Alaska Cultural Connections: Urban Elders

Perhaps when you imagine a typical Alaskan Native elder, you think of an older person living in a bush village, or maybe a hub community like Bethel, Barrow or Wrangell.  And that’s still true for many elders.  But increasing numbers are joining their families in Alaska’s cities.  As part of our on-going series looking at how we define ourselves and live our lives as Alaskans, Len Anderson looks at the role of Alaska Native elders in an urban environment.

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According to the 2010 Census, the Municipality of Anchorage has slightly over 23,000 residents of all ages identifying themselves solely as Alaska Native and American Indian.  In Fairbanks, it’s nearly 7,000 and Juneau City and Borough lists around 3,700.  Even without an exact breakdown, many local health services, churches and Native social organizations indicate a sizeable urban elder population.

Elizabeth Medicine Crow is president and CEO of First Alaskans.  That’s the group that organizes the annual Elder and Youth fall conference which immediately precedes the Alaska Federation of Natives convention held each October.

Medicine Crow says the urban relocation gives elder an altered but still important role. Now many not only pass on traditional family and cultural knowledge, but also help bridge geographical divides – no matter how long they themselves may have lived in an urban area.

“Our Elder Keynotes, Sam and Carrie Herman from Mekoryuk, they’ve actually lived in Anchorage for …gosh…years.   But because they are stewards of their culture, they carry that with them no matter where they are.   That’s not place based.  That’s not only geographic based.  It’s who they are,” Medicine Crow said.

Medicine Crow says that self-identification becomes crucial for younger Natives.

“Even if they live in Anchorage, they are still Sam and Carrie Herman from Mekoryuk.  And even when I introduce myself in the role that I have with the organization, I’m from Keex’ Kwaan. I’m from ‘the village that never sleeps.’  I work in Anchorage.  I know lots of other Alaska Native people who are either advocacy or leadership roles across the state or even back in D.C. and that’s…that’s their frame of reference.  Their frame of reference is this is who I am and where I’m from.  I just happen to living here right now,” Medicine Crow said.

To cultivate this sense of identification among the youngest generation in Anchorage, the school district has the Alaska Native Culture Charter School, which has seen robust enrollment and academic success. It also has the “school within a school” for Native students at East High as well as the district wide Native Youth Olmpics.  The Alaska Native Heritage Center offers Native youth several programs where elders teach traditional skills, important to young people without an elder family member nearby.

“My grandparents enriched my life.  I was lucky to live like five minutes from them,” Andrea VanRavenscroft said.

VanRavenscroft sits at a family gathering in her parents’ Northeast Anchorage home. About 25 years ago, doctors advised her grandmother, Norma Gregg, to move from Kotzebue to Anchorage where she could receive dialysis treatment.

“Then my parents moved down after she moved down, and then everybody moved down.  All our aunts and uncles.  They’re still here, even though my gram’s not here anymore. She was like the nucleus of the family. Everyone was always at her house in Kotzebue.  And when she moved here, it took a couple years.  She was the center of the swarm,” VanRavenscroft said.

And if Anchorage made it difficult for her grandfather Ben to teach some traditional hunting and fishing skills, he had other offerings.

“We hear lots of stories about our family, his parents, my cousins, when they were babies  and how they were as babies.  Yeah, he’s still a story teller,” VanRavenscroft said.

Her grandmother succumbed to her illness in 2000.  Andrea’s grandfather still lives nearby, but he’s 86 and the family’s Anchorage center has passed to a younger generation of elders, her parents, Ted and Linda Davidovics.  Linda is Norma and Ben’s daughter.

“Whenever we all  went to their place, they really spoiled us….The home was always open.   We were really spoiled.  And now we have to do that.  It’s our turn,” Davidovics said.

Andrea’s two children, one pre-school and the other a Bartlett High freshman are present.  The little one is playing.  The older listens to her mother and grandmother.

“Anybody can stop by any time they want to.  If they’re hungry, they can come over and eat.  If they just want to sit back and relax, they can come over.  They’re always welcome in our home,” Davidovics said.

Linda Davidovics then asks if everyone has had enough to eat; after all, we have plenty more.

Our series on culture in Alaska is funded by a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum.

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