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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 15, 2002 - Issue 63


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Native American Leaders Celebrated by the Ford Foundation

credits:Photo of Sarah by James H. Barker Photo of Denise by Jared Leeds

The Ford Foundation recently recognized community leaders for outstanding leadership. We salute these two Native American women who are making a difference:

Local and Global Leadership, Gwich'in Style: Sarah James

An indigenous people fight to protect their culture on Alaska's coastal plain.

The challenge
The Gwich'in, or "Caribou People," of Alaska depend on hunting, particularly of the 130,000-strong Porcupine (River) caribou herd, for approximately 75 percent of their protein and calories – as well as clothes, tools and other life-sustaining materials. For at least 10,000 years, the Gwich'in have lived by hunting and conserving on a coastal plain bordering the Arctic Ocean, home to polar bears, rare birds and musk ox, where caribou give birth to their young. "My people are called the Caribou People because the Caribou return every year to our homelands to give birth to between 30,000 and 40,000 calves each year." The Gwich'in call this area "The Sacred Place Where Life Begins." But the oil industry prizes the region for its potential. If this plain is invaded, the Gwich'in believe, the caribou calving grounds may be harmed, possibly destroyed, and the culture and traditions of the Gwich'in would fade. Sarah James's small community, population 130, borders the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (A.N.W.R.). Her people have among the lowest per capita incomes and highest harvest of subsistence foods in North America. "We truly live a life far-removed from urban centers, with no running water, small log homes heated by wood, and gasoline for our snow machines costing over $5.00 per gallon," she says. Despite the fragility of their culture, the Gwich'ins interests have largely been overlooked in the decades-old debate about energy security.

The winds of commitment
Sarah James is a Neets'aii Gwich'in Indian from Arctic Village, Alaska, the northernmost Indian tribe in North America. Gwich'in is James's first language. She grew up traditionally, following the caribou migration. As a Gwich'in, she was born with motivation to care for her land. "Loss of the caribou would mean the end of my people, much like the loss of the buffalo resulted in the decimation of many indigenous cultures in the Great Plains over a century ago," she says. But James did not choose to become a leader for the Gwich'in; that choice was made for her. For almost 20 years, Sarah James quietly served her people as a community health aide, in a log cabin with no running water, and founder of a preschool. Then, in 1988, the elders and spiritual leaders of the entire Gwich'in nation – encompassing 15 villages and several million acres of remote land in northeastern Alaska and Canada – chose her to become the public spokesperson for preserving the caribou, the land they travel, and the Gwich'in culture.

The Gwich'in voice is being heard. That is Sarah James's central accomplishment. She has successfully inserted the previously excluded Gwich'in voice into the debate about the fate of the Alaska coastal plain. Her goal is to reframe the debate, from a dispute about environment versus oil, to one that includes the question of cultural survival. "Our human rights – the ability to live off the land and provide for our families the way our ancestors have done for thousands of years – are not considered in this debate." Moreover, the issues "may be viewed as minority rights versus majority rights." But, she points out, "we have a legal relationship with the U.S. government, based on our uninterrupted use and occupancy of this land and two centuries of case law and international treaties signed by the U.S., which protects our way of life and ability to choose to continue to live by hunting and protecting the caribou."

James brings people from all over the world to Arctic Village and the Gwich'in villages to meet the Caribou People and better understand their way of life. She has traveled far to bring the story of her people to the world, speaking in many countries about indigenous rights, human rights, and environmental issues. To share the Gwich'in's message, she has performed caribou drum and traditional songs at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City and at the first "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. She has been a keynote speaker at conferences and symposia around the world and has provided testimony to both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. She is a board member of the International Indian Treaty Council, a national representative for the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments, a special advisor to the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council and a member of the indigenous people subcommittee of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. She has educated the Gwich'in about bioaccumulation of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), especially in cold artic regions, and how this disproportionately affects indigenous people who consume large amounts of fish and meat. She mentored a young, well-educated man from her community, who eventually attended United Nations-sponsored international treaty negotiations for the elimination of POPs. He is now a statewide spokesperson and organizer on the issue.

As a spokesperson and alliance-builder, she has worked with Arctic Village and neighboring Venetie to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and strengthen their traditional culture by using renewable resources such as wind and solar power. (In remote communities, electricity is produced with diesel fuel and generators.) In the summer of 2001, this vision became a reality with the installation of solar panels that produce power in the two communities. "This is the start of creating our own energy independence, of walking the walk," she says. Sarah James has also launched an effort to create a community radio station powered by renewable energy. It will broadcast conventionally over the airwaves, and also on the Internet – in her people's indigenous language as well as in English. She has already secured $152,000 for the project, and has involved her entire community in the effort. This use of technology, she believes, will help preserve her people's language and traditions. And then many Gwich'in voices will reach around the globe – speaking for the caribou, for the kind of energy independence that preserves nature, and for a way of life.

