BA Degree Senior Thesis: Alaska Native Culture & Health

This is a passage from my Senior Research Project while pursuing a BA Degree in Organizational Management at Alaska Pacific University.

Harvey Cox, Harvard Divinity Professor wrote an essay, “Feast of Fools”. (Cox examines both the loss and reemergence of festivity and fantasy in Western civilization. He evaluates both processes from a theological perspective, defining festivity as the capacity for genuine revelry and joyous celebration and defining fantasy as the faculty for envisioning radically alternative life situations. He asserts that both are absolutely vital to contemporary human life and faith; both are a precondition for genuine social transformation. )

Taking Cox’s theory and applying it to the Alaska Native culture provides a vital foundation to this research paper. It is necessary to educate the audience how the demise of a culture led to the attrition of a people. More specifically, the impact of “civilizing” First People throughout history has ultimately led to the need of re-identification throughout this population. The effect is apparent when looking at the disparity of health between Native American and the general U.S. population.

It is helpful to assert Arthur Kleiman’s (psychiatrist and a professor of medical anthropology and cross-cultural psychiatry at Harvard University) definition of culture. He states, “Culture is a society’s set of assumptions, values, and rules about social interaction. The culture in which one is raised programs the mind to react to the environment in certain ways. In essence, culture provides people with a mental road map. The road map depicts the goals to be reached and the ways to get there. People have within their minds cultural norms. They don’t have to figure out how to greet people, how to behave, how to dress. People are free to go about their day, pursing goals within the confines of their culture’s boundaries”.

Cox’s theory will establish what happens to a society when their mental road map is altered.

Cox’s first theory is “festivity and fantasy should be nurtured for their own sake”. No culture is without festivity and fantasy. Take Alaska Natives, there are over 200 tribes in Alaska. Within each are traditions that are unique.

Traditions are wrapped tightly around the way of life to keep it intact. The way of life includes hunting, fishing, gathering, healing, communicating and speaking their language.

The traditions surrounding these examples of the way of life include spiritual practices, storytelling, potluck, creating native art, singing, dancing, and drumming. Elders are valued as the leaders and teachers, parents as providers and protectors, and children as the future.

His second argument is that “man’s very survival as a species is placed in jeopardy by the repression of human celebration and imagination”. Further he stated, “festivity is the historical aspect of a culture and fantasy is the innovative possibilities of what can be”. An example can be seen in the repression of Alaska Natives since their initial interaction with western civilization. The repression targeted removing festivity – the historical aspect of the culture – including tradition and the way of life – ultimately the loss of one’s identity.

Cox says, “Man inhabits a world of constant change, and in such a world both festival and fantasy is indispensable for survival. If he is to survive, man must be both innovative and adaptive. Together, festivity and fantasy enable man to experience his presence in a richer, more joyful, and more creative way. Without this outlet, man would regress”.

An example of this within native culture is the limitation of subsistence. Cox stated that “festivity is at the heart of indigenous human celebration and imagination – a society’s celebrations come from harvest”. This stands true with Alaska Native people. Traditions spring from the hunting and gathering way of life. Stories, songs, and dances are created and passed down from generation to generation, preserving oral history. Rites of passage, life lessons, cultural norms and behaviors are taught based on a need for survival, which was subsistence.

It could be argued that a result of this loss of culture has led to the disproportionately high level of death and disease among Alaska Native people, resulting from poor diet and inactivity. The denial and limitation of subsistence hunting impacted the people by changing their eating habits profoundly, coupled with the significant reduction in activity as well.

Cox stated that Man perceived himself in time. “Cut a man off from his memories or his visions and he sinks to a depressed state”. The same is true for Alaska Native people. “So long as it can absorb what has happened to it and move confidently toward what is yet to come its vitality persists”. But when a civilization becomes alienated from its past and cynical about its future, its spiritual energy flags. It stumbles and declines”.

In an Indian Health Service Disparity Trends Report, published February 2001, it shows that American Indians and Alaska Natives experience a disproporationate rate of mortality compared to other Americans. This includes 740% higher rate of alcohol-related deaths and 190% higher rates of death by suicide.

Cox’s third and final argument is that “man will grasp his divine origin and destiny only if he regains the capacity for festive revelry and the ability to fantasize”.

Alaska Natives are beginning to embrace their divine origin and grasp for their destiny, diligently working to regain the capacity of embracing cultural practices and envisioning and executing innovative ways of life into the future.

The far off drumming is gaining its strength. Alaska Native people are at a place in time, where a true reconciliation of westernization and culture can become a reality.