To better understand the present, they walk through Alaska’s past
“Truthful, undeniable and powerful.”
“Incredibly powerful and healing.”
“I felt like everyone I knew needed to go through it.”
Those are just a few of the responses from Alaskans who have experienced the Alaska Blanket Exercise, an interactive learning tool launched last year to help the public understand Alaska Native history.
Alaska Blanket Exercise participants walk through a guided program, living out the true stories of Alaska Native people as their lands and culture are colonized, first by Europeans and then by Americans. It’s a way for Alaskans to learn about the traumas that Alaska Native people have experienced and how those historical traumas continue to have an impact today on a variety of factors affecting the lives of Alaska Native people, such as physical and mental health.
“The (Alaska) Blanket Exercise helps people to really understand where our parents are coming from, where our grandparents are coming from, and what happened to our people in history,” said Liz Sunnyboy, an Elder and Tribal healer who helps facilitate the exercise. “It helps people to start talking and not be ashamed of what happened to them, but to use that to be the strength for other people.”
Walking through history
“The (Alaska) Blanket Exercise is an experience in which everyone sits in a circle around blankets that are laid across the floor,” said program manager Jackie Engebretson. “Those blankets represent the state of Alaska, pre-colonization.”
Over the course of the exercise, the blanket landscape changes and participants walk through different experiences based on what really happened to Alaska Native people after the arrival of European and American colonists.
Presented by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, the program is adapted from the KAIROS Blanket Exercise, which was developed in Canada as part of the country’s First Nations reconciliation effort. After a group of ANTHC staff and Elders participated in a KAIROS Blanket Exercise to learn about new ways to approach the topics of historical and intergenerational trauma, the Elders in the group advocated for bringing the Blanket Exercise to Alaska to help teach younger generations about their ancestors’ experiences. Teisha Simmons was hired to adapt the Canadian script with the stories of Alaska Native people.
Initially, Simmons thought her task would be fairly straightforward. But she found herself overwhelmed by the number of difficult personal stories she read and heard.
“It ended up being probably the most emotional journey I’ve ever gone through at work,” Simmons said. “By the end of it, I really needed a lot of self-care.”
From devastating epidemics to internment during World War II to abuse at Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools, the history of Alaska Native people in post-colonial Alaska is filled with events that leave unseen scars.
“Historical and intergenerational trauma has a lasting impact on communities,” Engebretson said.
Research has identified trauma as a risk factor for lifelong health issues, disease, substance abuse and involvement in the criminal justice system.
“It (also) affects relationships — romantic relationships, familial relationships — so it’s history and it’s now,” Engebretson said. “I think that’s something else that the (Alaska) Blanket Exercise goes into: This isn’t something that happened a long time ago. It’s something happening now.”
For example, BIA boarding schools are now closed, but their impact lives on, not only through boarding school survivors but through their descendants.
“They were taken away from everything they knew — taken away from their families, taken away from their culture — and dropped into an entirely new environment where there were just countless abuses against them,” Engebretson said. “You carry that with you, and you carry it with you in your relationships that you have with people.”
Many boarding school survivors, who had been beaten and punished for speaking their languages and observing their cultural traditions, didn’t pass down those languages and traditions to their children. Taken from their parents, they had also lost their caring adult role models.
“When they became adults, many were not able to fulfill a healthy parenting role because of the trauma and because they didn’t have that model of parenting,” Engebretson said. “That gets passed on through generations.”
Sunnyboy said the Alaska Blanket Exercise — and the conversations, understanding and healing it facilitates — can be an important step in reviving cultural practices that were suppressed for many years.
“Those are the things that kept families together, kept communities together,” she said. “Traditional values help you to be a real person and allow you to help others to be real people.”
‘Now I understand’
Organizers purposefully don’t share many details about the exercise, which must be led by a trained facilitator and is governed by guidelines intended to make it a safe experience for participants.
