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A Call to Action

Written by Ray Dewilde

While this article is meant to deal with social issues within small communities it can be applied to individual and relational changes as well. In communities that are facing social issues such as high rates of addiction, sexual or relational violence or corruption or inaction at the leadership level, change will only take place if the community can halt the ongoing trauma of the issues they face. Presently in many small communities, especially in remote native communities such as villages in Alaska there is a lack of law enforcement, resistance to contacting what little law enforcement agencies there are and an overall lack of interest on the part of the State troopers in working with the communities in facing their social issues. There are many factors that play into the overall lack of social control in these communities. the cost of law enforcement is very high, life in the villages is harsh and does not lend itself to attracting many applicants, distance between the villages and the courts and other infrastructure of social control such as treatment centers, social programs that provide preventative services and the lack of mental health care are only a few of these factors. Perhaps greatest of all is the fact that village life and close family ties create barriers to contacting these services.


These Cultural and environmental differences play a great role in the overall failure of all western programs in countering social issues or opposing those who create these social issues. I hope to look at how the villages can turn these weaknesses and obstacles into strength through a return to culturally appropriate policies and interventions. A thorough study of how and why our present social control measures have so fundamentally failed our people well shed some light on how we can work within our own culture to start to effectively oppose and help those who choose to harm our people.


The first factor we must face is the vast differences between western and Native culture; we cannot compare our cultures without exploring or defining culture in a more in-depth manner than is usually used in daily conversations. Culture can be seen as two distinct parts, the values that are embraced and espoused and the actions that demonstrate and support those values. I grew up in the woods about 100 miles upriver from my mother’s village, my white father came from California and married my mother when he was 27 and she was 17; they lived outside of Ruby for a while where he mined for gold and had a garden that he wished to sell produce from. This was long before I was born, story has it that there was a Negaleena (big foot) around that area, it started bothering them a lot one fall, that was when mom was sick and not at home, after many days and night trying to protect his family my father had a nervous breakdown and ended up in the hospital, after that they moved from the Yukon River country to the Koyukuk River country near Huslia. He moved his family far up river on the North Fork of the Huslia River, a tributary of the Koyukuk. There they raised 14 children; I was born out there in the woods in the fall of 1972, Mom was sick and nearly died when I was born. Due to ice conditions that prevented travel by river or snowmobile, I never got my birth certificate until sometime in August of 1973. Mom said I was born on the 10th of October, but dad put the 5th on my birth certificate, they never did agree on my birthday so I say I was born sometime in the fall of 1972 when the ice was too bad to travel on; I like that because it is how my elders talked about their birth.


My father did not believe in the “White man ways” he never returned to his people, never even spoke much about California or why he left his people, he was liberal in his political views, I remember him ranting about President Reagan and his trickledown economics and the Iran contra affair. Of course to me a president was someone my dad was mad at and something about trickledown economics made him upset, I knew nothing about America other than it was a crazy place with a crazy man named Reagan in charge. Life consisted of trapping in the winters, usually on home made snow shoes or by dog team, dad had a snowmobile but none of us kids used it. In late spring we would trap Beaver for their furs and their meat, it was always great to get Beaver because we lived off of moose meat dad hunted all winter, most moose are skinny in the winter so fat was a rarity to us, getting the fat beaver was a God send to us. In late spring we would take out our home made canoes and hunt Geese and ducks, after two or three month of Beaver meat these Geese and Ducks were like Manna from above. The ice never went out until late May or early June so we would send mom and the younger kids to Huslia in one boat and dad and the older kids would travel upriver another 40 miles or so to put in the garden, this garden was about an ace in size and provided all our vegetable needs for the winter, after the garden was planted we would travel down river to Huslia to visit our relatives and blow off steam. Sometime in mid-August dad would pile us into the boats and head back out in the woods to hunt moose and harvest our garden, store the vegetables, dry the moose meat and prepare for winter. In short we lived like my ancestors did, using the land for our sustenance, depending very little on Money or store bought foods. Our family was the last to live that way, other families lived in Huslia, the men went trapping but they rarely brought their families with them because their children were in school, we were all home schooled so we were with our parents all the time.


