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Summary: first report of the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council

Background

This post summarizes the first report of the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council in order to give readers an overview of the findings and recommendations made by this newly established body. The Council’s recommendations bulleted below are paraphrased summaries – not the verbatim recommendations made by the Council.

In May 2012, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell signed Senate Bill 130 into law, establishing the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council. The Council’s seven members were appointed by Gov. Parnell five months later. Council members serve three year terms. Council members are as follows:

  • Alaska State Senator Donald Olson (Inupiaq) of Golovin
  • Alaska State Representative Benjamin Nageak (Iñupiaq) of Barrow
  • Annette Evans Smith (Council Chair – Athabaskan, Yup’ik and Alutiiq) of the Alaska Native Heritage Center
  • April Laktonen-Counceller (Vice Chair – Alutiiq) of Kodiak College
  • Delores Churchill (Haida) of the University of Alaska Southeast
  • Yaayuk Alvanna-Stimfle (Inupiaq) of the Kawerak Eskimo Heritage Program
  • Walkie Charles (Yup’ik) of the Alaska Native Language Center at UAF

The purpose of the Council is to “recommend the establishment or reorganization of programs to support the preservation, restoration, and revitalization of Alaska Native languages” by advising the governor and legislature on programs, policies, and projects to provide for the “cost-effective preservation, restoration, and revitalization of Alaska Native languages in the state” (p. 4).

The Council published its first report (which you can find here) to the governor and legislature last week, which it is required to do every two years. The report provides a general overview of Alaska Native language status and revitalization efforts, and includes five policy recommendations to the governor and legislature. A summary of the report’s recommendations and findings are bulleted below.

The Council has met 11 times since members were appointed in October 2012. Council members developed a strategic plan in early 2014 that focuses on: 1) funded educational opportunities, 2) research, 3) planning to implement recommendations, 4) work with partners, and 5) ensure sustainability of the Council.

Council members have begun forming partnerships across the state, including with the Alaska Native Language Center and Alaska Native Heritage Center. It has carried out education and outreach at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention and First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference. The Council has also met with other language stakeholder organizations such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

The Council carried out a 33 question online survey between 2013 and 2014, completed by 131 participants representing 65 communities. 90 percent of respondents said they want to learn an Alaska Native language, 80 percent of parents would enroll their kids in a language program and 97 percent of parents would participate in a language program with their children. 85 percent of survey participants know someone who wants to learn to speak, read and/or write an Alaska Native language. Only 50 percent indicated that there is a language program in their community.

Recommendations

  • The Council found research data on Alaska Native language status lacking or outdated, hindering “the formation of innovative solutions to Alaska Native language loss” (p. 10). Policy makers and leaders in Alaska need up-to-date data on language status, speaker numbers, and effective policies and programs. Alaska Native community members also need more information about learning opportunities in their own and other regions of the state.

    Recommendation 1: The Council wants a legislative grant it can use to conduct a comprehensive update of speaker numbers and language status around the state, citing the fact that the Council is working with outdated fluent speaker counts. Council members also want to use this grant to expand and continue research on existing and effective language programs in Alaska which along with Alaska Native Language Center research will be added to an online, comprehensive database.

  • Many Alaska Natives who wish to learn or teach their languages are not aware of learning opportunities or resources through which to do so. These communication and information gaps should be addressed through a concerted statewide effort.

    Recommendation 2: the Council recommends a two-year, public information awareness campaign modeled on Gov. Parnell’s controversial “Choose Respect,” anti-domestic violence campaign. The purpose of the public information awareness campaign would be to “utilize paid and no-cost efforts to share information with the public about the importance of Alaska Native language learning and revitalization” (p. 11). Phase 1 of the campaign would involve Council staff researching, surveying and determining public perceptions and information needs regarding Native language revitalization, restoration and preservation. Phase 2 would identify the campaign’s target audiences in order to “increase awareness of the Council and Alaska Native language programs, increase the desire to learn an Alaska Native language, build partnerships, and facilitate information sharing for the community online database” (p. 12). The Council would later “determine if the information campaign was successful in reaching the intended target audience, key messages understood and feedback provided.”

