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Native American peoples represent one of the most important elements of North American geography, history, demography and culture. Unfortunately, most Native American tribes face serious social, economic and health issues. This paper focuses on the discussion of Alaska Natives and the barriers they are facing to self-realization and productive development. A brief history of Alaska Natives is provided. The current state of demography and life among Alaska Natives are described. The main issues affecting Alaska Native people and possible ways to resolve them are discussed.

Native Americans are the indigenous people residing in the North American continent and covering mostly the territory of the continental United States, Hawaii and Alaska. They are made up by numerous nations and tribes that have passed a thorny way to self-identification and cultural recognition. Despite the multitude of tribal traditions and cultures, most Native Americans call themselves American Indians and currently make up almost 2% of the U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005). Alaska Natives are believed to play one of the major roles in the life and evolution of Native American nations. The scope of cultural, economic, political, and social issues faced by Alaska Natives cannot be easily dismissed. Embodied in the history of Alaska Natives is the political and physical oppression they have survived over multiple generations. It comes as no surprise that suicide and alcoholism are at the forefront of the social and cultural issues faced by Alaska Natives and only broad government support can help to alleviate the burden of these mental health problems on the Alaska tribes.

Alaska Natives: From History to Modernity

The history of Alaska Natives dates back to thousands of years (State of Alaska, n.d.). Today’s Alaska Natives are believed to have come from Asia, by traveling from Siberia by watercraft (State of Alaska, n.d.). The current state of archeological evidence confirms that people have lived in Alaska for at least 10,000 years, but the first colonization of the place had occurred thousands of years earlier (State of Alaska, n.d.). At different times different tribes thrived in Alaska, from the Tlingit and Tshimshians to Athabascan, Yupiks and Aleuts (State of Alaska, n.d.). The latter was the smallest Alaska Native tribe that made their living from the sea surrounding the Aleutian Islands which they inhabited (State of Alaska, n.d.). The ways Alaska Native tribes passed from their inception to modernity were different but the issues they are facing today are mostly the same.

Today’s Alaska Natives make a strong presence in the Alaska region. Alaska Native tribes make up approximately one fifth of the state’s population (State of Alaska, n.d.). 565 AI/AN tribes are federally recognized, with 100 more having state recognition (HHS, 2010). In 2008 the number of Alaska Natives was estimated at 4.9 million (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010). Almost 2 million Alaska Natives live on trust lands and in reservations (HHS, 2010). 60 percent of them reside in metropolitan areas (HHS, 2010). 27% of the Alaska Native nation is composed by individuals under the age of 18 (HHS, 2010). In 2007 the median income for an Alaska Native family did not exceed $33,627 (HHS, 2010). Almost every fourth Alaska Native lives at the poverty level, whereas the prevailing majority works in professional and management occupations (HHS, 2010). 36 percent of Alaska Natives are claimed to have health insurance; 76 percent of them aged 25 have at least a high school diploma (HHS, 2010).

 Despite the contribution made by government to the protection and revitalization of Alaska Natives, the latter are faced with a number of economic, social, cultural and political issues. Three most important issues affecting Alaska Natives are: 1) mental health and suicide; 2) poor and culturally misbalanced education; and 3) poor access to health care. Suicide is at the forefront of the social and health issues faced by Alaska Natives, originating from the continuous assaults and oppression transcending the history of all Native American nations. In the context of education, Alaska Natives have the perception that teachers do not care about their cultural and language needs (Reyhner, 2006). Most curricula are designed for mainstream Americans with little attention paid to Alaska Natives’ cultural heritage (Reyhner, 2006). Tests are standardized and culturally biased, as a result, many Alaska Natives end up in low-achieving classes (Reyhner, 2006). The lack of parent involvement adds complexity to the situation with Native Alaska education (Reyhner, 2006). In addition, Alaska Natives experience poor access to quality health care services. Barriers to health care in AN/AI nations range from the state-wide policy issues to micro-level obstacles, namely, the lack of transportation services (Baldwin et al., 2008). Nonetheless, no other issue affects Alaska Natives as seriously and deeply as suicide.