This lifestyle forced my family to embrace our native culture, everyone worked hard, everyone had a job to do and we all contributed to the welfare of our family. Unfortunately my father did not provide for any family protection from abuse and both he and my mother had severe alcohol problems. Sexual, physical and emotional abuse was rampant in my family. My father respected the spiritual practices of our people, he believed in Medicine people, that is what whites call Shamanism, but he also believed that it was counter to his Christian beliefs, though he was a non-practicing Christian. While he respected the native culture he looked down on many of the “superstitions” of the natives, he both embraced our ways and rejected them.


I believe that my family pretty much mirrored westernization of Alaska, that is we lived like the generation that encountered whites, and like that generation there was great potential for marrying the western cultures Christian values and spiritual practices, economic systems and the use of money as a medium of exchange; all of which in many ways are superior to the Native way of trade and barter. For us Alaskan Natives the environment we lived in changed, not only the natural environment of Trees, animals and land, but the addition of White people and their modern conveniences and dependence on air travel, increasing mobility of people and goods, introduction to western knowledge and the way westerners learn from books, written language, TV and non-oral traditions. Westernization brought many opportunities, medical advancement changed how we dealt with illnesses, and our medicine people of old were not as powerful as aspirin, penicillin, and pain killers. As a Christian I strongly believe in the Word of God and Jesus Christ, our Medicine people knew little of Jesus, yet they had the ability to reach out to the spiritual world and seek assistance and power from spiritual entities, as is well known, when you reach out to the spiritual, who and what answers can be a great unknown. Some medicine people used their powers for good; others became bad in their practices due to whom and what they encountered in that spiritual realm. Further our medicine people had control over our spiritual practices, they had the lone access to our spiritual understandings, Christianity brought the Word of God to all men and women; in the old ways this access was granted through the gifting of the spiritual ability to reach outside the secular, this gift being a birthright and through the passing on of knowledge from one person to another, this being a form of secular blessing from an elder to a youth. Spiritual cleanliness depended on respecting the land and animals and on fear of those who had these gifts; this mirrors Old Testament practices. Christianity offered all people access to spiritual gifts of God’s Love but required that each person make a commitment to Love, Truth, Grace and reconciliation and a giving up of many of our spiritual practices of attributing spiritual authority to nature and man. In our old ways we lived not under Grace, but under the Old Testament ways of secular work to attain and maintain spiritual cleanliness.



While westernization brought many opportunities, it was also full of dangers. Where aspirin and other medical marvels brought healing to the body, influenza, TB, Polio and a whole slew of diseases brought almost certain death to many. Where Christianity brought spiritual freedom and authority, the secular church brought sexual abuse and the wholesale destruction of families through disrespect of the Natives spirituality and the powerful and valuable ability of the medicine peoples to reach beyond the secular and embrace the spiritual. Where westernization brought economic practices of money and gold, they also brought oppression through policies and laws that denied the natives any rights to their own land and resources. Where westernization brought increased mobility of people and goods and new ways of interacting they also brought the ability to flee justice and bring unwanted people to our shores. For every opportunity that westernization brought, the native people faced dangers to their spiritual, emotional, physical and mental well-being. With the White man’s superior weaponry, knowledge of their own culture, political power, education and their understanding of the written word, not only of God but of science and history; the Natives were easily overpowered and completely subjugated to the western culture.


Westernization resulted in wide spread death, loss of land and resources, loss of language, loss of spirituality, loss of a whole generation of children through boarding schools, introduction of sexual and domestic violence, alcoholism and addiction, greed, lawlessness and overall a complete breakdown of social control and community harmony. These social issues were returned to the communities when the children in boarding schools returned and the parents used alcoholism to drown their pain and suffering of losing their children and their loved ones to diseases. Entire generations of young Alaskan natives were left to deal with culturally unknown issues and the parents and elders were stripped of their status and respect that was central to social control and community harmony. The Church was central in stripping the medicine people of their spiritual authority and the culture of its validity; forgiveness is one of the two pillars of Christianity, the other is Truth through confession of sins and internal conflict resulting from abuses and offenses. The Church only taught forgiveness of sins against God through confession to priests, this allowed for individual reconciliation to God but wholesale lacked any work to reconcile people to each other; indeed the church taught that those who were offended against were required to forgive their offenders without any efforts to reconcile through confession of offenses or internal suffering from those offenses. Through the Church the people learned that confessing to God and receiving Grace was the same as confessing to man and reconciling to the community. The church also taught that Vengeance is the tool of God, while this is true; the church taught that any use of violence to oppose socially destructive behaviors was sinful. The western form of law enforcement uses not only violence but also incarceration that completely overlooks the churches prohibition on vengeance and condemnation. These factors removed any ability on the part of the people to deal with the invasion of western social issues such as abuses against innocents; due to lack of care and funding the western law enforcement failed to provide basic social controls and more often than not protected the abusers and ignored the abused.


