Anchorage, Alaska, is surrounded by natural splendor. Snow-topped mountains soar into clinquant skies, a majestic backdrop for the meeting of two worlds — the monumental grandeur of Alaska’s ancient natural environment and the contemporary bustle of the state’s largest city.
Straddling both are Alaska’s Native people — in particular the tween and teen boys coming of age who are expected to 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, these boys and teens are also living the experience of American millennials. 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.
The center is 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 ten thousand years, and there’s a lot of truth and brilliance and knowledge and tradition in what we know,” says Heritage Center president and CEO Annette Evans Smith, 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 ten thousand years.”
Since opening in 1999, the center has been a house of knowledge for and about the state’s major cultural groups: the Sugpiaq, the Yup’ik, the Athabascan. The Inupiaq, Cup’ik, and Eyak. The Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. The Unungax and St. Lawrence Island Yupik. Interactive collections, workshops, and demonstrations feed the interests of more than a hundred thousand tourists each year, educating the public about these Native peoples. Youth programming employs art, expression, and athletics rooted in history to solidify their knowledge of who they are.
Upstaging Other People’s Baggage
For boys between the ages of 15–19, the internal journey to full self-awareness and cultural pride can be complicated by external judgments. Native people comprise 15 percent of the state’s population — with half, some 350,000, living in Anchorage — but public perceptions of the state’s Native people are disproportionately informed by ugly stereotypes. They’re drunk. They’re transient. They’re lazy. They’re not as smart.
None of that is true, of course, not only because stereotypes in general are dangerously baseless, but because no people is just one kind of way. Too often, such stereotypes are born of their perpetrators’ fear and laziness. But the targets of such stereotypes are unfairly burdened with the responsibility of disproving them, even as non-Natives inadvertently or intentionally teach their children to believe them, and those kids bring that ignorance to school, where it infects the learning environment with prejudicial, hand-me-down poison.
For some young men, American but not assimilated, it’s just easier to distance themselves from or flat out deny their Native heritage than to further complicate the adolescent experience with someone else’s racist baggage.
“A lot of times, Alaska Native students don’t want to claim that they’re Native because there’s a stigma. They think, ‘If other students know, they’re going to think less of me,'” explains Steven Alvarez, director of arts and education at the Heritage Center. “If they come from a village and English is the second language, they’re not able to comprehend what an urban kid would just take for granted. It’s kind of like, ‘What are you, stupid?’ They hide their heritage because it’s easier.”
Loren Anderson can relate. He’s the cultural programs manager now, but once upon a time he was a student himself. “I didn’t tell the kids in school that I was Native. People would ask, ‘Loren, what are you?’’and I’d say, ‘What do you think I am?’ If I could pass for something else, I felt that somehow I succeeded. For a long time, I felt guilty or ashamed that I did that. But today,” he says, “I realize why I did it, and now I teach the kids.”
There’s plenty to share with adults, too, and what he and his team hope to do is thwart the need to feel — or make anybody else feel — shame about being Native. “You can cure ignorance. That’s our mission. There will always be people who say, ‘Natives get free medical care’ or ‘Natives get free money’. I wish. That’d be awesome,” Anderson jokes. “We love people who are like, ‘I used the word Eskimo. Is that okay?’ We get to teach them. Then we teach the kids, and then they teach anybody they can. That’s a great thing.”
The Importance of Feeling Feelings
Alaska Native culture is shaped by a set of 10 shared values that de-emphasizes self and makes paramount the welfare of the entire community. It’s evident in principles like:
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 belief system has sustained Alaska Natives for millennia, but as their population increases — it’s doubled over twenty-five years as people move from insulated rural communities to Anchorage — so do critical concerns that require more personalized attention.
The graduation rate for Native youth is just 54 percent — and is lower for boys than 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 in terms of drug and alcohol abuse. Most tragically, the suicide rate for Native youth is twelve times the national average, exceeding epidemic proportions.
The root of these problems seems to lie in the stoicism that helps to define manhood in Native culture. “It’s not that these boys who commit suicide or are thinking about suicide don’t feel anything,” Anderson explains. “It’s that they’re so used to being told not to feel or not to show their feelings. Stoicism is 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. It also has developed partnerships with substance abuse organizations to extend the availability of resources and address issues that are internalized and ultimately lead to boys and teens acting out.