“You can’t alter anything with the script,” Simmons said. “You have to have at least 16 people. You have to have an Elder there. You have to have cultural items.”
Most importantly, participation has to be elective.
“People are allowed to choose not to participate,” Simmons said. “We want it to be a place of safety and healing, not retraumatizing. People need to be allowed to say ‘I’m not ready for this.’”
Facilitators also have to be trained in debriefing and prepared to direct participants to any follow-up services they may request. The exercise is followed by a talking circle, and the reflections that have been shared in those circles illuminate the impact on participants. At one recent event, a number of white participants shared afterward that it helped them better understand their Alaska Native partners, according to Sunnyboy.
“That was so great to hear, because a lot of the times the women are intimidated because they’ve got a non-Native partner,” Sunnyboy said. “To hear those men in the circle say ‘Now I understand where my wife is coming from, and I honor her for that, for the stories she tries to tell but maybe I turned her off because I didn’t have any understanding of what happened to her family or her community.’ That exercise brought home things — that they need to be sensitive to their partners.”
Sunnyboy said she remembers another young man who, after his Alaska Blanket Exercise experience, tried several times to ask his father about an epidemic in his village. Each time, his father replied, “We don’t talk about that.” But the son kept asking.
“The third time, the young man went back to the father and he said, ‘Do you remember the great death that happened in our area?’ and finally the father just broke down,” Sunnyboy said.
The father told his son that he and one other man had been the only survivors. Together, they had buried everyone else in their village. It was a memory he had kept silent for decades until his son finally convinced him it was all right to share.
“That was the first time that Elder man was given permission to talk about what happened in his area,” Sunnyboy said.
An in-demand experience
ANTHC offers a free, public Alaska Blanket Exercise once a month on the Alaska Native Health Campus. There are also frequent classes in Fairbanks and Wasilla, and more than 60 facilitators statewide. There’s another facilitator course coming up this spring, and soon there will be an Alaska Blanket Exercise facilitator in every Alaska regional hub community.
Organizers had initially hoped they would attract 200 participants in the first year. Just over six months into the project, more than 600 Alaskans have participated in the Alaska Blanket Exercise, and Simmons and Engebretson receive messages weekly — if not daily — from individuals and groups who have heard about it through word of mouth.
“I think it’s so well received because it teaches about these difficult subjects, that can be difficult to talk about, in a very respectful way that recognizes what Alaska Native people have experienced and how we see those experiences reflected today,” Simmons said.
Learning your history can be liberating, Simmons said. She grew up thinking Alaska Native people were just prone to substance abuse and self-harm, wondering if she might die an alcohol-related death simply because she is Alaska Native. Then she read Harold Napoleon’s book “Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being,” which explores the effects of historical trauma.
“It awakened this sense in me of ‘I get to choose what happens now, and I get to choose if I get to heal and not cope in unhealthy ways,’” Simmons said. “That was a huge turning point for me as an Alaska Native person.”
The Alaska Blanket Exercise is valuable for Alaska Native and non-Native people alike, she added, with a focus not on blame but on healing and moving forward.
“The exercise really meets people where they’re at,” Simmons said. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of historical trauma, if you have zero awareness of Alaska Native history, or you’ve got a Ph.D. in it. It doesn’t matter if you’re non-Native and you’re working with Alaska Native people and you’ve worked with them for 20 years. It doesn’t matter if you’re Alaska Native. Everybody takes what they need from it with where they’re at. Everybody leaves with a new understanding.”
The popularity of the Alaska Blanket Exercise is a sign, the organizers said, that the state is ready to have difficult conversations about the past in order to prepare for a brighter future.
“That kind of thing, bringing it home and having our people to talk about it — like my aaka says, that’s the first step in recovery,” Sunnyboy said, using the Yup’ik and Inupiaq word for grandmother. “We’re hearing each other and talking to each other, and we’re not keeping secrets anymore.”
This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska and was originally published on March 10, 2020, in the Anchorage Daily News.