Four generations after westernization and 45 years after my birth I look at how westernization played out in my culture and my life. A prior article addresses my views on the Native response and lack of action to not only my abuse but the overall condition of the native people. I am very critical of my own people, those who abused me were Native and those who remain silent are native as well, but it is time to look at why four generations after impact we Natives remain unable to counter the abuses that we live with. I believe that westernization brought destruction to our people, and that our cultural practices played a central role in the continued abuse and our inability to counter that abuse. Currently, much has been said about how westernization impacted our people and how our lack of action is continuing to expose our people to ongoing abuses; Harold Napoleon’s excellent book on how his alcohol use and his conflict with the past contributed to his life spoke volumes to the conditions our people live with, my own story speaks volumes to how silence and inaction played out in my life as well. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart wrote excellently as well on how Historical Trauma impacts our culture, her work was the beginning of understanding how westernization impacted not only Alaskan Natives but the American first nation’s people. what we are missing at this time is an understanding of how the historical trauma continues to impact our people and how our cultural differences with the dominant culture plays a role in the continued abuse of our people, many times at the hands of our own people exists. This article attempts to take the next step in understanding how our culture contributes to our continued dysfunction and how the western System plays a central role in that inability of our people to take action. Our dependence on explaining how westernization impacted our people as a means of understanding why abuses continue lends itself to blaming the white man for our condition and that lends itself to the white man blaming our people for their own inaction. Both of these views are valid, after all I do not see any white people forcing my people to drink or do drugs, and there are laws and policies in place that can and will impact the rate of abuse in our people if we access those services, likewise it is fair and right for our people to point out that it was the white people who destroyed our people and brought not only addiction but the underlying issues of sexual, physical, spiritual and emotional abuses that continue today. This is a large part of why the First nation’s people not only resent the Westerners, but also refuse to make use of the agencies and policies that are meant to stem the tide of abuse. Understanding how and why these systems fail well go a great distance in resolving past abuses and reconciling the First nations with the Westerners. I believe that our differences today are the same as they were from first contact. These differences are based in how our cultures differ and how our societies and environments differ.


To understand Culture, we must recognize how cultures develop, change and what purpose a culture serves. It is my belief that a culture is nothing less than how a group of people interact with each other and their environment to maximize the resources of their environment, this includes the natural environment, the people and other groups that they interact with and how they identify themselves in relation to those they live with and those they may encounter. One aspect that is often overlooked is the fact that culture identifies how the spiritual realm views the people and what “God” expects of people. Culture is often seen as what people do that is common amongst a group of people, but what people do is not the entirety of a culture. The most important part of a culture is what people believe and the values they embrace, the traditions, or activities that are visually identifiable are often seen as the main component of a culture. Most peoples have the same values of family unity, social control, which are social norms, a means of maintaining those norms and a means of distributing goods and services in a fair and equitable manner. Love, social acceptance, family marriages, raising children and such like are all cultural components. The actions that a group takes are based on those values, the traditions are meant to demonstrate and support those cultural values.


