Elders to Sealaska: 'It is your responsibility to ensure our cultural survival'

Indian Country Today

Indian Country Today Newscast on Tuesday, August 4 with guest Rosita Worl, and our national correspondent Joaqlin Estus

Indigenous people are used to overcoming obstacles in stressful situations and COVID-19 has created another opportunity to prevail. In Alaska, where they've had recent outbreaks, Native organizations are structured differently from the lower 48. 

On today's newscast Rosita Worl, Tlingit, explains how Alaska Native corporations are handling the pandemic and explains why they were created in the first place under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

Worl is the president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute and she says Indigenous resiliency gives her faith for the future. She's looking forward to a new art campus under construction in downtown Juneau right now. 

Our national correspondent Joaqlin Estus has the latest on COVID-19 outbreaks in Alaska. 

Here are some of the highlights.

Rosita Worl:

"It is a responsibility of the corporations to provide for the social and economic welfare of our shareholders but we go beyond shareholders, we go to the children or descendants of shareholders and Sealaska Heritage Institute was created by Sealaska corporation at the express demand, I should say, or direction from our elders."

"Our elders came to Sealaska and said, 'It is your responsibility to ensure our cultural survival." So Sealaska created the Sealaska Heritage Institute. And our primary functions are of course, cultural revitalization, cultural enhancement, language revitalization, and it is a revitalization at this point in time. And we also have many educational programs and it runs the full gamut from baby Raven books to partnerships with the University of Alaska Southeast with the Institute of American Indian arts. We cover the full range of social and cultural activities."

"The corporation is for Natives who are enrolled to the corporations. I also wanted to say that we created our corporations because we wanted to have control of our land. This was a motivating force for us to settle our Aboriginal land claims. I mean, all the other extraneous things were important for the state but for Native people was to settle our Aboriginal land claims. And we went with corporations, I don't know that we actually thought about corporations, but it was a concept of control of our land. And we had seen from our brothers and sisters in the lower 48, how trust lands are controlled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And we saw veterans, military folks would go off and then come back and find out that their lands had been leased for 99 years. So we wanted to make sure that we had control. And, it sounds like, we're only for profit but we're much more than that. Our elders demanded that we have the responsibility to making sure that we ensure the cultural survival of all of our societies."

"We have many programs and one of the first things that we said is we had to have the right mindset. And as we said, we have to look at the opportunities that this creates for us. I mean, we went through a lot of hardships indeed but we are so lucky to have a great staff, a great team, and they work together. And we had young folks and I think the young folks are really important because they understand technology. And so we were able to transfer many of our programs to virtual platforms."

"There's a lot of poverty in our communities. I was surprised to find out within the urban communities, we had people who didn't have internet. And I was really saddened to hear that. And I kept saying, well internet should be...it's just like food. It's food for our brain nowadays. And so I said, you know, we have to make sure that people are paid so they can access the internet but a lot of our people also didn't have computers. And then in a lot of our villages, we didn't have good internet. So we had to figure out how do we serve them? And we ended up buying a lot of iPads and sending those out to the villages and we'd send new material out into the villages on a regular basis."

"That was difficult with the fiscal crisis that we're facing here in Alaska, our ferry system was shut down. And so that created a lot of problems. Our communities, we have no roads connecting most all of our villages. We're a maritime people and our people who live on islands and so without the ferry system at the low cost, lower cost, we weren't assured of getting regular food supplies into our communities. And if they had to depend on airlines then that increased the cost of everything from education to food. So it really did hit us hard, but, fortunately at least for our program, we're able to to deal with it. Like I said we have an exceptional team and it was the young ones that really helped us move to that virtual platform."

"I've always said, this is the first generation where older people are learning from the young, or they should be anyway."

"First of all, there are five major cultural groups in Alaska and I know people would call them Eskimos Northern or Southern Eskimos but, like everywhere, we want to be called by our own tribal names. So we have the Yuit, the Inupiat, the Athabascans - and Athabascans have many relatives in the, like the Apaches and the Navajos - and then we also have...and then here in Southeast Alaska, we have the Tlingit, Haida and....So our corporations serve primarily those groups, but I will say, that in our programming, a part of our job is educating non-Native people about our culture because we always say that the shame to our culture came from outside and it was those outside people who didn't understand our culture. So we spend a lot of time with teachers, educating teachers about our culture and history. And in fact, we're, in a couple of days, going to have a very large virtual conference with, I think about 250 educators from around the state to talk about education and the importance of culture in education."

