Report Documents the Critical Elements of Protecting Alaska Native Children — Connections to Culture and the Environment

Research released today highlights an issue rarely discussed in the field of child welfare, but vital to the health and well-being of Indigenous children and families: their stewardship of the natural environment. 

The unique study focuses on many generations of the Alaska Native Ninilchik Village Tribe, and the harmful impacts of colonization and federal and state mismanagement of traditional homelands. Tribal members contributed to the research, conducted over 12 months in South Central Alaska.

“Subsistence is a critical part of Alaska Native cultures and that the ability to pass subsistence practices to children is an important protective factor for their well-being,” reads a policy brief outlining the findings.

The report is authored by Heather Sauyaq Jean Gordon, a research scientist with the nonprofit research and policy institute Child Trends. Gordon, 38, is Iñupiaq and an enrolled member of the Nome Eskimo Community. She defines Indigenous subsistence as reaching far beyond hunting, fishing, and gathering food. 

“Indigenous Peoples see subsistence as a way of life, a connection to their ancestors, part of their spirituality and ceremonies, an aspect of their relationality to the world and their role as protectors and caregivers to the earth, and a contributor to their overall well-being,” her study states.

Food sovereignty also defines Gordon’s approach, the right of Indigenous people to “define their own hunting, gathering, fishing, land, and water policies,” and to maintain practices guaranteeing tribal communities’ access to traditional cultural foods.

The Child Trends report is aimed at state and federal policy makers, heads of land management agencies, tribal organizations, researchers and environmental advocacy groups. It encourages audiences to broaden the definition of child well-being among Indigenous populations. To date, most research in the field has been far narrower, focusing on poverty and the legal definitions of child abuse and neglect.  

Subsistence plays an essential role in Indigenous child and family well-being as well, Gordon writes, fueling  — or perilously limiting — cultural connections. “Familial connectedness,” nutritious foods, Indigenous languages, relationships with elders and the natural world, and the ability to engage in spirituality and ceremony all serve to nourish and protect Alaska Native children.

Subsistence — practiced through harvesting, processing, and sharing food — fuels cultural, spiritual and social connection through singing, dancing, and telling stories.

“Cultural continuity is important to Ninilchik residents, and youth learn subsistence practices from their parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins, and the Tribe,” the report notes. As a result, “subsistence serves as a preventive and protective cultural practice for well-being.”

Commercial hunting and fishing have had devastating impacts, and the degradation of the earth and air are widespread in the community studied — conditions worsened by climate change. 

That has resulted in vastly depleted traditional food supplies relied upon for centuries in regions throughout Alaska — including salmon and herring eggs in the Yukon River and in Ketchikan, and clams on the beaches of Ninilchik.

Colonization has created “systemic and institutional” barriers preventing Alaska Natives Peoples’ involvement in decisions around land and water stewardship, interrupting the passing-down of subsistence traditions that protect the well-being of the community’s children. 

These issues are close to home for Gordon. She spent her childhood on her grandmother’s reindeer ranch outside of Homer, Alaska, set-netting for salmon on the Kenai River, berry-picking in the hills and chewing leather to make it soft — subsistence activities that connected her to Iñupiaq family values and spiritual customs.


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