The U.S. Department of Justice published a report last week that is highly critical of the State of Alaska’s treatment of Alaska Natives and calls on state and federal governments to do much more for the children of First Peoples.
Titled “Ending Violence so Children Can Thrive,” the report was written by the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on American Indian/Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence. Among the 11 members of the Advisory Committee is Valerie “Nurr’araaluk” Davidson, a Yup’ik woman who served as Senior Director of Legal and Intergovernmental Affairs for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, currently a Trustee of the First Alaskans Institute, and newly minted head of the Department of Health and Social Services under Governor Walker.
A 2012 report by the National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence recommended that a separate task force be created to “examine the unique needs” of First Peoples youth exposed to violence.
From the introductory letter written by Advisory Committee Co-chairs, retired Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) and Joanne Shenandoah:
Today, a vast majority of American Indian and Alaska Native children live in communities with alarmingly high rates of poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide, and victimization. Domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse are widespread. Continual exposure to violence has a devastating impact on child development and can have a lasting impact on basic cognitive, emotional, and neurological functions. We cannot stand by and watch these children — who are the future of American Indian and Alaska Native communities—destroyed by relentless violence and trauma. This Advisory Committee was charged by U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. with examining these issues and making recommendations for change that will heal and protect American Indian and Alaska Native children and foster environments in which they can thrive and develop to their full potential.
The Advisory Committee held four public hearings prior to the report, including a two-day hearing in Anchorage in June that drew 43 witnesses. It also held listening sessions in Bethel, Napaskiak, and Emmonak.
Roots of Violence
The report acknowledges the devastating impact of “destructive federal policies intended to assimilate Indian people into the American way of life. These federal policies included forced relocation, forced removal of their children to be educated in boarding schools, and prohibition of spiritual and cultural practices.”
Hundreds of years of these policies have resulted in a “soul wound” for First Peoples, the report says, going on to define a mass historical trauma:
a cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the life span and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma. [American Indian/Alaska Native] people have, for more than five hundred years, endured physical, emotional, social, and spiritual genocide from European and American colonialist policy. This is a direct attack on the cultural fabric of a people and an assault on the essence of a community that has a lasting impact on an individual’s psyche, spiritual/ emotional core, and well-being.
In addition to historical trauma, children of Native descent are also more likely to be victims of another kind of violence: poverty. According to the report, “Children living in poverty are far more likely to be exposed to violence and psychological trauma, both at home and in the surrounding community.”
People who experience multiple types of violence are called “polyvictims.” “Polyvictimized children are at high risk for losing the fundamental capacities they need to develop normally and to become successful learners and productive adults,” the report reads. Their risk of mental health disorders or post-traumatic injury is two- to ten times higher.
Indeed, the report cited a study from “A Roadmap for Making Native America Safer” that Native children experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at the same rate as Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans- 22 percent, triple the general population.
Violence Begets Violence
Alaska Natives are five times more likely to be exposed to four or more adverse childhood events, according to the report. And the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study it cites found that children exposed to four or more adverse events had increased risk of alcoholism, drug use, depression, and suicide attempt four- to twelve
times that of those exposed to none.
More sobering statistics:
The suicide rate among Alaska Natives is almost four times the U.S. general population rate, and is at least six times the national average in some parts of the state. Thirteen percent of the suicides in Alaska are child suicides. Nearly 40 percent of these child suicides are Alaska Native children. The alcohol-related suicide rate in remote Alaska villages is six times the average in the United States and the alcohol-related mortality rate is 3.5 times that of the general population of the United States.
Nationwide, “suicide was the second leading cause of death for Native Americans ages ten to twenty-five” in 2005, the report reads. Violent acts account for 75 percent of deaths for First Peoples age 12 to 20.
In addition to homicides and suicides, the report says, “Alaska’s child sexual assault rate is six times the national average, and Alaska Native children experience this trauma disproportionately to the rest of the state.”
“I’m not confident I would be able to identify even one [Alaska] Native person who has not experienced or witnessed physical violence, or worse, as a child,” Andy Teuber testified to the Task Force on American Indian/Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence in June. Teuber is Chair of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.
Families Ill-Equipped to Cope
Generations of violence have left Alaska Native families ill-equipped to cope with the variety of traumas in their histories. The result is the feedback loop of violence revealed in the statistics.
In June, Elsie Boudreau, Director of the Alaska Native Unit within Alaska CARES, testified before the Task Force in Anchorage, “Not only are we seeing children who are currently being abused, but we are seeing children whose parents and grandparents were victims of sexual abuse and familial abuse. The cycle continues and we are witnessing the generations of trauma every day in the eyes of our youngest and most precious resource, our children.”
One of the coping mechanisms Alaska Natives may employ to deal with multiple traumas is the abuse of drugs and alcohol, the report suggests. However, it continues, “without treatment to heal from the underlying traumas, alcohol and drug abuse treatment may be ineffective.”
Treatment programs should be “trauma-informed holistic.” Otherwise, the report says, these programs will be little more than victim blaming.
The Advisory Committee notes that existing substance abuse and mental health treatment centers are too far removed from most Alaska Native communities. Of the 76 centers in Alaska, the vast majority are in Southcentral or Southeast.
In her testimony before the Task Force in Anchorage, Executive Vice-President of Kawerak, Mary David, explained, “Clients with substance use treatment needs are required to leave their homes, leave their communities, leave their families to receive treatment outside, with very different cultural programming. This out of context approach to treatment without family and community support has been found to be greatly unsuccessful.”
The report includes many broad policy recommendations. For new families, it recommends that government agencies, like the Indian Health Service (IHS),
provide culturally appropriate education and skills training for parents, foster parents, and caregivers of [American Indian/Alaska Native] children. Due to the prevalence of violence in [American Indian/Alaska Native] homes and communities and the influence of historical trauma, many [American Indian/Alaska Native] parents, foster parents, and prospective parents may need help developing traditional parenting skills. Caregivers may have experienced trauma as children or may continue to be victims of violence in their homes. Assistance for families experiencing violence or at risk for violence is most accessible when it is brought directly into the home.