During my earlier stays in the Southwest of the US I have mainly met two kinds of Native Americans: reckless drunken men and women, and children who have fled to a homeless shelter. This is of course because I have volunteered in a shelter for women and children and because drunken Natives stand out in the streets and on public buses. These experiences have made me think that Native Americans are pitiful human beings who don’t seem to be able to adapt to a modern society.
Various statistics on the social and health status of the Native Americans seem to support the idea of Natives as weaker people than later arrivers to the continent. For example, alcoholism among Native Americans is five times as common as in the mainstream population of the US. Native Americans report two and a half times more rapes than others. Twice as many child abuse cases are reported among the Natives in relation to the national average. Twice as many Natives commit suicide as other Americans. In particular, the number of young people committing suicide is increasing and already is more than one and a half times higher than in other populations.
However recent conversations with my Hopi friend, Aaron Secakuku, have challenged my earlier perception about Natives.
Aaron has been working as the director of the NACA (Native Americans for Community Action) Pathways Afterschool youth program in Flagstaff, Arizona for the last nine years. The program offers indigenous youth living in the Flagstaff area an afterschool program with a Native American focus while providing weekly programming during the school, summer camp and some weekend activities for youth and their families to participate in.
One of the goals of the program is to strengthen children’s identity and self-esteem by introducing them to positive features of the Native culture and helping them to feel part of the extended Native American family where everyone cares for each other. In this way, children are expected to develop a stronger resistance to rootlessness and self-destructive behavior in a middle-sized mountain town characterized by Western culture. Children being busy with constructive activities might also reduce the number of teenage pregnancies.
Aaron grew up in a small village called Bacavi on the Hopi reservation in the northeastern part of Arizona. This Hopi reservation is surrounded by the Navajo reservation. Hunting Navajos and farming Hopis have been squabbling over land for centuries. In recent decades the animosity has been only verbal, and only about territorial issues that federal politicians and administrators have organized in a complicated way. It may seem on paper that the Natives own some land, but because land is held in federal trust, they cannot sell it, buy more land or use land as a collateral to take bank loans for construction of new homes, the real owner of the land is the federal government.
Aaron’s grandparents and parents were wise and aware that education was a important part as a way to a better life. Fortunately, they could afford to send Aaron and his three siblings to a private boarding school for high school. This school was a four-hour drive from the reservation. The high school on the reservation was not offering the quality of education that was satisfactory for his parents at the time and didn’t seem to offer a rigorous academic education.
After five years of studies at the Northern Arizona University Aaron graduated with a bachelor’s of Science degree in Parks and Recreations Management. After completing his college degree, he was hired as the program manager of the Hopi Veterans Memorial Center on the Hopi reservation.
After eight years of working for the Hopi Tribe, Aaron chose to take a leap of faith and resigned from his job with the Hopi Tribe. With no job waiting when he returned to his home in Flagstaff, he began to look for employment in town. He had decided to leave the job on on the reservation because he felt he could no longer work in the environment that had ensued following the completion of a Wellness center. He had been under the impression that based on his experience and education he should have given the oversight of the campus that now included a 2,300 seating capacity multi-purpose facility.
Therefore after eight years of a 3-hour daily round-trip commute from his Flagstaff home to the reservation, Aaron left his position at the centre and began looking for employment in Flagstaff.
“It was a relief: I had more time for my family. And I had left a work environment where I could not make enough use of my skills. Now I have a job where I am valued”, Aaron tells.
However, Aaron’s love for his own culture and tribe is strong. He and his family regularly visit cultural and religious events in his native village as well as other places on the reservations. Hopis have many different ceremonies and rites related to different passages in life and phases of the year. Many Hopi Natives are expected to carry out specific responsibilities in these ceremonies as they learn these roles while growing up. Therefore it is challenging for many Hopis to move away from their village to urban setting for jobs or school and there is a risk of losing their connections and roles for their culture.
“The Native ceremonies have the same effect on me as someone going to church on a weekly basis. They rejuvenate me and make me feel part of a bigger entity. Without them my life would be much emptier. And an occasional hour and a half drive is not an overwhelming obstacle for us, “says Aaron.
Many Natives leave their reservations for cities in the hope of work and an easier life, but are disappointed. Without professional or academic education, it is difficult to find jobs, and they easily perceive the new environment as discriminatory and react by behaving anti-socially. This phenomenon is understandable and universal. Refugees from Carelia on the border with Finland seemed to feel the same way in my home village. Maybe alcoholism, drug use, domestic violence, and suicide are natural reactions to a life situation that feels hopeless, because one doesn’t have a strong positive self-image?
Listening to Aaron, who has balanced his life between two different cultures in a harmonious way, gives me the impression that there is much hope for Native American youth. Many older Natives are working through historic traumas caused by forced assimilation policies before the 1960s. More of today’s children can choose among a range of educational goals and experiences so that they have an opportunity to influence their own lives and build a strong positive self-image as a Native American. Aaron is one of these new role models.