependence are risk factors for Inuit suicide in Nunavut.”

The report concludes that inter-generational trauma and its results as well as elevated mental disorders are the main drivers of Nunavut’s high suicide rates. It stresses the need for greater mental health care, counseling and substance abuse services for Inuit in Nunavut.

Yet the study does not discuss the connections between adverse child experiences (experiencing or witnessing physical or sexual abuse, etc.) and lifelong outcomes such as mental disorders. This is interesting to me because it seems somewhat reactionary — a call to deal with the symptoms of trauma rather than to directly address and prevent some of the causes of trauma.

It is pretty well documented that the foundation for sound mental health begins in early childhood in an environment of relationships (with parents, extended family members, community, etc.) In other words, traumatic experiences like witnessing or experiencing violence or sexual abuse during childhood can place people at greater risk for experiencing mental health issues and other “risk factors” later in life.


It is no coincidence that many of the Inuit in Nunavut who died by suicide experienced physical and sexual abuse in childhood, just as it is no coincidence that the same is true for people in the broader U.S. population who have attempted suicide.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) carried out between 1995 and 1997 used a questionnaire to compare the current health status of more than 17,000 people in the U.S. to information participants shared about adverse experiences during childhood. The categories of adverse child experiences looked at included:

  • abuse (psychological, physical, sexual)
  • household dysfunction (substance abuse, mental illness, mother treated violently)
  • criminal behavior in household

Those who had experienced four or more of these categories of childhood exposure, compared to those who had experienced none, had 4- to 12-fold increased health risks for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempt. Of the respondents who reported having attempted suicide in their lifetime, those who had experienced four or more of these adverse childhood experiences were at the greatest risk: of those who had attempted suicide at some point in their life, 18.3% had experienced 4 or more categories of childhood exposure.

The Nunavut study apparently only looked at two kinds of adverse experiences (physical and sexual abuse), which makes me wonder what other forms of childhood adversity people who died by suicide may have experienced, and how they would compare to the comparison group.

Implications for moving forward
Understanding the prevalence of childhood exposure to adverse experiences among Alaska Natives, and then implementing interventions that prevent exposure to things like household violence and child sexual abuse will be an important step toward implementing more effective suicide prevention measures. We continue to experience elevated suicide rates in Alaska in part because this research has not been carried out, with the result that people who work on this issue are dealing with an incomplete picture of the challenge. This is not to say that the inspiring advocates, service providers and many Alaska Native people who work in this area are not aware of this aspect of suicide. But until the taboo around publicly addressing some of these challenges begins to erode – opening the door to interventions that focus on preventing adverse experiences – we will continue to play catch up.

MISS Image
However, as I pointed out in my last post about this challenge, public dialogue about some of these issues is becoming more common in the Alaska Native community, and this is promising. For example, the MISS Movement was started by two young women in Kotzebue to raise awareness about rape culture and violence against women in Northwest Alaska. And friends of mine who do public health research in Alaska Native communities are in the process of gathering information about adverse childhood experiences that can be used in the future to tackle them head-on. These warriors and others are working to help build a brighter future for our kids.

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Is it time for an Alaska Native political party?

Lately I’ve been wondering if an Alaska Native political party would be a viable political force in state politics, especially in the context of our current dual party system. Historically, Alaska Natives have tended to vote Democrat, ostensibly because that party’s values and political platform are the closest approximation to our own. In looking at different Indigenous political parties in Greenland and New Zealand/Aotearoa, I wonder if Alaska Natives would be better served by our own political party, the Alaska Native Party.

