Putting Alaska Native hopes, voices at center of state’s ACEs movement

Lisa Wade is the Health, Education, and Social Services Director, tribal court judge, and elected tribal council member for the Alaska Native Village of Chickaloon.

Before the Alaska Resilience Initiative could push forward on any of its goals—to grow a sustainable statewide network; to educate all Alaskans on brain development, adverse childhood experiences, and resilience-building; and to support organizational, policy and practice change to address trauma—its leaders had to start by listening.

Specifically, they had to listen to Alaska Native people.

Alaska Native people comprise nearly one-fifth of the state’s population, but historically their voices have been largely excluded from decision-making about social services, education and behavioral health.

That’s why Laura Norton-Cruz, program director of the Alaska Resilience Initiative, partnered with First Alaskans Institute and the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council in a May 2016 gathering that put Native perspectives, customs, history and hopes at the center.

That gathering of about 30 people “was setting a tone for the whole state that the voices of Alaska Native people matter in this process,” Norton-Cruz said. The goal was to seek input that could guide the Alaska Resilience Initiative, shape the curriculum for ACE/resilience trainers and frame a more inclusive and equitable approach to the work.

Participants at May 2016 meeting hosted by Alaska Resilience Initiative, First Alaskans Institute, and Native Village of Chickaloon.

The group’s recommendations included specific suggestions for revising the materials currently used for ACE/resilience trainers, emphasizing:

  • Cultural and collective trauma, including ongoing injustices faced by Alaska Native people and others worldwide—for instance, mandatory boarding school attendance and the loss of traditional food sources;
  • Cultural and collective strengths, such as indigenous practices of healing and child-rearing;
  • An understanding that the ACE Study translates and confirms what is ancestral knowledge for Alaska Native and other indigenous people;
  • Basic cultural competence;
  • A focus on cultural humility, partnering and listening.

The group also urged that, whenever possible, resilience initiative leaders invite Alaska Native people to talk about their own experience rather than having others speak for them, that Alaska Natives have opportunities to be co-trainers and that data-gathering include cultural and collective perspectives (for example, “in your household” doesn’t adequately describe the extended-family influence on many Native children).

A State-Wide Initiative

That meeting and its recommendations formed the foundation when, a month later, 80 people from across Alaska, all of them involved in ACEs or resilience work, gathered for the first statewide meeting of the Alaska Resilience Initiative.

Participants included Lisa Wade, a tribal council leader from the Nay’dini’aa Na’/Chickaloon Village Traditional Council, which has adopted a trauma-informed approach to all tribal operations and meetings, and Marcus Wilson, former principal of North Star Elementary School in Anchorage, where test grades rose and playground scuffles diminished after the school launched trauma-informed practices in 2010.

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