The leadership and culture of Sitka’s indigenous people, who make up a quarter of the city-borough’s population and nearly one-third of its K-12 students, is integral to the social, cultural, and political fabric of this place. But there’s a painful history, too. Russian colonization preceded decades of U.S. government policies that separated native families, suppressed their culture and language, and cemented disparities in education, employment, and health.
Change is afoot, though. Many people here say in the past few years, a new spirit of truth and reconciliation has spurred action to reduce health and other disparities and heal historical wounds.
“When I was in high school, it was so taboo to talk about being native,” says Krista Perala, a case worker in Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s social services department. “Now the schools are embracing [our culture], the hospitals are embracing it.”
Perala has been part of a vital shift in the relationship between the tribe and Alaska’s Office of Children’s Services. The two groups have worked together for five years to better enforce the federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. It gives tribes jurisdiction over custody cases involving native children and aims to keep children from being severed from their native culture and identity.
In Sitka, state and tribe social services and courts personnel have trained and planned together, helping non-native state staff better understand the history and impact of trauma on tribal citizens. The collaboration has created a more culturally sensitive process for keeping native families intact, whenever possible. Recently, one young mother facing parenting challenges wasn’t benefiting from “the Western way of counseling,” Perala says. Then, the woman participated in a 12-week parenting program created for indigenous people.
“She was the star of the group,” Perala says.
These preventive efforts have had a compelling outcome: Sitka now has Alaska’s lowest rate of native children being removed from their homes in child welfare cases.