A Dream Becoming a Reality
In the northwestern region of Alaska, substance use treatment services have been reduced during the past decades to a limited outpatient service in Nome. As treatment services decreased, the symptoms of substance use behaviors reached crisis levels. These symptoms included escalating statistics of the loss of life, loss of children, loss of future, loss of health, loss of safety and respect, loss of culture, loss of language, and the loss of subsistence.
Once a dream, Liitfik’s Cultural Committee in the Bering Strait region of rural Alaska is now a reality. It evolved to respond to need, coalescing into a forum for the region to become more vital and involved. As a committee, it is a gathering among peoples from diverse places and backgrounds who are working to bring substance use treatment services to the region. As a Cultural Committee, it is a lens comprised of peoples looking into the region’s traditional values and activities to support the healing strengths for Liitfik’s treatment services. A Co-Chair explains: “We have regular teleconferences…and we are working with our Elders…”
Through this Cultural Committee, seeds of sovereignty are sprouting for all St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Central Yupik and Inupiat peoples in the Bering Strait region. This committee is revitalizing Alaska Native traditional cultural values and practices in the region in their efforts to connect treatment to traditions. It is more than a poster on a wall, it is a living collective reconciling with the past, living in the present and creating the future.
Coming to fruition about four years ago, the Cultural Committee decided as an initial program development step that The Wellness Center, the name of the planned comprehensive treatment program, be changed to reflect the region’s history. In discussing this plan, the Cultural Committee determined that “Liitfik,” a St. Lawrence Island Yupik word which means “a place of learning, a place to come to your senses and a sobering place,” was appropriate. The Elders in the village of Gambell had suggested “Liitfik” as the program’s name.
The committee respectfully recommended that Norton Sound Health Corporation’s Board of Directors rename The Wellness Center to “Liitfik.” Dedicated to being inclusive, Norton Sound Health Corporation’s Board of Directors asked that the other regional Alaska Native dialects also be included in the naming of this program. Thus, the committee considered “Naguqsawrik,” which is Inupiaq for “a place to improve in health and appearance, to get better,” and “Elicarvik,” which is Yupik for “a place to learn.” However, as the Elders in Gambell later told the committee that Gambell had historically been a place of healing and strengthening for the region’s peoples, the final renaming was agreed upon to be Liitfik.
Liitfik’s Cultural Committee is unique in its structure and process. While this committee has co-chairs and a wellness coordinator, it does not adopt “Robert’s Rules of Order” to guide meetings. It includes peoples from the wider community and does so in a manner that works best for the tribal communities throughout the region with gentle respect, collaboration, and cooperation. This group engages with spaciousness and openness, allowing synergy to surface naturally. During meetings, all voices count, all creative ideas are considered and all gifts are honored, particularly those of Native Elders from the region.
As the Cultural Committee formed, there was group consensus to begin with interviewing the region’s Elders as an initial step toward creating traditionally-based substance use and mental health treatment services. Based on seven questions, interviews with the region’s Elders began in 2011. “The Elders’ voices spoke as one in support of the need for Liitfik in the region, the recognition of the harm, loss and pain in the region, the use of traditional activities to replace the habits of addiction, the re-awakening of spirituality and strength from the traditions in the treatment services, and named Elders in the region who should be a part of Liitfik’s Elders Council” (printed with permission from the unpublished “Collected Interviews with Regional Elders”). These responses included:
“It would be very good to have Elders as part of staff as when an Elder enters the room the air changes.”
“Using our cultural and traditional values is the ONLY way. We lost all that. In losing our identity, we lost pride. We need to bring that back so we’ll have pride. That is who we are, gathering and subsistence. The whole thing is part of who we are.”
The Elders who were interviewed acknowledged unique cultural traditions and practices among the different tribal communities in the region. Yet a common theme emerged, that revitalizing cultural traditions and practices is important for healing. As explained by one Elder, “This would be our biggest tool to help people…Traditional activities are the most healing for us.” This Elder further shares about the important role that Elders in the region have: “The Elders are respected and have knowledge about culture and what the people have gone through. In the last 50 years there have been dramatic changes and damages to our culture…People do trust the Elders. It is valuable to have them there.” Elders are the core foundation for the Cultural Committee.
The Cultural Committee is a leading model of Alaska Native cultural re-awakening among health and social services throughout the state. Supported by funding streams from three primary sources, The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, The State of Alaska Division of Behavioral Health Services and Norton Sound Health Corporation, the Cultural Committee represents a coalition of stakeholders statewide.
The Cultural Committee is an evolving grassroots effort which is developing its own “best practices,” which are based in local contexts and communities. This effort creates a balance between evidenced-based practices and the belief that the region’s Elders and traditions hold the solutions for its peoples. There can be tension between evidenced-based practices and traditional practices, which is not unusual among indigenous communities. The Cultural Committee is a powerful voice in the contemporary dialogue between balancing the region’s traditions and “best practice” to the substance use crisis in western Alaska. As a Cultural Committee Co-Chair shares: “Getting involved with drugs and alcohol kind of led us away from other things, like subsistence living and traditional values which taught us how to be. And, living that way, kind of losing that insight, we want to see us come back to that, getting away from substance use.”
As we re-awaken and harness the value of peoples and multiple perspectives in this dialogue, it is a journey that is unfolding.
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