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The Democratic Party is a national party, and its values, platform and ideology may in some instances fall short of meeting and/or consistently representing the unique needs and aspirations of Alaska Native communities. I can imagine an Alaska Native Party serving the interests of rural and urban Alaska Natives in the following ways:

  • Culture and language: Alaska Native cultures and languages are under threat from myriad forces. If we had our own party, it could help ensure disbursement of the resources and support needed to safeguard Alaska Native languages and cultures.
  • Unity: Alaska Native Corporations and tribes are often at loggerheads, and the Alaska Federation of Natives has failed to address this division, a division which harms all of us. An Alaska Native Party could unify all Alaska Native peoples, rural and urban.
  • Advocacy: Alaska Native advocacy organizations are tasked with lobbying state legislators on issues that are important to our communities. Native legislators and members of the Bush Caucus are often utilized. Elected members of the Alaska Native Party could help take on this role and reduce the gap between Alaska Native community challenges and concerns and policy makers.
  • Cultivating political participation: An Alaska Native Party could galvanize Alaska Native participation in politics through an emphasis on bringing grassroots issues and concerns to Juneau. People would feel a true sense of ownership over and pride in the Party.
  • Self-determination: The Democratic Party may fall short of lending full support for Alaska Native aspirations for self-determination in certain areas. This is because the Democratic Party has a vested interest in continuing to benefit from colonialism at the expense of Alaska Native self-determination. Alaska Native Party aspirations may include expanding jurisdiction for tribal governments, reclaiming subsistence rights, stronger local participation in resource extraction projects, lobbying for food and energy subsidies for rural Alaska in exchange for rural Alaska’s natural resource subsidization of urban Alaska, and the full implementation of international human rights.

However, there are some foreseeable challenges to the potential success of such a party. I won’t pretend to fully understand the machinations of state politics, but here are some questions that come to mind:

  • Would an Alaska Native Party end up splitting the Alaska Native vote, or worse, add another layer of political division within the Alaska Native community?
  • Would Democrats and Alaska Native Party representatives find themselves in opposition to each other, and how important would Democratic Party support be for the success of an Alaska Native Party?
  • Given the widespread racism directed at Alaska Natives, would an Alaska Native Party be a more direct route to positive change, or would party members find few allies in Juneau and see increased racial polarization statewide?
  • How could such a party garner the support of non-Native interests and allies, and frame Alaska Native concerns and aspirations in ways that are attractive to everyone?

Currently, Alaska is a red state, with both the Senate and the House controlled by Republicans. 15 percent of Alaska’s population is Indigenous, yet only three Alaska State Representatives (out of 40) and two Alaska State Senators (out of 20) are Alaska Native, or 8% of elected representatives. Alaska’s legislature is indeed “awfully white” in the words of outgoing state senator Albert Kookesh. (Apart from these five Alaska Natives and one Japanese American, Alaska’s remaining 54 legislators are white.)

There are admittedly stark contrasts between the dual party system in the US and the political pluralism found in Greenland and New Zealand. In these two countries, voters can choose between several different political parties in hopes that elected representatives from the party they favor win enough seats to form a government. My understanding is that after an election is held, elected representatives elect a premier from among themselves, who then appoints his or her own cabinet. This differs from our system in that the political leadership of a government is not directly elected by citizens.

Let’s take a look at a few Greenlandic and Maori political parties to put the Alaska Native Party idea into international context.

Greenland/Kalaallit Nunaat
Greenland is a majority Inuit province of Denmark with about 60,000 residents. About 80 percent of the population is Inuit. Last month, Greenland saw the creation of the country’s sixth political party, Partii Inuit (“Party of the People”). Members of the new party will campaign for seats in Greenland’s 31 seat legislative assembly in March. Although little information is available about the new party or its platform, PI appears to strongly support Greenlandic independence, and has taken a controversial stance on cultural self-determination through language.

“We support Greenlandic values​​,” Partii Inuit chairman Nikku Olsen stated in a Sermitsiaq news article Tuesday (via Google Translate). “Those who would like to join our party must have a clear position that we must work for the Greenlandic society.” Although the party’s political platform remains vague, Olsen has controversially declared that Greenlandic should be the exclusive language used in Inatsisartut, Greenland’s legislative assembly. “The people of Greenland need a new rallying point, and we must build on our nationality and Greenlandic values to achieve our political objectives,” Olsen is quoted saying in an earlier article.

Inuit Ataqatigiit (“Community of the People”) is Greenland’s current leading party, holding 14/31 seats in the legislative assembly. IA rose to power in 2009, in the wake of the 2008 Self Rule Act, which creates a path for Greenlandic independence from Denmark. According to Wikipedia, IA “is a leftist and separatist political party in Greenland…The party strives to make Greenland an independent state.” Greenland is dependent on an annual block subsidy from Denmark, and IA has played an active role working to support international investment in Greenland and natural resource extraction in order to finance the road to independence.

