Alaska Native Identity Formation: An Application For Mental Health



Identity development theory proposes that the developmental path from infancy through young adult involves a trajectory of exploration from provisional infancy commitments to adult tenets, beliefs, and career objectives. Racial socialization transmits verbal and non-verbal messages regarding the meaning of race that can either enhance or negatively affect Identity formation. Currently, little research has focused on the impact of Alaska Native Identity Formation. This paper focuses on some areas regarding Identity formation and racial socialization and some ideas and recommendations for future research in this vital area of Identity development.

An objective of the Decade is the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous people and their empowerment to make choices which enable them to retain their cultural identity while participating in political, economic and social life, with full respect for their cultural values, languages, traditions and forms of social organization.”

  • General Assembly Resolution 50/157 (December 21, 1995)

Tags: Erik Erikson, Alaska Natives, Inupiat, Identity Formation

Historical Background.

Since the time of the Spanish conquistador, Christopher Columbus, incorrect and inconsistent descriptions have characterized the dominant’s culture concept of American Indians/ Alaska Natives (AI/AN). The main thoughts range from innocent savages to bloodthirsty fiends and everything in-between. In the North Slope Borough (NSB) few reliable health data exist for before the year 1970.

The early history of health and disease in rural Alaska has been primarily based on observations made by European explorers, merchants and traders at the time of contact and with limited archaeological evidence.  (DHSS, 2012, p.18) The contact with non-native traders combined with the harsh physical environment in which they lived, radically changed the life for the natives in rural Alaska.  The contact with the non-native populations brought epidemic infectious diseases such as measles, influenza and tuberculosis (Fortuine, 1992). Alaska natives who were without immunity to these diseases were devastated by these infections in the 19th and 20th century (DHSS, 1993)

An Alaskan field nurse and patient review a manual titled “Home Care of Tuberculosis: A Guide for the Family,” ca. 1940s–1960s. (Courtesy Alaska State Library, Alaska Department of Health & Social Services Photograph Collection)

Not only contact with non-natives introduced these communities to infectious diseases, but also it introduced alcohol and tobacco (DHSS, 1993), both of which have had undeniable mental and health impacts to these communities. To understand some of the current mental health and human development identity issues the current natives are experiencing, it is crucial to understand what happened in the past. Much of the last century also saw damaging social policies, institutionalized discrimination, and contamination of the natural environment upon which many rural communities have relied for food, cultural survival from the land, and spiritual health and connectedness.

Alaska Natives were also subjected to unethical medical experimentation leaving residents angry, frustrated, and confused, leaving them mistrustful of health care and research institutions (National Research Council, 1996). The combination of epidemics, harsh institutional and governmental policies imposed on Alaska Natives disturbed cultural traditions and social relationships, aggravated alcohol, drugs, interpersonal and domestic violence, as well as trauma.  One of the triggering events for suicide in Alaska has been multigenerational and historical trauma.

Statement of the Problem.

Generational trauma may be defined as a secondary form of trauma that results from the transfer of traumatic experiences from parents to their children (Davidson & Mellor, (2001); Motta et al., (1997). As in all rural Alaska Native regions, the people of the NSB have experienced devastating epidemics, systematic methods of assimilation forced removal of children to boarding schools (Evans-Campbell et al., 2012), and other traumatic events.

Natives experienced environmental contamination (ACIA, 2005), and unethical medical experimentation (National Research Council & Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory (1996). These previous factors – environmental contamination and unethical experimentation – compounded the multigenerational grief and victimization that was already impacting the region. Additionally, high rates of suicide, domestic and sexual violence, unintentional injury deaths, continue to traumatize the local communities to this day. These traumatic historical events have affected generations of Native Americans causing hopelessness, hurt and confusion.

Identity Formation in Developmental Psychology

This section focuses on the theory by Erik Erikson (1959, 1968) since he laid the foundation for ethnic identity development and formation process. Erikson’ ego identity status was outlined as a fundamental model associated to the process of making adult commitments concerning values, beliefs, career, and interpersonal relationships. Erik Erikson (1968) names identity formation as the ultimate developmental task of adolescence, for individuals aged ten-to-eighteen. Erikson’s theory also includes the importance of developing a sense of mastery and intimacy; other scholars have also included autonomy, sexuality, and achievement (Carnegie Corporation, 1989 as cited in Balswick, King & Reimer, 2016).

Adolescence indicates a” normal phase of increased conflict characterized by a seeming fluctuation of ego strength and well as by high growth potential” (Erikson, 1968, p.163). According to Erikson, the process of identity formation begins with an infant establishing a sense of self through introjection (Kroger, 2007). Introjection is the process whereby an infant learns the image of others, imitates those images, and creates a sense of security (Kroger, 2007).