"I'm a very optimistic person. And here in Southeast Alaska, our economy was basically shut down because we are dependent on the visitors industry. But I still have faith in the future and we actually are starting construction on our arts campus, even though I'm a little short of money, I just feel like we're working very hard to raise the rest of that money, but our arts campus is not only about cultural survival but it's also about economic survival. And we think that the construction that's starting right in downtown Juneau, it's a statement, it's a statement that we have lived through hard times before and we have survived."

"This is a common theme that we're hearing Indigenous people talk about, that impacts and stress is nothing new to us. It might've put us down for a period but I think being resilient people, we still have hope for the future. And I think the construction of our arts campus is one indication and statement to people that we have faith, that we are going to be able to rebound and with our visitors industry. We're being optimistic but realistic too."

"In Alaska our people were really hit hard with the pandemic. We have artists who earn their livelihood through the sale of arts. And in a lot of our communities we don't have large scale development and our people are still dependent on hunting and fishing but they also have to have access to cash. And one of the ways of access to cash is through sale of arts and crafts so their capital cash economy declined. So as a result, our people are more dependent on hunting and fishing and that remains a struggle for us. I was just having lunch with someone and I said, 'Why is it we always have to fight? we always have to fight for what is rightfully ours?"

"Right now we're very concerned about, for example, herring eggs and herring eggs, it's a real delicacy, but for the last several years it's been a real struggle for us to be able to maintain that subsistence lifestyle or activity. And so in our villages they're very dependent on hunting and fishing. So we've had to work to make sure that the regulations are not too restricted. I mean, of course, we want to protect our wildlife populations. We're not going to hunt them to death. We've been living here for 10,000 years and we have to live in harmony and balance but in time of need like this our people can't be criminals to feed their families."

Joaqlin Estus:

"The last time we talked, you remember, people were really worried about an outbreak because you'd have a region with 3 or 4,000 residents and 14,000 workers coming in from out of state. The state and the fish processing plant operators put down some really strict restrictions. So workers would be tested before they came to Alaska, once they arrived, they'd be in quarantine for 14 days. They'd get tested again. They'd get their temperature taken every day. Yet - things seem to be going really well for awhile - then a couple of weeks ago there were outbreaks, within days of each other."

"So the numbers went from a couple of dozen to 360 cases in a matter of like four days, I think it was. So I'll tell you about one of them, just because it's a good example of the problems this poses. The American Triumph factory trawler came up to Alaska, out in the Aleutian islands from Seattle with a crew of 110 people. And when they got to Unalaska, seven of those 110 people didn't feel well. So they were taken to the tiny clinic in Unalaska with its staff of four people and tested. And out of those seven, six tested positive. So they said, well, we're going to test everybody on the ship. And they did. And out of 110 people, 85 tested positive."

"It shows you how, how this virus migrates from one host to another. But the other interesting thing about it is that out of the 85 people who tested positive, only seven felt unwell. There were outbreaks also in Juneau and in Seward. And most of the people in those places who were infected were non-residents but in Anchorage, at the plant where they had an outbreak, they were residents. And that means that they were not staying on plant grounds. Every day at the end of their shift, they'd go get in their car, drive home, they'd be together with their family. They might stop at the grocery store. So officials are really worried that the 60-some people who tested positive at that plant in Anchorage would be carrying the disease throughout the community. And we'd have another huge outbreak here. The other thing about this is that the plant operators did so much to try and prevent the spread of disease. So it's surprising."

As for shortages of testing supplies, "the thing is, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage has been pulling together supplies and staff and equipment for anybody, for any community that has an outbreak. They have these teams that they send out to help. So Fort Yukon in the interior of Alaska had an outbreak as well, and they sent a team there to help out. So, it's not that they have plentiful, ample, lots of everything, but what they have they are allocating as needed in the places that need it the most."

There's been a resignation of a leader in tribal health in Alaska. "Katherine Gottlieb is kind of a giant in the tribal health services field here in Alaska. She won a MacArthur Genius Award several years ago. And she's pretty much recognized internationally for the innovations that she put into a primary care center here in Anchorage. They serve 65,000 people. They have a wide range of services. The way she describes it is the care is based on relationships. So you pick your primary care provider and you can usually see them whenever you make an appointment. She resigned after her husband and two other dentists - he was the chief of staff - the three of them were fired for signing off on dental work they hadn't done. And so there was an independent investigation. There have not been charges filed, though."

Also in the newscast, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye has the latest numbers of positive COVID-19 tests in Indian Country.

The anchor and executive producer of the newscast is Patty Talahongva.

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