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Other Greenlandic political parties include Siumut (Forward), Demokraatit (Democrats), Atassut (Feeling of Community), and Kattusseqatigiit (Association of Candidates).

New Zealand/Aotearoa

New Zealand/Aotearoa differs from Greenland demographically, mainly in that the Indigenous Maori are a minority population. They are similar in the sense that Maori and Greenlandic Inuit are the only Indigenous groups in their respective countries.

In 2006, there were 565,329 self-identifying Maori in NZ, or about 14.3 percent of New Zealand’s population. Therefore, at least population wise, Maori are in a somewhat similar position as Alaska Natives. However, the Maori situation differs drastically when looking at Maori rights, which flow from the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document. As recognized co-founders of New Zealand, Maori face less political and cultural marginalization than Alaska Natives. However, this is not born out in social and economic status, which in many areas is just as grim as in Alaska.

There are eight main political parties in New Zealand, and two Maori-focused parties. First, the Maori Party.

The Maori Party was formed by Tariana Turia after she resigned from the Labour party in 2004.  NZ’s last election was held in November 2011 and 121 members of parliament were elected. Of those seats, three are held by Maori Party members, or 2.5 percent of legislators. The following is the Maori Party message:

The Māori Party is for all citizens of this country.  The party’s founding was an initiative of Māori, te kākano i ruia mai i Rangiātea, for the benefit of all citizens of this land. [The party’s] policies and practices derive from kaupapa tuku iho that are values that provide for the wellbeing of all and are in a constant state of enrichment and refinement as insights are gathered from new experiences and discoveries. [The party’s] vision is of a nation of cultural diversity and richness where its unity is underpinned by the expression of tangata whenua-tanga by Māori, Te kākano i ruia mai i Rangiātea and [the party’s] commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi as the founding document of this nation and to its whakapapa is steadfast.

According to the list of achievements on the party’s website, the Maori Party has focused on Maori social and economic challenges.

Party co-leader Pita Sharples discusses pre-2011 achievements in this video:

The Maori Party seems to stand for three main principles, which are as follows:

  • Whānau-ora: restoring the essence of who we are;
    putting the vibrant traditions from our people at the
    heart of our whānau (family)
  • Te Tiriti o Waitangi: We want to face our past with courage, so we can build our future together
  • Kāwanatanga: we want a Government that values accountability and serving the people; we want a public service that understands the aspirations of whānau, hapū and iwi

The Mana Party, another Maori-focused party, was established by Hone Harawira after he left the Maori Party in 2011. In the 2011 election, Mana won one seat in parliament, held by Harawira. The party has focused on food security, employment, worker’s rights and poverty reduction in New Zealand.

Mana’s message is as follows:

‘Mana will promote the principle that what is good for Maori is good for Aotearoa. Mana will promote policies that allow all New Zealanders to lead a good life. Mana will outline a budget to meet those expectations. Mana will bring courage and honesty to political endeavour. Mana will guarantee a measure of people power and accountability from its MPs, that has never been seen before in this country. Mana is a principle we bring out of our history, to serve us in the present, and to provide us with the platform to transform this nation.’

You can watch Hone Harawira deliver Mana’s state of the nation address in 2011 below:

Sivutmun: Forward

So given these examples and Alaska’s political context, would Alaska Natives be better served by an Alaska Native Party in state politics? I’m not sure. But in the example of New Zealand in particular, we can see a small number Maori-focused political party members attempting to channel the interests of their people. These parties were formed on the premise that the Labour party – perhaps analogous to the Democratic Party – does not fully encapsulate the interests and aspirations of Maori. Although there appears to be some tension between the Maori Party and Mana, they share a mutual belief that Maori-focused political parties can channel Maori values, interests and aspirations in ways that mainstream New Zealand political parties cannot.

