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Alaska Natives

Abstract and Keywords

Alaska Natives represent less than 1% of the U.S. population but reside in more than 229 Native villages and account for 40% of federally recognized tribes. Most Alaska Native communities shared common Euro-American contact experiences: exposure to western religions, education, and disease. Historical trauma contributes to many of the social welfare problems Natives experience today: low educational attainment, unemployment, inadequate health care, substance abuse, and violence. Service delivery mechanisms, lack of cultural appropriateness, and isolation compound these pressing issues. Locally delivered social welfare services that take into account traditional Native worldviews, values, languages, and intergenerational relationships are effective in addressing many of these issues.

Keywords: culture, diversity, government, historical trauma, land, rural, subsistence

Overview of Alaska Native Populations in the United States

The 2000 Census reported 120,766 self-identified Alaska Natives (0.04% of the total U.S. population). This number represents a doubling of the Alaska Native population since 1970. Of the 117,950 Alaska Natives who reside in the state of Alaska, 63,758 (54%) live in Alaska Native villages. A full 23% of the total in-state Native population (27,613) resides in Anchorage. Alaska Natives represent almost 20% of the population of the state of Alaska, a higher percentage of American Indian/Alaska Native population than any other state in the United States.

The cultural diversity of Alaska Natives can be highlighted by five distinct cultural groups: (a) Athabascan, (b) Aleut and Alutiiq, (c) Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, (d) Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yupik, and (e) Yup'ik and Cup'ik. Within these cultural groups are 229 federally recognized sovereign Alaska Native tribes. Alaska Native tribes account for almost 40% of the federally recognized tribes in the United States.

Alaska Natives, while similar to American Indians in many ways, had different federal policy experiences than American Indian tribes. To begin, outside contact with Alaska Natives was more recent, with Alaska not officially being “discovered” in the name of Russia until the mid-1700s. Comparatively speaking, Alaska Natives experienced less armed conflict with Euro-Americans than Native groups in the continental United States. The federal government did not become substantially involved in Alaska until 1931, when it began to provide varied services including health care, education, economic development, and welfare assistance. In 1971, with pressure to settle Native land claims and take advantage of tremendous economic opportunities to extract newly discovered oil, Congress enacted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. This unique land settlement and the institutions it created have major implications for the delivery of human services in Alaska.

Specific Issues and Suggestions for Social Work Policy and Practice

Most Alaska Native communities shared some common Euro-American contact experiences: the imposition of Christian religions that were in conflict with Native religions; western education and boarding schools; massive epidemics of influenza and other diseases that caused the deaths of thousands of Natives, who had no immunity to bacteria and viruses brought into their communities by outsiders; and rapidly changing ways of life as growing numbers of Natives adopted nontraditional ways.

Many of the pressing present-day social issues facing Alaska Natives can be traced to the devastating effects of Euro-American contact and the rapid pace of socioeconomic change in even remote Native villages. Increasingly Alaska Natives have cited historical (or intergenerational) trauma and its effects on Native people as contributors to the social welfare problems they experience: low rates of educational attainment, low labor force participation, poor health care (including behavioral health), substance abuse, and violence.

Since 1986, Alaska Natives have been educated in state-run primary and secondary schools. The 2000 Census reported that 25% of Alaska Natives 25 and older have less than a high-school degree; 39% are high-school graduates; 28% have some college or an associate's degree. Many Alaska Natives and Native organizations cite an ineffective school system, inappropriate curriculum, and the difficulty of integrating traditional Native education, including subsistence practices, as among the most serious problems facing young Alaska Natives. Lack of educational achievement and few economic opportunities in Native villages, where half the Native population resides, result in lower labor force participation rates and disproportionate poverty rates. Mixed (cash and subsistence) village economies and limited mainstream economic opportunities yield an Alaska Native poverty rate 150% higher than that of the total U.S. population, with 19.5% of the Alaska Native population living in poverty.

Due to inadequate funding, many basic health care services, including preventative care, behavioral health, and contract services that cannot be provided in the villages are inaccessible. Likely related to the experience of historical trauma and the unavailability of effective, culturally appropriate behavioral health services, Alaska Natives disproportionately experience high rates of alcoholism, substance abuse, and violence, including: homicide, suicide, domestic violence, and accidents.

