Lessons learned from the Far North
Tom Gallagher looks to Alaska Natives for ways to engage young men
The young man could not have been over 15 years old, dressed in jeans and a light jacket although the temperature was 20 below. His black hair flowed in the wind as he drove a powerful snowmobile drawing a sled loaded with caribou he had killed to his village. His destination and home was Arctic Village, a small Athabascan community in northern Alaska.
I knew the young man had exceeded his legal limit for caribou but I knew he was hunting for others — his parents, his extended family, as well as for elders who could no longer hunt. He kept their caribou tags in his pocket while he gathered the hundreds of pounds of meat his people would depend on through the winter. Although he was in his early teens, he was doing a man’s work.
a sled loaded with caribou he had killed
In 1984, I had the opportunity to visit Arctic Village on the invitation of Alaska Natives. We were studying how young Native men are acculturated and become productive members of a community. At that time there was growing recognition across rural Alaska that young men had a diminishing role in their family and community. The dominant Western community and economy was replacing subsistence ways. More often than not, women now had an office or service job and could buy food, and hunting was no longer essential. Arctic Village was an exception, a very traditional community not yet fully absorbed into Western ways.
Harnessing energy and talent
The study was part of the Alaska Native Human Resource Development Program, funded by the Kellogg Foundation. The study engaged men from traditional cultures in striving to find ways to harness the energy and talent of their young men for the good of their community. Many promoted rite-of-passage activities, such as traditional gatherings and ceremonies, while others promoted education and job-skill development, and others wanted young people to be treated as adults as early as age 13. All felt great loss as their young people, particularly young men, failed to engage with the community, and either left for the city or stayed and often became unwelcome troublemakers.
The Arctic Village experience reminded me of a quip a decade earlier by a University of Michigan professor: “The purpose of society is to control juvenile males.” While certainly not the only purpose, the comment points to the importance of society in helping young men find a path that is productive for them and society. The lack of a path was visible in the Native community over 30 years ago, and now is, arguably, visible in our own communities.
Opportunity to engage
Few young men in our mainstream culture grow up with responsibility equivalent to serving as the community hunter. Cities and subdivisions provide few opportunities for important engagement. Young men and women who grow up on farms and ranches, however, have more opportunity to engage in important ways. Where I live now (north of Corvallis) I see young people driving big farm equipment, and my experience is that youth in 4-H and FFA often engage with their community through their activities. I have little doubt that young men in rural places have more opportunity to be an important part of their community than young men in cities.
Whether urban or rural, one piece of the puzzle must be engagement of older men to mentor and guide younger men. However, if older men are themselves not engaged they cannot be of help, and if older men don’t understand their roles as mentors, the opportunity is lost both for the young man and for the community.
The rapid changes in society make crossing the age divide more difficult. Where there was probably very little difference between generations less than a century ago, now each generation has a name – Boomers, Gen-X, Millenials.
One of the core strategies of the Ford Institute Leadership Program is to bring age groups together. The classes provide the opportunity for people of different ages to get to know each other, and the classes provide all with models of how to work together for the good of the community.
Engaging youth and elders
Most community leadership programs target mid-career adults; I’m very pleased that the Institute’s leadership classes engage youth and elders as well. It was a model I learned in Alaska but one that is working for the Institute and for rural Oregon and Northern California.
Building community capacity cannot be about a targeted population, but must draw from the breadth and diversity of the community. Within this strategy is the very real value of engaging young men in community.