I do not know whether or not these two Maori parties or Greenland’s nationalistic parties have been (or will be) more successful in creating positive change for their constituents than their New Zealand and Danish approximations. As I see it, the Alaska Federation of Natives, Alaska’s primary Alaska Native advocacy organization, has faded from relevance in the lives of many Alaska Natives – especially among the young. The lack of a democratic process to elect the organization’s leadership, a lack of transparency, and a disconnect from the grassroots needs of communities contributes to a sense that we have been rudderless for the past several decades.

Perhaps an Alaska Native Party can be that rudder.

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Alaska Native suicide: thoughts on moving forward

“If the populations of ‘mainland’ Canada, Denmark and the United States had suicide rates comparable to those of their Inuit populations, national emergencies would be declared.”
– Upaluk Poppel, 2005

Every Alaska Native has been touched by suicide. It’s a pervasive challenge in our communities that has too often been rendered taboo and off the table for discussion until recently. Taking place within a context of colonialism, widespread poverty, and political racism, the suicide epidemic is the elephant in the room when it comes to discussion of social and economic progress for Alaska Native peoples. This is because in the last half century, the suicide rate for Alaska Natives has remained elevated and stable – a reflection of the cumulative trauma that remains largely unaddressed in Alaska Native societies. I believe that understanding the ways this trauma manifests as well as the connections between these manifestations and suicidal behavior, is key to better understanding this challenge and developing more effective prevention measures.

As do most of the Native people I know, I have friends and relatives that have attempted or died by suicide. I first learned about suicide from my parents when I was six years old and my uncle used a firearm to kill himself in Anchorage. Twenty years later, it seems that little has changed about the nature of this epidemic, except perhaps that today it’s more openly discussed.

In 1989, the Anchorage Daily News published a ten part story titled “A People in Peril.” The story spotlights the crippling effects of the suicide epidemic rocking the Alaska Native community, and chronicles some of the social challenges that form the backdrop for suicide in rural Alaska Native communities.

That was nearly a quarter century ago. Today, the suicide rate for Alaska Native peoples remains the highest of any demographic in the U.S., and our elevated suicide rates are still regularly in the news. That’s because Alaska Native peoples – especially youth – die by suicide at a rate more than three times the U.S. rate, and that hasn’t changed much in the past 43 years.

A 1973 paper (“Suicidal Behavior in Alaskan Natives”) by Robert F. Kraus, M.D. of the University of Washington examines the nature of Alaska Native suicide between 1950-1970, remarking that “The problem of suicides in Alaskan Natives [sic] parallels that of American Indians in that it is a phenomenon of suicide in adolescents and young adults.”

Kraus approximates the 1970 Alaska Native suicide rate to be 33 per 100,000 – or about three times the U.S. rate – with a Native population at that time of about 60,000. Kraus also calculates five-year average annual rates between the periods 1961-1965 and 1966-1970, which were 13 per 100,000 and 25 per 100,000 respectively. (Calculating five-year averages yields a more accurate suicide rate due to small population size and the high variability in the number of suicides from year to year.)

A July 2012 report published by Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services found that between 2003-2008, the average annual suicide rate for Alaska Native peoples was 40.4 per 100,000 compared to about 11.2 per 100,000 during the same period for the U.S. as a whole.

These rates vary dramatically by region, with Iñupiat in the Northwest Arctic dying by suicide at a rate more than twice the Alaska Native rate (93 per 100,000 between 2003-2008). The Canadian sociologists Frank J. Tester and Paule McNicoll cite Travis (1990) in their 2004 paper, who reports the Iñupiat suicide rate to be 90.8 per 100,000 in the early 1980s, only slightly lower than today’s rate.

Like our Inuit cousins in Canada and Greenland, we Iñupiat share the unfortunate distinction of having the highest suicide rates on the planet, and it is our young people who are suffering most. Lisa Wexler, whose research focuses on Iñupiat youth suicide in the Northwest Arctic region, places the suicide rate for Iñupiat aged 15 to 18 at 190 per 100,000, almost 17 times the U.S. rate, a number which shows that stark contrast between patterns of suicide in Indigenous populations and non-Indigenous populations, with the elderly tending to have the highest suicide rates in Western societies.

The Northwest Arctic Borough, the region where Wexler conducts her research.