  • The Council observed that there is no central clearinghouse of information for policy makers, leaders, organizations, or learners to access information about language learning programs, hindering information-sharing and collaboration throughout the state. The Council found vast program differences between regions and few opportunities for inter-Alaska Native collaboration on language issues.

    Recommendation 3: The Council recommends funding for sponsorship of a statewide language summit at the Alaska Native Heritage Center; it also recommends funding to expand the Division of Community and Regional Affairs’ Community Database Online to include information about Alaska Native language statistical information and programs. The purpose of the summit would be to “allow individual regions a greater level of agency to enact region-specific language planning efforts” through information sharing about success stories (p. 15). The Council believes that such collaboration “will encourage communities to take a  leadership role in the activities and initiatives that work best for their location” (p. 15). The purpose of the Community Database would be to “serve as an information clearinghouse for information on regional language statistics, speakers, programs, learning materials, and funding” (p. 16). The website would allow users to submit additional information about their own programs and community efforts as well as to access language learning resources.

  • The Council found large discrepancies between existing language education policy and actual language learning opportunities in schools, as well as variance in resources allocation and access to learning opportunities across the state. The Council cites AS 14.30.420 as its primary example, a state statute from 2000 that “mandates that school districts with a majority of students who are Alaska Native shall establish a local Native language curriculum advisory board” to direct district language initiatives (p. 20).
  • Of the 54 school districts in Alaska, 28 school districts are majority Alaska Native yet only five are in compliance with this statute.
  • The Council also heard testimony about the lack of sufficient funds to support language education in schools and the corresponding need for families, schools, and communities to collaborate to achieve quality language instruction. Survey respondents expressed concern that parents and schools were not providing enough educational opportunities or tools to teach younger generations to learn Alaska Native languages (p. 18).  The Council also cited challenges related to teacher certification given that the majority of fluent speakers are elders.

    Recommendation 4: The Council recommends expansion of Alaska Statute 14.30.420. It wishes to research the statutory threshold of requiring individual, majority Alaska Native schools to comply with the law because there are often majority Native schools within majority white school districts. This would “increase the number of schools that benefit from having a Native language advisory board, and potentially, a Native language curriculum” as required by AS. 14.30.420. The Council also intends to help bring more school districts into compliance with the statute by working with the Alaska Department of Education and state policy makers to educate districts about the statute.

  • The Council found that language speakers’ traumatic experiences with assimilatory policies and language shaming continue to be a barrier to language revitalization. There is a “need for open dialogue and reconciliation within communities and at all levels of the state” (p. 23). Because of the role that governments and policy makers have played in language erosion, “it is reasonable to expect that policy makers participate in the creation of an environment conducive to reconciliation” (p. 24).

    Recommendation 5: The Council recommends the establishment of an annual state holiday, Alaska Native Languages Day, on April 21 (the anniversary of HB 216, the April 2014 bill that symbolically elevates Alaska Native languages to official languages alongside English). The Council also recommends that communities and regions work with the Alaska Historical Commission to collaborate on increasing the number of official Alaska Native language place names approved by the U.S. Geological Survey. Finally, the Council commits itself to continue to hear and record testimony at public events as a way of spreading awareness about the history of language suppression and to promote healing.

Conclusion

The Council believes that despite rapid, ongoing Alaska Native language shift, “well-planned and well-implemented language programs can reverse the trend” (p. 25). Council members believe that their recommendations, if enacted, “would improve the feasibility of future efforts for language revitalization in our state” and “aid policy makers, regions, communities, and families in their interconnected efforts” by “fostering an environment conducive to language use and revitalization throughout communities” (p. 26).

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Groundbreaking Supreme Court of Canada ruling recognizes legitimacy of Aboriginal title

In an historic first today, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favor of the Tsilhqot’in First Nation’s Aboriginal title claim to 1,750 square kilometres (1,087 square miles) of territory in interior British Columbia. The unanimous ruling sets a new legal precedent in Canada, where the Supreme Court has never granted a declaration of Aboriginal title to a First Nation until today.