Building on a foundation of trust and optimism formed during infancy, toddlerhood brings a flowering of the sense of personal autonomy, enjoyment, and confidence in doing things for oneself and expressing one’s will (Newman & Newman, 2018, p.184). Erikson’s theory is a psychosocial theory, meaning that the developmental process is about the individual AND his/her society. Erikson stated, “for we deal with a process ‘located’ in the core of the individual and yet also in the core of his communal culture, a process which establishes, in fact, the identity of those two identities” (Erikson, 1968, p.22).

Erikson defined “Identity diffusion” as a disruptive fissure of the developing self (1968, p.212). He expounded that identity diffusion existed in a continuum and brought confusion and loss of a center and was more destabilizing to the individual. For instance, If a community classifies and approves an extreme – but transient – but developing negative identity as the individual’s final identity, the individual may “put his energy into becoming what the careless and fearless community expects of him to be – and make a total job of it” (Erikson, 1968, p.196).

One of the triggering events for suicide in Alaska has been multigenerational and historical trauma. As in all rural Alaska Native regions, the people of the North Slope have experienced devastating epidemics, systematic methods of assimilation, forced removal of children to boarding schools (Evans-Campbell et al., 2012), and other traumatic events. For the NSB although the leading cause of death overall is cancer from 2006-2008, the leading cause of premature death is unintentional injury and suicide (DHSS, p.72).

While suicide and interpersonal violence are – not always – categorized as injuries, they share many of the same risk factors, including:  alcohol and drug abuse, as well as multigenerational trauma. Other complex socioeconomic and cultural factors create conditions by which these phenomena tend to brew.  

Racial/Cultural Identity Development Models

Sue and Sue (2016) explain three important therapeutic considerations before working with minority or racial individuals or groups:

  • Therapists often respond to culturally diverse clients in a very stereotypic manner and fail to recognize within-group or individual differences.
  • The strength of the racial/cultural identity model lies in its potential diagnostic value.
  • A vital contribution derived from racial identity models is their acknowledgement of sociopolitical influences in shaping identity.

Sue and Sue (2016) explained five levels of development that oppressed people experience as they struggle to understand themselves in relation to their culture and the dominant culture. The five phases are the following:

I) Conformity Phase:

Persons of color distinguished by their unequivocal preference for dominant cultural values over those of their own culture. Lifestyles, value systems, and cultural / physical characteristics that most resemble White Society are highly valued. On the other hand, values most associated with their own group color are looked with disdain. Individuals in the conformity phase are victims of ethnocentric monoculturalism (a) belief in the superiority of one’s group cultural heritage (b) belief in the inferiority of all other lifestyles (non-white), (c) the power to impose such standards onto less powerful groups. Another characteristic for this phase are individuals suffering with internalized racism.

II) Dissonance Phase:

No matter how one attempts to deny his or her cultural heritage, an individual will encounter experiences that are inconsistent with culturally held beliefs. The dissonance phase is characterized by one individual who feels ashamed of their cultural upbringing, but may encounter another individual who seems proud of their cultural heritage. Denial begins to break down and leads to questioning beliefs from the conformity stage (2016, pg.370). Sometimes traumatic events may precipitate people much faster into this stage.

III) Resistance and Immersion Phase:

Individuals in this phase have the tendency to endorse minority held views completely and reject values of the dominant society. Desire to eliminate oppression an important motivator in the life of this individual. Guilt, shame and anger are characteristic feelings at this stage. Guilt and shame that in the past the individual “sold out” to his own kind. Understanding of racism, oppression and discrimination and own’s role as a victim leads to resolution of those conflicts and confusion (2016, pg.372).

IV) Introspection Phase:

Several factors seem to move from individual from resistance to introspection:

  • The individual experiences that those feelings guilt, shame and anger (directed towards white society) are psychologically draining and does not allow for understanding of the self and the racial-cultural group.
  • The Resistance phase is more of a reaction than a proaction towards the dominant culture. Also the individual may not fully agree with rigid group views during the resistance phase. The individual compromises certain thoughts / actions for the sake of the group. Personal experiences may not favor the group view.
  • Introspection can be confused with conformity. The critical thoughts of an individual in this stage may look similar to the conformity stage. The difference is that the individual in this stage does not have such global negativism against their own group (2016, pg.373).

V) Integrative Awareness:

People in this phase have developed an inner sense of security and can appreciate unique aspects of their culture as well as those of majority culture. Conflicts become resolved, allowing greater individual control and flexibility. The belief that there are acceptable and unacceptable aspects to all cultures and that it’s important for the person to determine which aspects of those cultures to accept or reject. However, the person has a strong commitment and desire to eliminate all forms of oppression (2016, pg.375).

Click Here to Understand the R/CID Identity Model

This Presentation may contain some language but it emphasizes the cultural sensitivity to the age old question "What are you?" 