How is it that after nearly half a century, Alaska Native people continue to die by suicide at astronomical rates that have largely remained unchanged, and in some regions appear to be rising?

Part of the answer, I believe, is that so much remains undocumented from a research, advocacy, and policy standpoint about the environmental factors that influence suicide.

Because there is a lack of information about the environmental risk factors that influence suicide, or an understanding of how they do so, prevention efforts continue to focus on transforming the individual from a suicidal person to a mentally healthy person, without addressing the root causes of suicidal behavior. This can be seen in PSA campaigns that encourage youth to ‘choose life’, in community walk for life campaigns, and sporadic culture and healing camps aimed at preventing suicide.  These efforts and the people responsible for them are doing remarkable work, and have in some cases produced glimmers of hope, but I suspect that a focus on transforming the social and economic environment in which our high suicide rates persist would go a long way in helping to reduce suicide.

In many cases, suicidal behavior among Alaska Natives takes place within high stress or traumatic environments. Crowded housing, food insecurity, and widespread poverty place enormous stress on many families and communities. Too many individuals grow up facing adversity and trauma as a result of household violence, child sexual abuse, and sexual assault. Addictions are often symptom of these challenges.
And more often than not, schooling does not provide young people with the resources needed to understand the historical context that produced them, a context that includes epidemics, religious and cultural persecution, community relocation, and a federal policy of cultural assimilation through boarding schools.

The negative ways this trauma manifests, and the pervasiveness of these manifestations, forms the backdrop for our elevated suicide rates. People intuitively know this, but what’s needed is coordinated investment by stakeholders – including the State of Alaska, Alaska Native advocacy organizations, and Alaska Native Corporations – in research that looks at the role environmental factors such as child sexual abuse and household violence play in the lives of people who exhibit suicidal behavior or have died by suicide.

A 2011 ‘Walk for Life’ event in Northwest Alaska

A suicide prevention and healing camp facilitated by Evon Peter (Gwich’in) and Earl Polk (Yup’ik) outside of Kotzebue, AK.

As a first step, we need to gather this information. In the Alaskan Arctic, for example, the region in which suicide rates are highest, there is little publicly accessible baseline health data. This makes it difficult to see the big picture of how various social and economic challenges are interconnected, and the role these challenges may play in suicidal behavior. Having this more complete understanding of the context in which suicide takes place can help inform the development of more innovative suicide prevention measures by policy makers and practitioners.

To give you an example of what I mean, there is a growing body of research showing that dating violence and child sexual abuse in at least some populations is associated with suicide attempts. This shouldn’t come as a surprise given that many survivors of sexual assault experience Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and the connection between PTSD and suicide is a widely-publicized phenomenon, at least among veterans of war. By many accounts, child sexual abuse and sexual assault are pervasive in some parts of Alaska, and the barriers that often stand in the way of justice for the victims of these crimes is well documented. This should make us wonder what information about violence, sexual assault, and child sexual abuse in Alaska Native communities can tell us about our high suicide rates. By documenting and understanding suicide in the bigger picture of these and other social challenges, there is a greater chance that we will be able to develop more successful suicide prevention efforts by striking at its root causes.

There are some jurisdictions that have taken this approach to suicide prevention. Information about child sexual abuse was captured in Nunavut, Canada, as part of the Community and Personal Wellness section of the 2007-2008 Inuit Health Survey. Nunavut Tunngavik, Inc., the primary Inuit advocacy organization in Nunavut, was part of the steering committee responsible for designing and implementing the survey in Nunavut’s 25 communities, and was integral to its success. In a sample of 1,710 adults, the survey found:

  • 41 percent of participants indicated that they had experienced severe sexual abuse during childhood, which includes someone threatening to have sex with them, touching the sex parts of their body, trying to have sex with them or sexually attacking them.
  • Women (52 percent) were more likely than men (22 percent) to be survivors of severe sexual abuse during childhood.
  • 50 percent of participants had experienced at least one form of physical abuse as an adult, with women (52 percent) slightly more likely than men (46 percent) to have experienced violence.
  • 18 percent of participants said they had experienced a form of attempted forced sexual activity, with women (27 percent) much more likely than men (5 percent) to have experienced forced or attempted forced sexual activity.

