Alaskan Aleutians Less Suicidal

Looking out toward Razorback, Adak Island, Alaska (Photo: Paxson Woelber/Flickr.com)
The indigenous Unangax or Aleut people, living in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, have remarkably low suicide rates compared to some other Alaskan Natives. It is mainly due to three factors.

The indigenous Unangax or Aleut people, living in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, have remarkably low suicide rates compared to some other Alaskan Natives. A research team from the U.S. and Canada, among them two Unangax sisters from False Pass in the Eastern Aleutian Islands, recently published a study, contemplating which factors might contribute to reducing mental health issues and suggest preventive measures against suicide.

Clear cultural identity and standards

The authors of the research article published in Arctic Anthropology suggest that the Unangax low suicide rate is possibly due to three factors: the communities’ clear perception of their cultural identity, cultural revitalization, and the ability to fulfil their culture’s standards of personhood. This means that they are, on average, more readily able to achieve what is regarded as "success" in their culture.

Originally inhabiting the Aleutian Islands between Alaska and the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Unangax population was partly relocated by Russian fur hunters in the 1700s, which is why the Pribilof Islands of Alaska and the Commander Islands, which belong to Russia, are also home to Unangax communities. Through time, they were influenced by Russian, American and Scandinavian cultures, which they integrated into their identity. Usually linked to poor psychological outcomes, this acculturation of Indigenous Unangax identity seems to be the exception.

Integrated identity of a multitude of cultures

"Unangan/s - largely because of the use of their natural resources and commercial fishing, Russian Orthodoxy, cultural revitalization, and social cohesion - have the means to counter these negative feelings," the authors explain in the article.

O’Rourke, a graduate student at the University of Northern British Columbia, lead author of the study, adds: "I think the biggest advantage besides this may be that this gives Unangan/s the ability to competently navigate dominant USA culture and effectively advocate for their communities."

Fishing to integrate different aspects of identity

Commercial fishing can be an important contributor to mental health. It is not only rooted in long Unangax traditions of subsistence fishing and associated social rules and structures, but is also a means to achieving "key acculturated American standards". It provides jobs and therewith economic stability and purpose for the demographic group most at risk of suicide: young Alaska Native men.

High suicide rates among Alaska Natives

Although most Indigenous individual communities in Alaska do not have problems with suicide, the collective suicide rate of Alaska Natives is almost triple the American national average and stands at 35.1 deaths per 100,000 people. The rate of young Alaska Native men is even higher at 141.6 per 100,000. By comparison, the Unangax’ suicide rate is similar to the American national mean.

Proactive approach: cultural revitalization

"I became interested in research on mental health in Indigenous communities in Alaska after spending a summer at an archaeological excavation in a Yup'ik community in the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta region. I was fascinated to learn about how the excavation and related education programs were improving the psychological wellbeing of local youths," O’Rourke says to HNN.

Cultural revitalization and social cohesion are critical aspects to counter feelings of marginalization and isolation. In line with this, many Unangan/s are actively contributing to preserving the specific Unangax aspects of their identity. As an example, in 2003, the Association of Unangan/Unangas Educators (AUE) and co-operators published the guidelines and values for how to live as Unangax.

Indigenous language camps

Camps focusing on cultural revitalization teach participants traditional Unangax life-ways, crafts and skills, such as basket weaving, regalia making, kayak construction, beading headdresses, skinning seals, and various ways of preparing fish. They clarify the indigenous aspects of Unangax identity and can instil collective esteem and pride in their heritage, both of which are likely to foster positive mental health outcomes.

Another part of cultural work - language revitalization - is supported through language camps, in which funding from local organizations, such as the Aleut Foundation allows participants to cover the expensive travel costs.

Positive examples

O’Rourke further emphasizes the need to shed light on communities with a good mental health record: "I think it is really important to acknowledge that not all Indigenous communities have poor mental health outcomes. This will help counter negative stereotypes about Indigenous communities. We often hear on the news about how Indigenous peoples are plagued by suicides, but many communities are thriving!"

Preventive actions

To prevent suicides in indigenous communities, the research team recommends culturally relevant mental health services, programs that facilitate cultural-identity clarity, as well as economic development, which is compatible with the local culture.

However, O’Rourke cautions that further input from Unangan/s is needed in order to find out whether additional factors might also contribute to preventing suicides. He suggests a different approach for future research: "I will take more of a positive approach, rather than focus on suicide, and ask people about the factors, which bring a sense of meaning or fulfilment to their lives."

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