Culture is our Best Protective Factor and Healing Practice

By Tiana Teter, Program Specialist, Huslia, and Janelle Chapin, Program Specialist, Kaltag, Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center

Safety for Alaska Native Women

Elizabeth Jerue (left) and son Weston Jerue (right). (Photo courtesy of Tami Truett Jerue, AKNWRC).
Elizabeth Jerue (left) and son Weston Jerue (right). (Photo courtesy of Tami Truett Jerue, AKNWRC).

When providing technical assistance to Alaska Native communities and tribes, the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center (AKNWRC) is a firm believer in tribal communities being their own most knowledgeable resource when creating their local victim services. They know their communities better than anyone from the outside ever will, and this is one reason why Culture is Our Best Protective Factor and Healing Practice has become a topic that is growing rapidly in AKNWRC’s curriculum material. It follows the same belief that tribal communities should be in charge of their own healing and can do it more efficiently than an outside service provider who is not as familiar with their culture.

Culture is Our Best Protective Factor and Healing Practice is a belief system that addresses regionalized forms of communication that can become a barrier to accessing services, while also discussing culture as a whole as being a protective factor that assists in healing from trauma. Many areas of Alaska are lucky enough to have their Native language as their first language. This gives them insight into their culture that a non-Native-language speaker lacks. Our languages and cultures are complex and have protected us for centuries. When we begin to look at them in this light, we can begin to use them as a healing practice with the resilience our ancestors instilled in us.

Alaska is home to 229 Alaska Native tribes spread across 6 large regions. Every region in Alaska hosts a different Alaska Native language, and within each region are different dialects of languages. For example, Athabaskans in Interior Alaska have different languages and cultural practices. While we belong to one language family, each language is very different. The same is true with all language groups throughout Alaska and our different regions. Within these language families, we have different communication styles that come from our cultural background. For example, within northern parts of Alaska, there are more non-verbal language cues such as raising your eyebrows to say “yes” or to agree, squinting or frowning to say “I don’t know” or “no,” pointing with your lips or forehead, and being comfortable with silence during conversation to have more thought-out responses.

Miscommunication can also occur due to regionalized language differences. For example, “my brother is bothering me” can either mean “my brother is annoying me” or “my brother is touching me inappropriately,” depending on what region you are in. It is important for service providers such as law enforcement or medical health professionals to understand regionalized terms to provide effective services to victims/survivors of domestic violence and/or sexual assault. Eye contact is a common miscommunication within the Western court system that has caused our people many issues. Many of our cultures believe it is disrespectful to make eye contact, while the Western world views it as hiding something or a sign of guilt.

These differences in communication have all proven to be barriers to Alaska Natives when they are trying to access services in regional (HUB) communities, through no fault of their own. Alaska Native communities are diverse, and their overall cultures are shaped by their physical environments. It is up to service providers to have a foundation of knowledge about each region and their history to best provide services to their communities and victims. However, in most cases, victims/survivors are sent out of their home communities to HUB communities to access victim services such as shelters, advocacy services, lawyers, state public assistance offices, and medical and behavioral health services.

This causes us to leave behind our strongest support and means of healing, our community and cultural practices. We are leaving behind a support system of family and friends, traditional comfort foods, oftentimes our first language, and going into spaces where we must speak English proficiently. When we are in a trauma situation, we are more likely to return to our first language and may struggle to translate within our context. These are some of the many reasons why the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center strives to help tribal communities build their own local victim services. Through these programs, Alaska Natives can access not only quality victim services, but also continue to practice their cultural traditions in an effort to heal from trauma.

Cultural traditions are protective factors for Alaska Native people because it gives us a purpose, and a place where we belong. It allows people to find their support system within the Alaska Native community. When we know where we belong, we find comfort, we find companionship with other family members and with our cultural group.

Cultural values also encourage building relationships and supporting each other. For example, when introducing myself traditionally, I say my name, where my family is from, who my parents are, and then my grandparents’ names. This allows people to connect to us through our families. If one Alaskan village is going through a difficult time, a neighboring village steps in to help them. Young men are taught to not only hunt for themselves and their families, but for single mothers and elders as well. Young women are taught to care for elders and children.

If there is one thing the Alaska Native community teaches, it is unity. We look out for the collective well-being rather than individual well-being. We know that we must take care of each other to survive in the harsh environments we live in. Today we may have many more comforts, but we are facing social issues and must rely on each other to heal and move forward as a community.

These cultural practices are skills, strengths, resources, supports, and coping strategies that can all help a person deal more effectively with stressful situations, and reduce and/or eliminate risks to individuals, families, and communities as a whole. What are seen as cultural barriers when accessing services in HUB communities can also be seen as protective factors in rural Alaska Native communities. We should not have to choose our homes based on access to services.


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