One aspect of western culture is the belief that they have no culture, as a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks I am often corrected by Non-Natives when I use terms such as “My People,” they say that I am excluding white people from my group of people, I am also asked why “My people” get to have a culture and theirs do not. When I point out that America is a white country based on western values of individual accomplishments, strict legal codes, Capitalism and Christian beliefs I am told that that is not Culture, that’s “Just how it is.” This lack of understanding on the part of Westerners gives them a very substantial advantage over other peoples who have a “Culture.” this advantage is important because the white people encountered another culture and wrote down what that culture was, their identity of the culture was written down in books and studies were done on what the culture was, there after the Alaskan Native culture was locked into a set of traditions and activities without a clear understanding of the underlying values they supported and demonstrated. With this writing and studying the westerners were able to force the natives to stop changing their culture, any changes were seen as non-native in nature and thus not a part of the culture. as stated above, cultures are meant to make maximum use of the environmental resources available; by locking the natives into a set of traditions the westerners were able to halt the ability to adapt to the new environment that included White people and Western influences, inventions opportunities and the very real challenges of sexual and relational abuse and substance use. I recall when, as a younger man, I took a youth out to hunt his first moose, this is an honor I undertook as a well-known hunter who provided meat to many elders in the Fairbanks area. As I came back in my 18-foot boat I saw an elder I greatly respected on the river banks with a group of University professors and students, I decided to show those white people how a Native man behaves when he has hunting luck, I drove straight to the bank, crossing an area of very shallow water, I had a 88 Johnson outboard with a jet unit on it so shallow water was of no concern to me. Landing next to the group I instructed the young man who had shot the moose to cut off some ribs and the inside tenderloins for the elder as a show of respect and honor to him. He told me that I was like a white man driving over shallow water; if I was traditional I would know how to read water and not drive over sandbars like a fool. It took me two years to speak to him again; I was taught that when a young man gets his first moose he should give it away to ensure future luck; that was my cultural value, sharing with elders and allowing a youth to have a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. Instead I was met with cultural snobbery and ridicule. Locking our people into a set of traditions denies us the ability to change and without change our youth are stuck respecting traditions over values and our elders cannot honor those who honor them and they fail to allow our youth to have important rites of passage.

This is more drastic when we face sexual abuse, our men are raised to be warriors and to protect the innocent, especially the women and children of our community, yet when we were last warriors in the true sense of the word our enemies were other tribes and outsiders, even the Westerners; in today’s environment, our enemies reside within our own people and our very own hearts. Yet we have failed to adapt the warrior ethos to be used as a tool to combat those new enemies. Without the ability to adapt our men remain silent in the face of their communities’ destruction, this breeds resentments and shame in our hearts, maladaptive behaviors of violence, addiction and family discord become common place. Westernization brings with it social programs such as HUD homes, welfare, food stamps and other programs that aim to assist our people, yet most programs target the most vulnerable of our people, that is women and children. In the 80’s a man was not allowed to live with a woman if she was on assistance; this leaves men with no real reason to work hard to provide and provides for our women to view fathers as more of a hindrance than a help.


Perhaps the most damaging aspect of our culture in relation to abuse is the fact that we treated our children as public responsibilities, that is all adults had authority over all children. Children were taught to treat all adults as parents, I cannot remember a time I entered a home in my village that I was not offered something to eat, and as a child I was taught to always contribute to any home I entered. This is great for a community that is free of abuse; however introduce sexual exploitation of children in to that system and an abuser has free access to the entire communities’ docile and obedient children. It is no wonder that sexual abuse flourished in our communities.


Law enforcement as it stands fails in some basic ways. When an Alaskan Native offends another their offense is viewed in relation to how they were raised, their value to the entire community, their victim’s status and value and how the loss of that individual will impact the society as a whole. Contacting western law enforcement to deal with offenders is to hand our people over to the westerner’s strong individualist culture; this will result in “our” person being taken from us and placed into a jail that really does not help him to reconcile to our people. When this individual returns back to us they well feel rejected and offended by their incarceration and culturally that is a fair reaction to being “Thrown Away.” Further their families will be without their needed assistance, hunting seasons come and go, wood is not cut, food is not gathered and the whole community must work to replace that role in their families. This fact remains one of the main reasons that those who offend are rarely turned in or prosecuted. Additionally any interventions that depend on western practices of mental health counseling or accesses western funding comes with mandated reporting, once a victim reveals that they have been offended against their offender is handed over to a system that honestly does more harm to the community than silence does. This result is the victims of abuse being unable to speak up for fear of reprisal from other community members, this fear greatly encourages silence, and this silence prohibits any meaningful reconciliation to the offender. Without reconciliation resentments, lowered self-esteem, ongoing mental health issues, lack of healing and shame becomes the norm. The use of maladaptive coping methods to deal with the victims internal conflicts becomes the norm as well. It is almost impossible to deny that those who commit sexual abuse of community members are not only known but those who they offend against are known as well; this fact holds true for those who sell and use drugs and other substances in our communities. in families with abusive tactics any open discussion of the abuse well be met by the removal of children wither by OCS or the new ICWA workers, this encourages hiding of maladaptive parenting styles and greatly leads to shame on the part of the family, any child who speaks up faces the terror of being placed in foster care and being “Responsible” for breaking up their family.