From APTN:

The Supreme Court found that British Columbia breached its fiduciary duty to consult with the Tsilhqot’in and that it had no economic justification for issuing logging permits in the claimed territory, which sparked the over two-decade battle. The province was argued that it stood to benefit economically from logging in the claimed area and also that it needed to stop the spread of a mountain pine beetle infestation.

Aboriginal title can be  loosely understood as a form of land title based on historic use and occupancy. In this ruling the Supreme Court is recognizing pre-contact Tsilhqot’in land use and occupancy as a legitimate basis for contemporary land ownership.

“The doctrine of terra nullius [that no one owned the land prior to European assertion of sovereignty] never applied in Canada,” the court states in its 8-0 ruling.

Aboriginal title is what was legally extinguished in Alaska by the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in exchange for a land settlement and cash. The same is true of the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. Legally extinguishing a people’s Aboriginal title erases any future legal claim to land based on historic land use and occupancy.

The ruling will give the Tsilhqot’in and other First Nations whose Aboriginal title has not been legally extinguished important legal leverage from which to negotiate with encroaching extractive industries. This seems to have been a major impetus for the ruling.

From the Globe and Mail:

The Supreme Court elaborated in some detail on how government, resource companies and aboriginal communities with title claims could try to work things out in the new era of aboriginal title. It said government needs a compelling purpose to intrude, and its purpose must be considered from the aboriginal perspective, not just that of the wider public. Ultimately, intrusions will be judged on how they serve reconciliation between aboriginal peoples and the wider population.

At a 1969 hearing, the Iñupiaq leader Eben Hopson pointed out the absurdity of Indigenous peoples having to bear the burden of proving, to colonial regimes and courts, that we have title to our lands based on historic use and occupancy.

Mr. Chairman, when we were in Washington four months ago you asked us to answer a number of questions, one of these related to “unproven aboriginal title”. In the first instance, the words unproven aboriginal title is a misconception. There is no such a thing as unproven aboriginal title. The mere fact that you say “aboriginal” implies that someone was there before you were. 

Nevertheless, it is an important day for Canada. Congratulations to our Aboriginal Canadian friends.

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Food Security in the North pt. 2: how to win the subsistence debate

Last year I wrote a post about food security in Inuit Nunangat, focusing on the Kuskokwim king salmon closure in Southwest Alaska by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 60 Yup’ik fishermen faced misdemeanor charges for fishing in defiance of the closure. In May 2013, 25 defendants made a religious argument to justify their actions in an Alaska State District Court, arguing that fishing for king salmon “is inextricably linked to the spiritual core of the Yup’ik people who inhabit the region.” Not surprisingly, the the judge ruled in favor of a compelling state interest to ensure continued king salmon runs, trumping the religious argument.

Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska, June 2013

Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska, June 2013

This case is the latest high-profile iteration of the subsistence debate that’s been raging off and on in Alaska for the last several decades. This is because in Alaska, country food harvesting is governed by state and federal regulations rather than local indigenous management regimes. With the exception of marine mammal hunting, non-Natives generally have the same right of access to fish and game as Natives. This means that a non-Native from Anchorage visiting the Northwest Arctic to hunt caribou – with the proper permits and tags – has the same right of access as an Iñupiaq whose family’s food security may depend on a good caribou harvest in any given year.

Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska, June 2013

Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska, June 2013

This system contrasts with fish and game management in Nunavut, Canada, where Inuit self-manage country food harvests (including the setting and enforcing of animal harvest quotas) through community-based Hunting and Trapping Organizations and are not required to buy permits.

Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska, June 2013

Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska, June 2013

The top-down system of federal and state management of country food harvesting in Alaska is supposed to ensure equal access to resources under the state Constitution for all Alaskans – regardless of race – but it ignores the fact that many Alaska Native families are starting from an unequal place when it comes to quality of education, income and cost of living.

Yet for decades, Alaska Native peoples have failed to adequately make this case in the fight for self-regulation of country food harvesting. In the past, the Alaska Federation of Natives has pushed for an amendment to the Constitution recognizing some form of Alaska Native preference when it comes to accessing fish and game on state lands. But these efforts have failed, in part, because arguments justifying supposedly preferential treatment of Alaska Natives have largely focused on cultural differences rather than more palpable differences in social and economic circumstance.