With respect to suicidal ideation, the survey found:

  • 48 percent of survey participants said they had thought seriously about committing suicide in their lifetime, including 14 percent in the last twelve months.
  • 29 percent reported having attempted suicide in their lifetime, including 5 percent in the last twelve months.
  • Of those who had attempted suicide in their lifetime, women (31 percent) were slightly more likely than men (25 percent) to have attempted suicide, as were those under 50 (34 percent).

This is information that Nunavut Tunngavik, Inc. is now able to actively incorporate into its advocacy work, which includes the development of a territory-wide Suicide Prevention Strategy and a Suicide Prevention Action Plan in partnership with the Government of Nunavut, RCMP, and the Nunavut-based Embrace Life Council. This information has helped advocates and policy makers in Nunavut understand suicide as a product of the environment in which it takes place – an environment whose social challenges have, to a large degree, been shaped by colonial federal policies that were similar to those implemented in Alaska, including residential schooling and community re-location.

A 2012 PSA by Nunavut’s Embrace Life Council

The Inuit Health Survey has not led to a perfect understanding of the causes of suicide in Nunavut, but it has helped solidify an understanding among advocates, practitioners and policy makers in Nunavut that suicide in the territory is a symptom of larger social, economic and historical challenges, and that these challenges must be dealt with in addition to suicidal behavior itself. As the territory’s Prevention Strategy and Action Plan state, this calls for inter-agency collaboration by government, and investment in prevention, intervention and post-vention measures. These measures encompass everything from strengthened Inuit-specific mental health services to increasing access to early child develop programs. It will be years and possibly decades before we see the net-effect of this work in Nunavut.

Yet, I think this work represents progress. Progress because suicide and social challenges like child sexual abuse and sexual assault are no longer taboo subjects to the degree that they once were, and are now openly recognized as challenges that are part of the social environment in which suicide takes place. Progress because research about suicide in Nunavut has led to cooperation among territorial stakeholders and a sense of shared responsibility. Progress because this research and these efforts reflect at least the beginning of an understanding of what’s needed to prevent this horrific epidemic from consuming our grandchildren and their children, and that’s certainly something for us to aspire to in Alaska.

Please see the publications page for more literature about this topic.

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Language and sovereignty: Speaking Indigenous sovereignty into existence

Recently, I was in Barrow for an Iñupiaq language systemic planning workshop. My family on my mother’s side is from Deering in Northwest Alaska, and I have only spent any significant amount of time in Kotzebue since we moved away when I was small. A lot of the time I have spent in Kotzebue has been visiting with elders and re-learning Iñupiaq.

I tend to think of the process of learning Iñupiaq as re-learning,  reclaiming or re-awakening something that was temporarily suppressed or sleeping, mainly by teachers and missionaries who until recently, violently suppressed our language and culture.

Uqavut siñiktut. Our tongues are asleep.

So it was exciting to be in Barrow and to meet many of the North Slope elders and leadership, and to speak with people in our common Iñupiaq language. The people living in the North Slope’s eight communities use some different nouns than we do (North Slope: aŋutaiyaaq – boy vs. Northwest: aŋugauraq- boy, for example). There are differences in pronunciation as well that are not large enough to impede communication.

I have attended similar events in the past in the Northwest Arctic and in Nunavut, Canada, and was reminded yet again why Indigenous language re-learning must be prioritized by Indigenous communities, and by the individuals within those communities. Other Alaska Natives, such as Lance Twitchell, have explained why this is true far more eloquently than I can.  Instead, what I would like to do here is expand on what I see as the conventional discussion of language as inseparable from culture, moving in a no less abstract but equally important direction toward language as the living expression of Indigenous sovereignty. I define ‘sovereignty’ loosely as having been achieved when Indigenous peoples have the power to create and control our own reality (political, cultural, intellectual, etc.). My points are bulleted below for clarity.