How she leads
Collaborative leadership comes naturally to Sarah James because her culture requires it. Leadership within a tribal setting is a unique blend of humility, consultation with the elders and setting an example by doing. Her role can best be defined as that of a collaborative teacher. Before taking public stands, she must confer with her people and receive their consent. "My work in addressing this issue, as directed to me by my Tribal Elders, is to educate people about the consequences of their actions and to speak out to defend our human rights and protect our culture and way of life," she explains. "This includes educating both the ‘outside' world as well as our own people." Most of her work is done as an unpaid volunteer. By necessity and desire, she builds collaborative links to other organizations and people. "Indigenous peoples are an impoverished political minority with very little perceived power," she says. "As a result, politicians and other decision makers ignore our concerns and perspectives. For our voice to be heard and projected …we necessarily must find and support allies wherever and however we can. Thus, I believe my work and leadership role must be broad-based and boundary-crossing." While environmental organizations are natural allies, she has also cultivated strategic partnerships with religious groups, human and civil rights organizations, musicians and artists. "Part of this strategy was and continues to be to refocus the terms of the debate so that oil drilling in A.N.W.R. is not just seen as an environmental issue."

The future
Because of the way in which Gwich'in leaders are selected, James's work will continue – even when she can no longer do it. This is also true because of the alliances she has formed, the communications technologies she has introduced so that other Gwich'in voices can be heard around the world, and because she has trained Gwich'in youth to protect their culture's heritage. "My approach is to combine the strength and wisdom of our cultural knowledge and practices with the positive aspects of modern society and technology…while still being guided by our traditional values. Reaching out to our young people through school events, summer language immersion programs, cultural enrichment projects, and other activities are essential." And, she emphasizes, the Caribou People's struggle should inform other cultures about their own future. "It is so important to find the common ground of all people. Some people think this is so hard to do because we come from many diverse cultures. But the truth is, that we only must look down to the ground and see that we are standing on the same ground. We drink the same water, breathe the same air. We all have children and they have children and we want them all to survive in a healthy and just world…. We are all caretakers of the earth."

More about Sarah James

  • "The Gwich'in, who call this area 'The Sacred Place Where Life Begins,' know that all is connected and that if the caribou calving grounds are destroyed, their culture and traditions will soon follow."
    – Brian Hirsch, Ph.D. and Assistant Research Professor, Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska, Anchorage, and Executive Director of Earth Energy Systems
  • "The caribou is not just what we eat, but who we are. It is in our dances, stories, songs and the whole way we see the world. Caribou is how we get from one year to the other. "
    – Sarah James, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), March 18, 2001

Contact Information

Sarah James
Gwich'in Steering Committee
P.O. Box 51
Arctic Village, AK 99722
Phone: 907-587-5315
Fax: 907-587-5316
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People of the Dawn: Denise Altvater

A Maine woman helps Native youth reclaim their past and future.

The challenge
The Wabanaki, or "People of the Dawn," live in Maine and Canada in an informal confederacy of four tribes: the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy. Maine's two largest reservations are located in one of the most remote and economically deprived areas in the United States. Washington County has a per capita income of $9,607 with an average annual income on the reservations of $6,654. The unemployment rate is typically 63 percent; nearly 30 percent of those living on the reservation live well below the poverty level. Forty percent of the Native American population in Maine is under the age of 18, the school dropout rate is 30 percent, and the average educational achievement is the eighth grade. Some young people have no permanent homes and move from house to house seeking shelter. One third to one half of Wabanaki ages 15-30 are abusers of alcohol or drugs. Suicide rates for all native people in Washington County are high.

Seeds of commitment
"I grew up on a remote reservation in Maine, and my story is as common today as it was 20 years ago," says Altvater. "Isolation, poverty, violence and unthinkable abuse. Throughout those endless years I carried an image in my mind of someone special who would one day come along and save me from the despair and evil that surrounded me." Altvater was taken from the reservation at age 10 and placed in non-native foster homes around the state. She felt desperate and trapped. "I tried out for cheerleading and was overwhelmed with joy that I had made the squad only to have a group of girls cut my uniform into pieces, drag me into the bathroom and cut off my long black hair." Her healing began the day she sat at a drum ceremony with a group of young people and smudged herself with cedar and sage. Smudging, she explains, is a traditional cleansing done with sacred medicines and an eagle feather to prepare people to work to their potential and to let go of the negative influences and thoughts that keep them stuck. "Something magical happened when we began to drum. I could feel a connection to all that was around me and I knew that I had finally found the place where I belonged. I was ready to try to be a special person to at least one child. I may not ride a beautiful white horse, as the person in my childhood image did, but I can touch with a loving hand, teach with a knowledge that can't be learned in books and lead with a courage that has emerged from great fear."