The Kuskokwim closure religious defense represents a continuation of this strategy, which rests on the assumption that the dominating non-Native society is at least sympathetic to, if not capable of empathizing with the cultural and historical significance of Native self-management.

Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska, June 2013

Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska, June 2013

These concepts are too abstract for many non-Natives to grasp for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into here, which makes gaining statewide support difficult if not impossible. I propose an advocacy approach for self-management and a Constitutional amendment that instead focuses exclusively on food security and economics.

The food security status of Alaska Natives is a gaping hole in this ongoing debate. This is because there are hardly any data about the food security status of Alaska Native peoples as a whole, never mind specific regions like the Southwest and the Northwest Arctic where food prices are highest and educational attainment and median household incomes lowest.

Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska, June 2013

Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska, June 2013

Data from Nunavut and other parts of Canada where social and economic conditions are similar to certain regions of Alaska show us that these and other factors are a recipe for food insecure households.

The World Health Organization defines food security as “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”.

Source: Tarasuk, V, Mitchell, A, Dachner, N. Research to identify policy options to reduce food  insecurity (PROOF). (2013). Household food insecurity in Canada 2011. Retrieved from  http://nutritionalsciences.lamp.utoronto.ca/.

Source: Tarasuk, V, Mitchell, A, Dachner, N. Research to identify policy options to reduce food
insecurity (PROOF). (2013). Household food insecurity in Canada 2011. Retrieved from
http://nutritionalsciences.lamp.utoronto.ca/.

Data about Inuit and indigenous food security in Canada has garnered international attention, and forced political leaders at the federal and territorial levels to address the high cost of living in the North, as well as the myriad factors that contribute to poverty and food insecure households.

In Alaska, I suspect that food insecurity is highest in Southwest and Northwest Alaska – incidentally the two regions that harvest the largest share of country foods. In these regions, the cost of energy and store bought foods is highest, and educational attainment and median household incomes are lowest.

For example, the median household income in the Northwest Arctic Borough is $59,893 compared to $69,014 for the state as a whole – a difference of nearly $10,000. And in the Arctic, nearly twice as many people live in poverty (about 20% of the region’s population). As the pictures I’ve posted from Kotzebue (the region’s largest and most inexpensive community) testify, the cost of living in the Northwest Arctic is staggering.

Gathering food security data from these and other regions would show that many Alaska Native communities depend on country foods  in order to access “sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” Food security data would reveal that without country foods, life in rural Alaska would be economically impossible for many, and that for most families traditional foods are a cheaper, more nutritious alternative to processed store-bought foods.

Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska, June 2013

Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska, June 2013

Food security data would give the Alaska Native community a stronger platform from which to negotiate enshrining self-management of fish and game or at least an Alaska Native harvesting preference in the state Constitution. This information would be most useful in cases similar to the 2012 Kuskokwim subsistence closure, where the state showed its ineptitude at managing king salmon runs and forced many Yupiit families to carry the economic burden of that mismanagement. Instead of abstract cultural arguments, such data could be used to emphasize the need for Alaska Native self-management and/or priority harvesting in order to ensure that families have access to an adequate supply of food.

Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska, June 2013

Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska, June 2013

Such a move could easily be justified as a public health measure and would be far less politically controversial than religious or cultural arguments. The case could then be made that in the long-run, Alaska Native self-management of fish and game harvests increase economic self-reliance and decrease dependence on so-called “entitlements.”  This message would appeal to Alaska’s Republican majority. 

This change of strategy needs to come from the Alaska Federation of Natives, the state’s largest Alaska Native advocacy organization, and other Alaska Native advocacy organizations capable of leveraging research on this and other issues. For decades, Alaska Native organizations’ strategy on achieving greater Alaska Native autonomy over country food harvesting has not changed, and has not worked.

The way arguments are framed matters. Food security, human rights and public health are politically more difficult to deny than abstract religious or cultural rights. This is why Alaska Native organizations need to take the lead in researching and documenting the food security status of Alaska Native communities.

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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.
Screen shot 2013-08-03 at 11.10.13 PM

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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