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Arctic Study Asks How Native Youth Stay Healthy

Researchers in four countries, including health educator Lisa Wexler of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, have begun a three-year study of how indigenous young men and women in Arctic communities avoid pitfalls such as alcohol abuse and suicide to become healthy adults.

A key to the $1.09 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s International Polar Year initiative is that it brings tribal leaders from five communities in Norway, Canada, Siberia and Alaska to collaborate with the social scientists. Over the coming year, they’ll listen together to life stories of up to 120 young adults who successfully avoided potentially life-crippling obstacles and have achieved a balance between the modern world and traditional culture.

The elders and researchers want to learn, simply, what works on the path to healthy adulthood. They’ll share findings, created new links where needed and start new programs based on the new knowledge.

Wexler of UMass Amherst and the university’s Institute for Global Health, with colleagues from five other universities will hold their first meeting with Inupiat, Yup’ik, Sami, Eveny and Inuit community leaders at Cambridge University in the UK on March 29. Wexler, a longtime resident of Kotzebue, Alaska, agrees with co-investigator Michael Kral of the University of Illinois, who points out that “We’re actually hoping to see the knowledge go sideways in this study.”

This approach is more acceptable to local people who too often see power in outsiders’ hands, Wexler and Kral say. Collaboration is an appropriate model because the knowledge is ultimately being gathered to benefit the communities. The process will uphold respect for cultural identity, subsistence lifestyles, basic human dignity and values, and a concept known in northwest Alaska as Inupiat Ilitqusiat, or “those things that make us who we are.”

Inupiat elder Willie Goodwin hopes the study will “open some doors to figure out how to support our youth in doing their best.” He and the social researchers know that much previous research focused on negative statistics and risk factors. They note that indigenous peoples’ resilience and healthy adaptation have not been adequately considered, while the impact of colonial and contemporary suffering has been extensively documented. They hope to identify similarities across communities, young peoples’ strengths and resources, and develop new ideas for supporting them.

Wexler says, “Our study fits well into the larger scope of what the people are trying to create in their communities and in the circumpolar region. We are trying to build onto and learn from what the community is already creating.”

Joe Garoutte of the Kotzebue Tribal Council says his community “has changed a lot for the better in the last 30 years.” He hopes the study will show participants how change affects today’s youth. Natar Ungalaq, a young sculptor from the Igloolik and Inuit communities in Nunavut, Canada, is eager to be a part of the project. “We already know what the problem is,” he says. Ungalaq, star of the movie, The Fast Runner, adds, “We need action. This is action. Let other people see successful young people.”

Wexler expects setting up steering committees, deciding on questions, agreeing on shared focus areas and recruiting participants to take about a year. Data collection and preliminary analysis will be conducted in the second year, followed by final analysis. Results will be reported not only in scholarly journals but in community presentations and on the Internet. The researchers will invite interested youth and community members to help shape the scientific study.

In addition to Wexler at UMass Amherst, other co-principal investigators are: James Allen and Gerald Mohatt, University of Alaska Fairbanks; Olga Ulturgasheva, Cambridge University, UK, and Eveny native of Topolinoye, Siberia; Michael Kral, University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and University of Toronto; Kristine Nystad, Sami University College, Kautekeino, Norway, and Benedicte Ingstad, University of Oslo.

Lisa Wexler | Newswise Science News
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