In a region where people and communities have been isolated and often powerless for decades, Denise Altvater has created a supportive web of connection and communication, which she views as anessential step to improving Wabanaki conditions. Early in Altvaters's tenure on the staff of the American Friends Service Committee, most programs were run independently by people from outside the native communities. She combined the youth programs of the five reservations, and worked with adults from the tribes to help Wabanaki young people develop a sense of cultural and personal pride. This, she believed, would serve as an antidote to the isolation and oppression they faced. In the process, she believed, the tribes would learn new ways of working together. Under her leadership, A.F.S.C.'s Wabanaki Program has grown to become a vital hub of activity for youth while working for the rights of all indigenous people. "Over the past ten years, youth work has moved from sports-centered activities that take place on isolated reservations between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., to a nurturing community of concerned people who work across vast geographic distances and at all hours of day and night to ensure that our young people are cared for and listened to," Altvater reports.

While young people are primary constituents of the Wabanaki Youth Program, Denise's work improves the lives of entire communities. Some recent examples: • Altvater and other Wabanaki adults who had been placed in foster homes as children helped train more than 500 Maine Department of Human Services workers in how to comply with a 1978 federal law designed to reduce the high number of native children being sent to live with non-native families. The training included education in Wabanaki culture and methods of keeping native children within their communities. • She is one of the primary organizers of an annual Youth Wellness Institute and helped create the Wabanaki Youth Alliance, which trains youths from each community in topics chosen by the young people: internalized repression, racism, suicide prevention and sexuality. •Altvater and Wabanaki youth leaders helped organize the National A.F.S.C. Indigenous Youth Gathering held in August, 2000 in Lake Tahoe, Calif. • She helped Wabanaki youth leaders design projects aimed at challenging homophobia in the community. • To combat school violence and racism against native youths, Altvater developed cultural exchanges among schools in the Northeastern United States. • She provided anti-racism and cutural training for Washington County jail guards. • She was one of six founders of Silent Cry, a group for sexual abuse survivors, which transformed itself into an activist group called Screaming Eagle. • In March, she helped organize the Indigenous Women's Voices Gathering at the University of Southern Maine, a ground-breaking event providing women and girls with the opportunity to learn, drum and sing.

Her leadership style
Altvater integrates traditional spiritual and cultural practices into all of her work. She has woven Wabanaki traditions into the program, including talking circles (an approach to community problem-solving), healing rituals and lessons in Wabanaki history. She considers collaborative leadership particularly important to the tribes of Maine because "so many problems are rooted in the personal and cultural isolation that Wabanaki experience. Transformation depends on building healthy relationships among people and groups, and so my leadership style involves cultivating deeper respect and trust. This means sharing of leadership and a reconnection to our traditions." In her work, she uses the teachings of the traditional Medicine Wheel, "which include the concepts of balance, harmony, interconnectedness and aligning spirit with intent. We embrace conflict as a guidance system and tool for growth."

The future
The Wabanaki Program has developed a sustainable team of youth leaders, professional youth workers and volunteers. "We hold quarterly weekend gatherings on different reservations, bringing youth from these tribes together to build cultural awareness and bonds for the future," she says. The program also nurtures greater understanding between native youth and non-native youth through cultural exchanges, hosting youth groups from Boston, Chicago and other cities and towns and sending Native youth to those cities. Altvater believes that something essential has returned to the people, and that the young will carry it forward. Long ago, she says, the Wabanaki people of the region that became Maine and Eastern Canada assembled in an annual gathering. "They would bring the Sacred Fire that bound all of the communities together. The Sacred Fire was entrusted to one community during the year and, at the end of that year, the community leaders would bring it - literally, run it – to the annual gathering. There, the fire would be transferred to the care of another Wabanaki community. This tradition and ritual bound the people together. One hundred years went by without the Sacred Fire ritual." In recent years, as the Wabanaki have rediscovered their cohesion and traditions, the Sacred Fire ritual has returned.

More about Denise Altvater and the Wabanaki
"There are seven prophecies of the Wabanaki and we believe that we are currently in the time of the seventh fire. The first prophecy spoke of the chosen ground that is shaped like a turtle, which will begin and end our journey. The second speaks of our camps along the great waters and loss of the sacred shell of our direction. The third marks the time when the path is found to the chosen ground, where food grows upon water. The fourth fire told of the coming of the light skinned people and what to expect. The fifth told of a time of great struggle that will grip the lives of all Native people. The sixth tells of sickness and the loss of balance in our lives through the taking of our children and loss of the teachings, which would result in many losing their will to live. The seventh fire is upon us. New people will emerge to retrace the steps of our ancestors, find what was lost and light the eternal fire of peace. We were told of a great healing that would start in the east and move to the south during the seventh fire. We would know when that time has come because the heartbeat of our Mother, through the drum, would once again be heard. The drum was lost for many years. It was the youth who brought the drum back, and the youth who continue to honor it."
– Denise Altvater

Contact Information

Denise Altvater
Program Director
American Friends Service Committee Wabanaki Youth Program
P.O. Box 406
Perry, ME 04667
Phone: 207-853-2317

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  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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