Underlying these social challenges is the reality that the last two decades have been periods of rapid change—technologically, economically, and culturally. With many remote villages having at least some access to satellite television and the Internet, Native elders and community leaders worry about the coming generations and the potential for loss of connection to culture and community, including a loss of identity and confusion of youth about their role in the community.

A variety of service delivery factors, including varying delivery mechanisms, distance and isolation, and cultural appropriateness, contribute to these pressing issues. First, various types of human services are offered by different providers in different locations, according to varying eligibility criteria. In some cases, Native village governments may provide services (for example, child welfare programs), while related child protection services are provided by the state, and regional Native nonprofits provide still other family support services. Coordinating this patchwork of services is critical, and Native families may require assistance in navigating multiple service delivery systems to access the services they need.

The sheer land mass (533,000 square miles) and topography of Alaska also provide serious service delivery challenges. Road systems do not connect many of the villages, and travel frequently requires bush plane, boat, or snow machine.

Added to the variation in service providers/delivery mechanisms and distance is Alaska Native mobility between remote and hub villages, as well as to and from cities. Balancing traditional subsistence practices, economic opportunity, and extended family support networks necessitates a great deal of mobility. Coordinating services in different places with different providers can be daunting, but social workers can provide much needed assistance in integrating services as seamlessly as possible to ensure continuity of support.

Finally, the importance of culturally appropriate services cannot be overemphasized. The 2000 Census revealed that in 30% of Native households, a non-English language is the primary language spoken in the home. Services for Alaska Native families should take into account traditional Native worldviews, philosophies, values, languages, and intergenerational relationships; they should acknowledge the devastation of historical trauma. Case management and services should give opportunity and space for families to tell their stories, participate in cultural practices and ceremonies, and build or reinforce family and community relationships.

Further Reading

Case, D. S., & Voluck, D. A. (2002). Alaska Natives and American laws (2nd ed.). Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.Find this resource:

    Cornell, S., & Kalt, J. P. (2003). Alaska Native self-government and service delivery: What works? Cambridge, MA: Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.Find this resource:

      Huntington, S., & Rearden, J. (1993). Shadows on the Koyukuk: An Alaska Native's life along the river. Portland, OR: Alaska Northwest Books.Find this resource:

        Langdon, S. J. (2002). Native peoples of Alaska (4th ed.). Homer, AK: Wizard Works.Find this resource:

          Mayo, W. (2002). Introduction: Anchoring values. Alaska Native ways: What the elders have taught us. Portland, OR: Graphic Arts Publishing Company.Find this resource:

            Napoleon, H., & Madsen, E. C. (1991). Yuuyaraq: The way of the human being. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Fairbanks, Center for Cross-Cultural Studies.Find this resource:

              National Congress of American Indians. (2003). An introduction to Indian Nations in the United States (3rd ed., expanded). Washington, DC: Author.Find this resource:

                Ogunwole, S. M. (2002). The American Indian and Alaska Native population: 2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, Census Bureau.Find this resource:

                  Ogunwole, S. M. (2006, February). We the people: American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, Census Bureau.Find this resource:

                    Olesksa, F. M. (2005). Another culture/Another world. Juneau: Association of Alaska School Boards.Find this resource:

                      Tiller, V. E. (2005). Tiller's guide to Indian Country: Economic profiles of American Indian reservations (2nd ed.). Albuquerque, NM: BowArrow Publishing Company.Find this resource:

                        Utter, J. (2001). American Indians: Answers to today's questions (2nd ed.). Lake Ann, MI: Woodlands Publishing.Find this resource:

                          Wallis, V. (2002). Raising ourselves: A Gwich'in coming of age story from the Yukon River. Kenmore, WA: Epicenter Press.Find this resource:

                            Alaska Inter-Tribal Council.

                            Alaska Federation of Natives.

                            Alaska Native Heritage Center, Information about Alaska Native Cultures.

                            Alaska Native Knowledge Network.

                            Alaska Native Language Center.

                            First Alaskans Institute.

                            U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. American Indian/Alaska Native Data, 2000.