FAIRBANKS — Denis Shelden left his Yup’ik family to go to school when he was 10 years old. He was 19 when he returned home, Western education completed.
Yet he knew little about being Yup’ik, something he needed to know if he was going to live in Alakanuk. Friends and family made sure he learned.
“Other people in our community invited me to go along with them when they went hunting and trapping,” recalled Shelden, now 68. “They taught me about the animals, where to hunt them, where to catch them and how to take care of them. I was 10 when I left, and I was still 10 as a Yup’ik when I came back.”
Shelden was one of many young people who left home to go to boarding school. He understands the stress of managing two ways of life in his community and has witnessed the good and bad when Western and Yup’ik culture collided.
Stress and coping became a research priority at the Center for Alaska Native Health Research at the request of Yup’ik communities, said Inna Rivkin, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and CANHR scientist. It’s a valid concern. Historical trauma that interrupted families, communities and the passing of knowledge leads to stress, she noted.
During the past five years, Rivkin, with the help of Shelden and others, has been identifying the Yup’ik understanding of stress and coping.
People told her that losing loved ones, suicides, alcohol and drug abuse, family issues and worrying about children in the community, as well as work and money problems, are the leading concerns. What gave people hope is their spirituality, engaging in subsistence activities, their children and families, and helping others, Rivkin said.
“Our findings highlight the resiliency and strengths of Yup’ik communities,” she said. “Understanding where people find hope and strength, especially in a cultural context, can help us to develop community driven and culturally relevant interventions.” Rivkin is seeking funding to develop and test the interventions.
Rivkin and Shelden think focusing on strengths, rather than trauma, will produce meaningful interventions, which is one reason the research team carefully listened to community members.
“They said things like, ‘I want to be a good role model for my kids. I need to get through this,’” Rivkin said.
Shelden wants the work to bridge the generational gap between youth and elders. The Yup’ik way of passing knowledge meant children learned everything they could about life on the Yukon Kuskokwim delta by listening to elders.
The passing of knowledge, culture and tradition allows young people to understand their place in the world and how important it is, he said. That’s how it happened for him when he returned home from school.
“This will encourage our people to renew themselves,” Shelden said. “It will help our families to get back together.
Diana Campbell is CANHR’s communication specialist and is a tribal member of the Native Village of Venetie. CANHR is part of UAF’s Institute of Arctic Biology. More information can be found on the web at http://canhr.uaf.edu. Research reported in this column was supported by an Institutional Development Award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under grant number P30GM103325.