How An Alaskan Family — And Their Teenage Son — Overcome A Legacy Of Pain

Baby Constance was born into a culture that was rich and well-adapted to the exceptionally harsh environment. Her ancestors had passed down skills for surviving — ways of reading the ice to know when walruses, seals and whales could be caught and methods of fishing in the cold water. Families worked together; subsistence hunting does not favor the greedy. Most people spoke the Alaska Native language, Yupik, with Russian and English words mixed in. That is the language Constance’s mother, Estelle, taught her daughter.

…When Constance was in middle school, she was forced by the federal government to leave her family and move to a boarding school operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, part of the Department of the Interior. Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Alaska, was 1,200 miles away. Classes were in English, the teachers were mostly white, and the students were forbidden to speak the languages they had grown up with.

…Constance Oozevaseuk was taught to hate a lot of things about her culture and, by proxy, about herself. The food she grew up eating, the clothes her family wore, the way they hunted and fished, the stories they told, the songs they sang and the very words they spoke were inferior, she was taught. It was traumatizing.

…A 2005 study on the long-term effects of boarding schools on Alaska Natives found that many students suffered from “identity conflicts” and later struggled when they had children of their own, in part because they had been separated from their own parents at such an early age and had never fully learned family traditions and subsistence skills.

…This is the root of what sociologists call intergenerational trauma. A family goes through something cataclysmic — in this case, a war on their culture. The family survives, but the effects of the trauma are passed down in the form of addiction, domestic violence and even suicide.

…Jeremy and Rene had moved back to Alaska, in part so Sam could be born at the Alaska Native Hospital where Rene had health coverage. As a child, Sam spent most of his time outside with his parents and with Rene’s family.

…Sam pestered his relatives to let him hunt seals with them. When Sam was 5 or 6 years old, they handed him a low-powered rifle and told him to start practicing; if he could shoot a ground squirrel “through the eye,” he could hunt with them. For a couple weeks, he shot all day, every day. By the end, he was ready to accompany his family out to the seal blind.

Sam’s cultural education was going well.

…Some teachers and counselors suggested Sam had a learning disability or a behavioral disorder. His parents entertained that possibility but explained that Sam was growing up in a different environment than his peers. The family still spent summers in Gambell. No one else at the school was from a subsistence hunting culture. Might it make sense that Sam would learn differently from most other students?

“They didn’t listen,” says Jeremy, standing at his kitchen table in Seattle and picking through a box of old progress reports from the time. “They told us: ‘You need to go back to Alaska. Go back to the village.’ It was terrible.”

…He saw some of his cousins struggling with alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts, and he heard from his family in Gambell about how climate change made it difficult to pass down hunting traditions and to catch enough food to survive.

“I see that, among my peers, I am much less likely to fall prey to alcoholism and much less likely to be suicidal as a result of being brought up in the laps of my elders, listening to stories and being engaged on a cultural level,” Sam explains. “What I’ve seen is that when youth are not culturally engaged, you see higher rates of incarceration, higher rates of suicide, higher rates of alcoholism, higher rates of drug abuse — all these evils that come in and take the place of culture. We’re talking about my cousins and my family members.”

…”Her parents’ generation were all sent off to boarding schools,” Sam explains. He is talking, of course, about his grandmother, Constance Oozevaseuk.

“Nothing was put in the place of where culture was. I think some of that trauma was passed onto my mother. I’m not as deeply affected as she was, of course. But I am affected by it, because she wasn’t able to be a mother for a portion of my childhood, because she had to take care of herself.”

Rene agrees, although the fact of her family’s traumatization doesn’t make it any easier to deal with the guilt she feels over breaking down. “I wish I had been stronger,” she says. 

…Sam says his cultural identity — formed during all those hours hunting and fishing with his family — is something to fall back on when things get difficult, a source of resilience.

“You’re sitting in a seal blind, you’re talking to your uncles, you’re telling stories — you’re disseminating culture, is what’s going on,” he explains. “It’s not only hunting, it’s passing down traditions, stories and ways of life that would otherwise not have a chance to be passed down.”

…I think having children must be really rewarding, and probably really scary,” he says. “I hope I’m able to be the one who stops the passing down of my family’s traumas. But I don’t know. We can only hope.”

How An Alaskan Family — And Their Teenage Son — Overcome A Legacy Of Pain : Goats and Soda : NPR




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