  •  Indigenous languages are the strongest common cultural denominator tying Indigenous peoples and our allies together. When you speak an Indigenous language like Iñupiaq, it really doesn’t matter much where you’re from or where you are. I am an urban Alaska Native with roots in Northwest Alaska, currently living in the Lower 48. I don’t know how to hunt, nor do I possess any on the land skills or knowledge. Yet my conversational Iñupiaq instantly establishes a common cultural bond between myself and other Iñupiaq language speakers, no matter how different we may be in other ways, and no matter how many years may be between us. I experienced this in Barrow when Rachel Riley, an elder from Anaktuuvak pass and I, were having a conversation in Iñupiaq about her experiences growing up on the land, moving into a permanently settled community for the first time (they were nomadic), and then being forced to attend boarding school at Wrangell Institute for three years. She told me about how sad that experience was. I don’t think she would have shared this with me if I had approached her and begun our conversation in English, a foreign language – the language forced upon her and other elders of her generation by schools at places like Wrangell. In order to give you a better idea of what I mean by language being able to establish a cultural connection between people, no matter where they come from, watch Laren Thomas, a non-Native teacher working in Chevak, practice his Yup’ik with Ossie Kairaiuak:

When we speak Indigenous languages, we are actually exercising intellectual self-determination, sovereignty, etc., and getting back to the spiritual and cultural essence of ourselves or a part of ourselves. This is liberating, because we are liberating ourselves through the process of reclaiming something that has in many cases been taken away. It is also healing, because we are finally able to speak a reality and a part of ourselves into existence that has in many cases been suppressed for generations. Language is also one of the mediums through which we participate in reality, and the medium of English is a different kind or shade of reality than the reality we participate in through the mediums of Gwich’in, Yugtun or Iñupiaq. The imposition of English through schooling was the tactic that the U.S. government used to impose the language medium through which most Alaska Native people today interpret reality, as the first and most important step on the road to assimilation into the dominating society. Sovereignty or self-determination means the right to decide, and so reasserting control of the medium through which we interpret reality from an Indigenous standpoint is an important step in this process.

The marathon work of cultural and political self-determination or sovereignty is meaningless and hollow without first liberating our minds through a process of reclaiming the essence of our culture and identity. I am often frustrated by Indigenous folk who place the highest priority on achieving or protecting what they perceive to be political sovereignty as a long-term goal for their peoples, without acknowledging the need for intellectual sovereignty right now, which can be achieved relatively cheaply and easily through language reclamation. I see how the two can go hand in hand, with political sovereignty possibly entailing tribal self-determination over schooling and other institutions. But in light of the fact that these institutions are more often than not (as Lance points out in the piece I linked to above) imposed, colonial models or structures anyway, it seems to me that intellectual sovereignty through language reclamation should be prioritized above all.

  • Having a distinct language is one of the definitions of nationhood, and languages cannot be taken away. Languages can potentially be beaten out of our people, as some tragically have, but language isn’t a kind of goods, or a cash dependent government structure tied to policy or funding. Language is a spiritual and intellectual essence, and it can permanently bond people together no matter where they are in the world. Some elders in Barrow noted hearing Filipino parents in Barrow stores speaking to their children in Tagalog. The same can apply to Iñupiat with small children living in Anchorage or Fairbanks.
  • Our languages are reflective of the lands and environments from which they emerge, and the type of cultures that use them. This doesn’t mean they are not adaptable or static, but that by speaking our languages we are speaking our connection to our lands, and speaking and experiencing our relationship to where we come from no matter where we may be. To give you an idea of an Indigenous language being used in a contemporary setting, please take a look at the Qanorooq news program from Greenland:

When we think about Indigenous communities – or at least groups of people or entities within those communities – engaged in the struggle for self-determination and sovereignty, there is often an emphasis on gaining or re-gaining control over the institutions (schools, economies, religious practices, tribal, local or regional governments, etc.) that help make it possible for Indigenous communities and peoples to create their own reality and self-determine their own futures. I have shown that the pragmatic, first step in this struggle must be a reassertion of control over our own minds through language. This doesn’t have to come at the expense of the opportunities that are associated with English, like college, graduate training or employment, but just the opposite.

The actual activity of learning a language is complicated, and is a separate topic from this one, as are the latent power dynamics imbedded within languages and the choices we make about language use. I will further explore these topics in later posts.