Historical methods of social control amongst Native societies consisted of working with both the Victims and the abusers to accomplish Reconciliation, when reconciliation was not possible the victim was either required to deal with their abuse through other community members or the offender being removed from the tribe. The banishment of tribal members was a very serious punishment prior to westernization; this was due to the fact that other tribes did not trust lone individuals who were not part of a larger group. It was not common for individuals to willingly leave the protection of their people. This meant that other tribes would be suspicious of lone individuals seeking the safety of others. Banishment in a harsh environment meant that the individual would usually perish from lack of ability to meet their daily needs. Further social control was also accomplished by the fact that the abused were likely to be in a position of power or authority over their abusers, in a harsh environment that required interdependence on one another meant that in time the abuser would be dependent on the abused. Old age required that those younger and stronger assist the elderly in meeting their daily needs; if an abuser offended to many individuals they would suffer greatly in their older years or any time that they were in need of assistance from the community. These facts encouraged that those who offended make efforts to reconcile to their victims. Westernization brought modern conveniences such as increased travel, increased access to programs and social services that removed this interdependence. While emotional distress may be present for those who are not supported by the community, this emotional distress is not likely to be of sufficient levels to cause reconciliation; add to that the prevalence of both drugs and alcohol that alleviate emotional distress and the offender well be far less likely to work on reconciliation. With a collective society offenders who are able to put time between their offenses will likely be forgiven and be returned to the good graces of their community without any real effort to reconcile. If all else failed the offender can leave their community and easily join another due to increased mobility of the people and the fact that families moved from place to place and it became less likely that tribes would recognize an offender unless they are specifically identified. The interventions of western law enforcement usually meant that the offenders were protected from any real reprisals from the offended or their families. Assaults and murder are both crimes against the western society, regardless of the reasons the assault took place, thus an offender can offend and without western intervention would actually benefit from the fact  that western laws prohibits vigilante justice. When the costs of enforcing state laws increases and the difficulty of enforcing laws in remote communities populated by people culturally unwilling or unable to effectively use those laws it becomes impossible for the community to maintain social control.


Any program that aims to counter the addiction rate in native villages must take into account these cultural differences and the impact that they have on the effectiveness of those programs. Dealing with addiction requires dealing with the issue of social control, specifically the abuse and neglect in the society that the addicted live in. Interventions that fail to take into account the harm done to the individuals who grow up in these communities will not work. If the first step in recovery at the individual, family and societal level is to halt the trauma; our present system completely fails to accomplish that. The present system forces native communities to either abandon their cultural norms and become western in nature or accept ongoing traumatic abuses at the hands of their own people; and forces the victims of the system to remain silent of their own internal pain and suffering. Add to this the impact on the community members who are forced to stand idly by while their beloved people are abused. Change will require one of two paths, either embrace the western culture, which does not work well in the village environment, or abandon the western funding sources that force western culture on the people through economic policies that wholly disrespects the Native way of life. If there is any true desire on the part of native leaders to counter the abuses of their people those leaders must embark on an assertive exploration of alternative methods of social control that seeks to turn the weaknesses of our culture to strengths. If western society has any true desire to assist native communities in halting the abuse they must embrace what they claim to be their goal, that is to allow our people to create programs and interventions that are based on the native culture and support those efforts with funding policies that embrace our people.


The next article will explore how communities can begin to work within the western system and the native culture to effectively develop programs and interventions based on our culture and possibly use our authority as sovereign nations to not only access funding but also be truly sovereign in our social control practices.




About the author

Ray Dewilde

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