Alaska Native Heritage Center

Alaska Native Heritage Center

Anchorage, Alaska

By Janelle Harris

**This is an excerpt from a story about the Alaska Native Heritage Center, an institution supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s original Forward Promise initiative. It is taken from the publication Under Construction: Stories of Transformation in the Lives of Boys and Men of Color, published by Frontline Solutions

Anchorage, Alaska is a celebration of natural splendor. Snow-topped mountains reach up into clinquant skies and create a majestic backdrop for the normalcy of life happening below. It’s the meeting of two worlds in the state’s largest city—the earthen grandeur that’s existed for lifetimes and the contemporary bustle of the now.

Straddling them are Alaska Natives, in particular the tween and teen boys coming of age there that are expected to ultimately contribute to their communities and provide for their families. That, by historic definition, is what makes a man.

Connected by blood to cultures as vibrant as the land itself, they’re also living the experience of American millennials at the same time. Some come from households steeped in traditional Native values and customs. Some grow up in homes where those norms aren’t norms at all. For many, the bridge between their dual identities is the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

It’s a place for Native youth to just be—to be understood, to be celebrated, to be connected. “Alaska Natives have survived in this state and this environment for more than 10,000 years, and there’s a lot of truth and brilliance and knowledge and tradition in what we know,” said Annette Evans Smith, president and CEO, who works closely with her small staff to guide the development of culturally enriching activities. “It’s our job to instill those values and that knowledge into our young people so that we can create future Elders and tradition bearers to carry our cultures another 10,000 years.”

Since opening in 1999, the institution has been a house of knowledge for and about the state’s major cultural groups: the Sugpiaq, the Yup’ik, the Athabascan. The Inupiaq, the Cup’ik, the Eyak. The Tlingit, the Haida, the Tsimshian. The Unungax, the St. Lawrence Island Yupik. Interactive collections, workshops and demonstrations feed the interests of more than 100,000 tourists each year, educating the public on who those Native people are. Youth programming employs art, expression and athletics rooted in history to solidify who they are as Native people.

The importance of feeling feelings

Alaska Native culture is shaped by a set of 10 shared values that deemphasizes self and makes paramount the welfare of the entire community. It’s evident in at least half of the principles:  

You are a reflection of your family.

See connections in all things because all things are related.

Honor your Elders; they are the ones who will teach you what you need to know.

Share what you have. Wealth is based on what you give away, not what you accumulate.

What you do affects the next generation. 

That beautifully altruistic system of beliefs has sustained Alaska Natives, but as their population increases—it’s spiked twice in 25 years as people move from insulated rural enclaves into Anchorage—so do critical concerns that require more personalized attention.

The graduation rate for Native youth is just 54 percent, lower for boys than it is for girls. That’s in a good year. And, like so many other communities of color, young men are over-represented in the criminal justice system and cases of drug and alcohol abuse. Most tragically, the suicide rate for that group is 12 times the national average, exceeding epidemic proportions.

The root of those challenges seems to lie in breaking through the stoicism that accompanies manhood in the Native community. “It’s not that these boys who commit suicide or are thinking about suicide don’t feel anything,” Anderson explained. “It’s that they’re so used to being told not to feel or not to show their feelings. Stoicism was a coping mechanism. In order to get through hard times, men stopped showing their feelings. But how can you not actually feel?”

To help break the cycle, the Heritage Center allocates grant funding to bring in trained counselors who provide vocational and educational counseling services for the young men as needed. They’ve also developed partnerships with substance abuse organizations to extend the availability of resources and address the core issues that ultimately lead to both internalization and acting out.

Freeing these young men to talk about their emotions frees them in so many other ways, too. Maybe they’ll find peace outside of alcohol or they won’t vent their unchecked anger on loved ones at home. Maybe suicide won’t even be a consideration and maybe, in time, their concept of masculinity will be tied more closely to the ability to express more than the determination not to.

The opportunity to open up at the Heritage Center, where they won’t be judged or condemned, is literally life-saving. The challenges are clear, but the strategy to answer them has proven effective. In the 14 years their program has been operating, the graduation rate for students involved has climbed to the 80th percentile.

Celebrating the makings of manhood

The rite of passage ceremony is a culmination of experiences, the crowning achievement earned after a boy demonstrates the personal qualities that signify his readiness to be introduced to his village and Native community as an adult. Anderson gives an example: when a boy shoots his first moose as part of the traditional series of events leading up to manhood, he isn’t allowed to keep any of it. He’s expected to give it all away. It’s an exhibition of generosity, selflessness and responsibility to others that, Anderson said, coincides with another principle: Children only think of themselves. Adults are supposed to think of others.

Proving worthiness to be called a man gives those preparing for the journey a chance to grow personally and, at the same time, connect with their Elders. The rite of passage experience is an intergenerational one and its value isn’t lost on the young people seeking wholeness in their Native identity.

“A couple of years ago in our high school program, we conducted a survey and asked our students, who are 14–18, ‘what do you need from the Heritage Center?’” Evans Smith remembered. “They told us, ‘number one, we need time with the Elders and number two, we need language.’ Our youth are hungry for this connection, to know who they are and where they come from. And we firmly believe that when they do, they will do better in life.”

It’s been 90 years since Raphael Jimmy was a boy. A lifelong resident of Alaska, more specifically one of the rural villages that surround the city he moved into four years ago to be closer to healthcare providers, he’s proud of his mentor role at the Heritage Center. When he was coming of age, he learned the characteristics of manhood from his father—a tradition in itself—and now, in his seasoned years, he’s eager to pass along nine decades’ worth of wisdom to young men who are looking to him to help them better understand Alaska Native culture. The added magic: in the process, he’s learned from them too.

“I was working with young people, teaching them simple Yup’ik words like ‘hello’ and ‘how are you,’ and addressing them in their traditional names. But at the same time,” said Jimmy said in his Native language, translated by an interpreter, “because I don’t have Western education, I learned how to speak some English from them.” It’s always been the role of Elders to help young people, but the pairing also gives young people the chance to return the favor.

On the day of the rite of passage ceremony, two boys preparing to become men are dressed in brown kuspuks, a garment traditionally worn for the occasion. Each sits timidly on the stage of the Heritage Center’s main hall. After brief comments by Jimmy, who is visibly joyful about the day’s events, they perform a dance with beautifully feathered fans created by Jimmy and his wife who, at 88, is also dancing in the ceremony.

The boys start off timidly at first but, as the drumming intensifies and their initial jitters fall away, they take in the gravity of the experience and get into it, even smile. It’s a big day for them and hopefully a preview of the accomplishment to come for the many other young men who are expected to follow them. In the miracle and masterpiece that is Alaska itself, that pride in continuing the circle of tradition and love and community for the state’s most resilient population of people is part of the Heritage Center’s handiwork.

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