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Book Review: Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization by Robert A. Williams

In Robert A. Williams’ new book, Savage Anxieties (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), the legal scholar traces the origins of the trope of Indigenous peoples as subhuman and savage, drawing on examples from Greek antiquity to the present and everything in between. Williams is covering broad ground here, and his analysis is cutting and relevant. Williams argues that understanding the origins of the idea of the savage and the permutations of this idea in every sector of society is necessary to decoding and resisting decisions made about Indigenous and other non-Western peoples made from this racist perspective.

I was introduced to Williams’ Like a Loaded Weapon (University of Minnesota Press, 2005) by a fellow Alaska Native in college. Like a Loaded Weapon critically analyzes the origins of the trope of American Indian and Alaska Native peoples as subhuman and savage in landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases, and the ways this trope is evoked to impede tribal sovereignty. In that book, Williams shows how the ‘Marshall Trilogy’ of Supreme Court cases (Johnson v. M’Intosh, 1823, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 1831, Worcester v. Georgia, 1832) establishing the legal basis for the political relationship between sovereign American Indian tribes and the U.S. federal government are saturated with racist language and attitudes about American Indians as savage and subhuman. Because the racist language of Indian savagery is enshrined within the earliest legal precedent shaping the political relationship between tribes and the U.S., Williams argues, “a long legacy of hostile, romanticized, and incongruously imagined stereotypes of Indians as incommensurable savages continues to shape the way the justices view and understand the legal history, and therefore the legal rights, of Indian tribes.”

Savage Anxieties expands this analysis of the savage Indian trope to encompass Greek mythology, Western philosophy, the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and contemporary pop culture. Williams shows how imbedded in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are representations of non-Western peoples and beings as terrifyingly alien, inherently savage and hostile, and therefore worthy of conquest and colonization. Williams goes on to illustrate how “Julius Caesar, Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and the United States Supreme Court have all described non-Westernized tribal peoples according to the same basic set of cultural markers, stereotypes, and identifying categories that Homer first introduced to Western civilization nearly three thousand years ago in his mythical tale of the one-eyed Cyclops monster.” But Williams is at his best when he turns his gaze to current events, surgically uncovering the ways that a language of tribal savagery and alienness remain ubiquitous in the news media and popular culture.

“Think of all the different ways that twenty-first century politicians, military generals, and talking heads on cable news programs use a language of savagery in describing the West’s violent, dangerously opposed enemies in the “primitive” mountain ranges and “tribally controlled” territories of Afghanistan or Pakistan. People over there are stuck in the “Stone Age”; they are possessed of a “medieval” mentality.”     Telling the story of the emergence of this trope is important because the popular stereotype about Indigenous peoples as savage and subhuman continues to shape our reality.”

Savage Anxieties is a useful tool that Indigenous peoples and allies can use to recognize and work to dismantle stereotypes about Indigenous peoples as inherently savage and backward when they surface, as well as the political purposes these stereotypes and assumptions have served. More often than not, these stereotypes and assumptions about Indigenous peoples as inherently savage and inferior are disguised by “good intentions.” We can use the book and its coherent narrative about how Western society continues to frame Indigenous peoples as savage, for example, to better understand and resist the racist attitudes, stereotypes and assumptions about Indigenous peoples as inherenlty savage and incapable that are motivating education policies that seek to mold Inuit high school students into miners rather than college students; or the racist language of savagery used recently by the American Freedom Defense Initiative in their recent, hateful subway ad that seeks to drum up support for Israel by calling Arabs savages and Israelis and the West “civilized.”

The marathon work of deconstructing the political, legal and social realities for Indigenous peoples that are informed by racist language, stereotypes and assumptions about indigenous peoples as savage and backward begins with changing the colonizing language that is its offspring. In a beautifully written op-ed for Indian Country Today, legal scholar Steven Newcombe describes this work eloquently: “We take a significant step toward decolonizing our minds when we awaken to the nature of language, and the fact that a shift in language creates a shift in reality. For example, a shift from the terminology of “tribes” to the terminology of “nations” results in a shift from the reality of tribes to the reality of nations. We need to be able to engage in mental decolonization, but we first of all need the desire to decolonize ourselves, and the discipline to do so.”

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