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Another Short Alaska Native Life

October 2, 2011

Lena “Terri” Joseph passed away while living on the streets in Anchorage. I didn’t know her, but she had friends who loved her and discussed her on Facebook. One of her friends shared a picture of a very beautiful young Terri. It was said of her, “She experienced a lot (sic) tragedy in her life,.…” She was Alaska Native and died too young.

Hannah6, a hater blogger on Anchorage Daily News, stated a viewpoint common among readers of a tragic story like this. Responding to a compassionate comment berating another writer, Hannah6 said “You condone people who are so irresponsible they won’t even take proper care of themselves,…”

My friend John Franklin, former Anchorage Commissioner of Public Safety who has since passed on, shared a more compassionate view with me. John would sit at Peratrovich Park in downtown Anchorage in the early 1980’s and greet street people by name. Because of his own challenges in life, John knew the challenges they faced and respected them as people enough to know them.

After a lifetime of working to find solutions to the problems of homelessness, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and other social and behavioral problems, I believe the solution has been identified. Dr. Vincent Felitti, a hero of mine just like John is, cared so much about his morbidly obese patients that he asked one question of a patient that changed his life—“What happened to you?” The answer surprised him and set him on a path that resulted in the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACES). The results of the study identified the considerable impact of ACE’s on the adoption of negative behaviors later in life. The neurodevelopment of adolescents is affected when they grow up with ACE’s. Having an alcoholic parent, depressed parent, absent biological parent, witnessing domestic violence in the home and 6 other adverse experiences has an impact on you as an adult. 15% of adults with 4 ACE’s become alcoholic, and 25% have severe problems with alcohol. With no ACE’s, the impact is about 5%.

Haters like Hannah6 attribute problems experienced by people like Terri to be personal moral failings. Science tells us that Terri experienced multiple ACE’s in her life, and never got the help she needed to escape the neurobiological pull of those same negative behaviors in her life. They are in many ways a biological imperative, or solution, for ACE victims wanting to find a normal life. The problem is the solutions don’t work. They become problems instead.

ACE’s can impact children in all homes. Mommy Dearest is a book about Joan Crawford, a white wealthy mother who perpetrated ACE’s on her daughters. While we may not feel sympathy towards Joan, the chances that she experienced multiple ACE’s in her life is reported to be high and undoubtedly affected her behaviors, and the behaviors of her children.

My Alaska Native people experience a lot of ACE’s in their lives. Historical trauma drove our ancestors to behaviors that now pass trauma intergenerationally from grandparent to parent to child. I have been advocating for an ACE’s study to be conducted among Alaska Natives and American Indians so we can understand the impact of ACE’s in our lives. I have been advocating for a reformation of our Health Care System to integrate behavioral health services into our primary care offerings. And I am asking that we have a dialogue on the impact of ACE’s in the lives of our people.

My hope is that the knowledge that our behaviors are not always the result of personal moral failing, but from neurological adaptations to childhood trauma, will start us on a path to healing. Terri’s life ended tragically, decades before it should have. A girl who should have developed into a woman full of life and love ended up on the streets because of issues in her childhood beyond her control.

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