Malinda Bruce

What It Means To Be Gwich’in

"Being Gwich’in means strength and resilience, a strength that is not only physical, but spiritual and has been passed down from my ancestors before me."

The Gwich’in are a resilient and self-sufficient Nation in the Arctic, whose territory is bisected by the Canada-USA border, and who continue to be intricately linked to vadzaih (caribou). In 2020, Gwich’in Council International marked its 20th anniversary, celebrating two decades as a Permanent Participant organization bringing Gwich’in voices to the Arctic Council. We initiated a Proud to Be Gwich’in contest, asking people to share through writing and photography what it means to be Gwich’in.

We present one of the winning contest entries from Laura Wallis-John, a Gwich’in Athabascan registered nurse currently living in Fairbanks Alaska. She says, “I wanted to share my story so that it can inspire those who are still struggling with active addiction. I want those who are still suffering from addiction to know that recovery is possible. Our people deserve to live a fulfilling, healthy lifestyle. We as a Gwich’in culture come from such a strong heritage, that we are capable of achieving anything!” Haii choo Laura.

- Devlin Fernandes, GCI Executive Director

By Laura Wallis-John

For the majority of my life I have struggled to understand my cultural identity. I grew up with a father who spoke both Gwich’in and English, who loved to jig and hunt. My mother is a famous storyteller who has published several books. I was always torn between two worlds: the city and the village. On the one hand, I was raised in the woods in a dry cabin on the edges of the Yukon River for many summers of my childhood I spent fishing and hunting. On the other hand, I spent the majority of my upbringing in various apartment complexes throughout the city of Fairbanks. Talk about confusing! When people look at me today and see that I am Alaska Native they ask where I am from and I always have a long answer saying: “My mom is from Fort Yukon, my dad is from Venetie, but I mainly was raised in Fairbanks.”

Today I feel honored to be full blooded Gwich’in, but this hasn’t always been the case. Growing up in Fairbanks, as a child I would play with my Barbie dolls and compare myself to the other girls at school. They had such fine skin and hair and this caused me to feel embarrassed about my own thick black hair and brown skin. My mom always taught me to be proud of our culture and who I was, but it didn’t stop me from feeling like I was out of place. Despite feeling different, I was able to make friends, graduate with my high school diploma from Lathrop in Fairbanks, and move to Anchorage to attend the U.A.A. School of Nursing. I graduated with my Associates of Applied Science in nursing degree successfully. By that point, I felt that I had turned into a “city native” having not visited my home village of Fort Yukon for many years. It felt like I had fallen out of touch with my cultural background despite the effort I had made to stay connected with Alaska Native culture by working with the Alaska Native population as a certified nurse’s aide for many years at the Alaska Native Medical center in my free time while attending school.

The feeling of disconnection with who I was continued to persist within me. I moved back to Fairbanks after a two-year academic stay in Anchorage and began working as a registered nurse at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. I had experienced so many life changes by this point including graduating, moving, and breaking up with my long term boyfriend. My mental health was slowly getting worse and I found myself self-medicating my loneliness and stress from working night shifts at the hospital with alcohol. My mom had always warned me about alcoholism and drug addiction which ran in my family on both sides. I thought that since I was raised with sober parents and in the city that I wouldn’t be affected by it. Wow, was I in for a surprise! The years following nursing school slowly turned into a constant battle against alcoholism. It is surprising how addiction does not discriminate. Here I was, a health care provider, and I was sick myself in many of the same ways as my patients. I learned that I could not take care of my patients if I wasn’t taking care of myself. This is why I believe that promoting health and wellness is so important to the Gwich’in people especially in the area of mental health, which I feel is constantly overlooked and stigmatized. I know this from first-hand experience.

It was important for me to share my story because it tells how I found out what being Gwich’in really meant to me. Being Gwich’in means strength and resilience, a strength that is not only physical, but spiritual and has been passed down from my ancestors before me. Being sober is a constant struggle and I have relapsed many times in the past couple of years. But when I think of my Grandma and how she was able to sober up from her alcoholism after 40 years of drinking, I feel a spiritual strength inside of me and I know that I can do the same. I believe our people, the Gwich’in, are resilient. How much trauma have we endured and yet our culture is still here? I am no longer a young child that is embarrassed of being Gwich’in, instead, now I am a proud young woman. I feel lucky to show off my Athabascan features that I was unable to view as beautiful before. I feel beautiful inside and out, and being sober just adds to that wonderful feeling.
I am from a cultural background that cannot be extinguished by alcoholism or drug addiction. I will fight the daily battle to stay sober and help give back to my Alaska Native community as a health care provider because I want to inspire those who are still fighting this disease of addiction that constantly attacks our people. I want to be like my Grandma and inspire my own future grandchildren to be the best version of themselves and live the truly healthy life that they deserve, thriving in and adding to our culture.

I think that the future Gwich’in Nation will do the same, drawing on the spiritual strength from our ancestors to help inspire our future generations to adapt to the modern world, while preserving the best parts of our culture: our language, our values, our skills, our arts and our traditions.

I personally want to work to improve our culture’s outlook toward addiction and mental health. You should never be ashamed to seek help. I was ashamed for so many years, in denial about my alcoholism. I thought denial was what it meant to “be strong” but in the end I needed to face my disease to start to heal, this is how I found out what true strength means. I hope our culture can start to look at mental health as a part of what also needs to be examined regularly. We live in a fast paced modern world that is constantly changing and is very stressful. Seeking counseling or treatment is not something anyone should ever be ashamed of.

I am grateful that my culture was preserved and passed down through my family through generations of storytelling. Storytelling was always a big part of my family life. My Grandma told my Mom our legends and my Mom turned my Grandma’s stories into books so they wouldn’t be forgotten. I have grown up reading about and listening to my Mom’s stories of being raised in an alcoholic household and her seeing my Grandma and many others in my family able to sober up, heal, and find recovery. Those in my family who are in recovery are now living a beautiful happy healthy life.

After experiencing generational trauma, trials of struggling with my cultural identity, and alcohol and drug addiction, I want to say that Gwich’in pride means many things to me. Gwich’in pride means to be a part of a strong, beautiful culture that represents people who never give up, are not ashamed to say who they are, where they are from, and through resilience passed down from those before us, we will not allow the disease of addiction to ever bring us down or take away our strength.

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