Sociocultural Change and Native Identity

Anchorage Alaska is home to more Athabascan than Fairbanks, more Yup’ik than Bethel, and more Inupiat than Barrow, the U.S. Census shows (Dunham, 2016). The total percentage of American Indian and Alaska Native peoples living outside American Indian or Alaska Native areas is about 78 percent (Norris, Vines, & Hoeffel, 2012). Therefore, the majority of AI/AN, residing outside of traditionally Indian designated areas, such as reservations and trust lands, and are currently living in more urbanized settings.

According to the sociocultural perspective, contexts more than influence and individual (Markus and Hamedani, 2007). People exist in everywhere in social networks, in relationships with others, in communities and actively constructing their contexts (Markus and Hammedani, 2007). In this active creation of their contexts, psychological processes are formed by an individual’s participation in society. (Markus and Hammedani, 2007). Contexts cannot exist without people and vice versa. The context is not separate from the individual and the context is the “psychological externalized” (Markus and Hammedani, 2007, p.4).

Phinney and Baldelomar (2010) in their Cross-Cultural Identity Status Model, explain how identity and one’s cultural context have mutuality in four ways: identity is relational, identity options are dependent on cultural context, individuals are influenced by their cultural context in choosing identity options, and identity development is influenced by the values and expectations within the cultural context.  

Solastalgia & Therapeutic Considerations

Solastalgia is a new concept developed to give greater meaning and clarity to environmentally induced stress. As opposed to nostalgia – the melancholia experienced by individuals when separated from a loved home – solastalgia is the distress that is produced by the environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected – as it is the case of Native Alaskans – to their home environment (Albrecht et al., 2007).

The term called “solastalgia” (coined by Albrecht) has its roots in “solas” which is land in Greek and “algia” which means pain. Solastalgia is the first step towards a constructed sadness that leads to despair and suicide and that maybe is in the origin of the waves of suicides that afflict many indigenous communities in different parts of the world (WRM, 2016. Para.4). When the totality of the impacts caused to this particular type of Alaska Natives (Inupiat) done in the past by the factors discussed in this article, plus the effects of global warming and the loss of natural habitats to perform hunting, fishing and other activities for environmental health, it creates a potential for large-scale human conflict, as a result from displacement from climate-scarred lands and/or disputes over scarce resources.

There is such a spiritual bond between the native philosophy and the land.  Traditional AI/AN tribes see harmony with natural forces as a traditional way of life. The acceptance of the tremendous forces of nature are an integral belief in native tribes. When natives bring these issues to a traditional counseling setting. It is beneficial for the therapeutic relationship to see, learn and understand that animals, plants, mountains, bodies of water are a universal force to be reckoned with and a reciprocal system for a particular individual seeking help.

Furthermore, many family therapy models are akin to the “Indian Way” consisting of extended families. Family therapy with its emphasis on relationships is particularly effective in working with Indians whose life cycle blends well with the life cycle approach of family therapy. (McGoldrick, Pearce & Giordano, 1984). Some natives struggle to maintain their cultural (and personal) identity, while trying to recapture nearly extinct languages and customs. Because a therapist may not be familiar with all the nuances of a particular Indian culture, the therapist might ask: “what particular cultural traits do you value most and wish to maintain: language, spirituality, family ties?” (McGoldrick, Pearce & Giordano, 1984. P.48).

My Friend Jerica Niayuq with her beautiful Family. Image used with permission from the Author.

Discussion and final points.

This paper examined the historical background regarding Erik Erikson’s Identity Formation model with an application to Alaska Natives. This topic is very much in infancy and deserves much more time and attention within the body of Identity formation research. It is by no means an exhaustive guide

Alaska Natives may not have many identity options available to them but will have interdependent identity achievement due to culturally normative processes. Furthermore, psychology can improve understanding of the behaviors that drive environmental change by building behavioral models and research based on empirical analysis, providing a deeper understanding of individual and community behavior, and applying evaluation research methods to efforts to develop and improve psychological interventions for a wide range of Alaska Natives; specifically in relationship to historical, personal and environmental trauma and address those concerns in the lens of family therapy.

Covert racism in the form of micro-aggressions is subtle and sometimes confuses the individual as to whether a transgression against them has occurred (Sue & Sue, 2016). Covert racism is manifested daily in the lives of natives and it can bring alienation, especially in a therapeutic relationship. McGoldrick and colleagues (2016) stated that because all people inherit bias about various identity groups through cultural conditioning, no one, including helping professionals, is free from these biases (pg.201). Having a great cultural awareness of the micro-aggressions that modern native people suffer is a great start in dealing with the solastalgia, historical and personal traumas in relation to their identity formation.

Psychology can improve understanding of the behaviors that drive environmental change by building behavioral models and research based on empirical analysis, providing a deeper understanding of individual and community behavior, and applying evaluation research methods to efforts to develop and improve psychological interventions for a wide range of Alaska Natives; specifically in relationship to historical, personal and environmental trauma and address those concerns in the lens of family therapy.


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