Enabling these young men to talk about their emotions frees them in many other ways, too. Maybe they’ll find peace outside of alcohol or won’t vent their unchecked anger on loved ones at home. Maybe suicide won’t enter their minds. And maybe, in time, their concept of masculinity will be tied more closely to the ability to express their feelings rather 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 meet those challenges has proven effective. In the fourteen years the program has been operating, the graduation rate for participating students has climbed to 80 percent.
Making Culture Appealing to Youth
Seated in an exhibition hall, surrounded by living artifacts that visually tell the stories of Natives statewide, 15-year-old Isaiah McKenzie has a confidence and articulateness that belies his age. He’s not new to the activities offered at the center. He’s been attending since middle school, has performed as a drummer and dancer, and this past summer worked on-site in a paid internship position. But it’s his first year in the afterschool program that serves high school students, and so far he’s enjoying himself.
“It’s really awesome to learn who your people are and where you’re from. It’s a privilege,” he says, nodding in agreement with his own thoughts. “I think the most powerful thing I’ve learned is respecting and providing for others. It’s something we needed to do a long time ago and something we need to practice a lot more today. I’ll carry it with me as I grow up.”
Any adult who has ever tried to introduce any information to any teenager in any capacity can appreciate the magnitude of his statement and the enthusiasm with which it is delivered.
The Heritage Center buses students from high schools in the Anchorage School District to participate in programming every Tuesday through Friday and transports them home at the end of each day. Those young men have any number of extracurricular activity options in their respective schools and communities, but they look forward to the activity choices at the center, which offers Native art and dance, arctic athletic games, discussions, and homework assistance.
Middle-schoolers participate in the Walking in Two Worlds program, which is designed to reverse the downward spiral of at-risk students dropping out because of difficulty adjusting, absenteeism, and other behavioral problems. The goal is to get them back on track academically, but staff members trained to work specifically with young Native men also dig into the work of strengthening their social and emotional skills.
Inside the center’s main hall, just steps from the area where Isaiah and his fellow dance group mates will welcome Native students visiting from Hawaii, another band of teenagers has commandeered the floor to practice traditional Native games that test their strength, balance, endurance, and stamina — attributes that historically have been prized as much for reasons of survival as they are for demonstrating sporting prowess. Those who do well can compete in the Anchorage Native Youth Olympic Preliminaries, with the possibility of advancing to state-level games and, if they’re really good, the World Eskimo Indian Olympics.
On this day, a young man in bright yellow shorts demonstrates the tenacity that lives in every champion. He’s attempting the one-foot high-kick, a traditional Native event that requires the participant to scissor jump and touch a ball hanging above his head with one foot. On this afternoon, no trophies or accolades are on the line. He’s just determined to do it for his own personal sense of achievement.
He gets a running start, cheered on by the applause of his friends, scissors his leg up, and misses the ball. He regroups, tries again, and misses again. And again. And again. By the time the kids call it a day, he hasn’t hit his target, but his refusal to give up has made him a success in the eyes of everyone there. The support and encouragement he gets from the other young people around him, who have invested themselves in his accomplishment as much as they their own, is telling. Community is alive here.
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 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 the declaration of manhood, he isn’t allowed to keep it; he’s expected to share it with others. It’s an exhibition of generosity, selflessness, and responsibility to others that, says Anderson, overlaps with another principle: Children only think of themselves; adults are supposed to think of others.
Proving one’s 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,” Evans Smith remembers, “we conducted a survey and asked our students, who are fourteen to eighteen, ‘What do you need from the Heritage Center?’ 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 ninety years since Raphael Jimmy was a boy. A lifelong resident of one of the rural villages that surround the city he moved to four years ago to be closer to healthcare providers, he’s proud of his mentor role at the center. When he was coming of age, he learned what it means to be a man from his father — a tradition in itself — and now, in his later 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 their Native culture. There’s a bonus: In the process, he’s learned from them, too.
“I was working with young people, teaching them simple Yup’ik words and phrases like ‘hello’ and ‘How are you’, and addressing them by their traditional names. But at the same time,” says Jimmy 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 of young and old 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 traditional garment 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 fade away, they 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 in their footsteps. In the miracle and masterpiece that is Alaska itself, that pride in continuing the circle of tradition, love, and community for the state’s most resilient population is part of the Heritage Center’s handiwork.