Suicide and Substance Abuse: An Explosive Mixture

For many years suicide has been one of the most serious mental health issues pressing Alaska Natives. Since the end of the 1960s the rates of suicide among Native Americans and Alaska Natives have increased dramatically (Kettl & Bixler, 1993). In the middle of the 1980s, the rates of suicide among Alaska Natives were twice as high as for the U.S., in general (Hlady & Middaugh, 1988). The situation is particularly difficult with youth suicides, since of all racial groups Alaska Native youth demonstrate the highest rates of suicide among males and females 10-24 years old (Dorgan, 2010). The effects of suicide on the lives of Alaska Natives cannot be overestimated. The suicide crisis in the AI/AN populations is more about human lives than about numbers. The rates of suicide among AI/AN nations indicates the seriousness of the existing social, cultural, and economic issues which young Alaska Natives cannot resolve. “Too often, Native young people simply fall through the cracks of a broken medical system that does not detect their mental health problems and, when they are detected, often fails to adequately treat them” (Dorgan, 2010, p. 213). The suicide problem leaves dozens of families in grief and reduces their physical and emotional ability to cope with the troubles of life.

For many years suicide has been a common problem for Alaska Natives and the rest of the U.S. In 2001, suicide was the eleventh leading cause of death among U.S. citizens and the factor responsible for 1.3% of all death in the U.S. (Gaynes et al., 2004). Every sixth American confesses having suicidal intentions or thoughts at least once in a lifetime (Gaynes et al., 2004). However, even in this case the situation with suicide among mainstream Americans is not as serious as it is among Alaska Natives. Coupled with substance abuse, suicide rates affecting Alaska Natives are twice as high as the rates of suicide at the federal level (Dorgan, 2010). The Alaska Native youth has the rate of suicide approximately 2.2 times higher than the average for the young people of other races (Dorgan, 2010). The history of these mental health issues dates back to the times of oppression and the dramatic changes most Alaska Natives have recently undergone.

The fact is that Alaska Native people faced numerous assaults and traumatic events in their way to liberation and self-identification. Pandemics, massacres, forced relocation and genocides altogether left a deep scar on the physical and emotional state of native people (Spicer et al., 2009). At present, these historical traumas are further coupled with substance abuse and interpersonal violence, child abuse and persistent discrimination against Alaska Natives (Spicer et al., 2009). In the meantime, Alaska Natives are going through the major economic, political and cultural shifts. The latter half of the 20th century witnessed Alaska Natives turning from a majority to a minority, filled with extreme cycles of social and economic changes (Hlady & Middaugh, 1988). Globalization and economic advancement changed the structure of community and family roles and severely undermined Alaska Natives’ cultural traditions and values (Hlady & Middaugh, 1988). Given the scope of the issue, broad government support is crucial to reduce the rates of suicide and related mental health problems among Alaska Natives.

Alaska Native Suicides: Preventive Efforts

Throughout their history Alaska Natives tried their best to address the problem of suicide rates. To some extent, suicide by itself served one of the most reliable ways to respond to the changes in the lives of AI/AN peoples. Community-based interventions and culturally-based mental health care used to be the most popular form of dealing with suicide in AI/AN tribes (Spicer et al., 2009). Alaska Suicide Prevention Council and the Community-Based Suicide Prevention Program were established as part of the Comprehensive Behavioral Health Prevention and Early Intervention program, to reduce the scope and implications of self-destructive behaviors among Alaska Natives (State of Alaska, n.d.). As of today, Alaska Natives have a number of programs implemented for their use.

As for the U.S. authorities, it was not before the beginning of the new millennium that the issue of suicide among AI/AN people has been federally recognized. The unique relationship between Alaska Natives and the federal government was colored with conflict and struggle (Spicer et al., 2009). For the most time, it was the federal government that caused serious emotional and suicide issues in AI/AN people, through continuous discrimination, oppression and violence. In 2003, the Indian Health Service (IHS) launched a broad Suicide Prevention Initiative to provide resources and information on suicide (Dorgan, 2010). Through 2004-2005, $200,000 was provided in funding to assist Indian nations in their suicide prevention efforts (Dorgan, 2010). Earlier in 2001 Congress had also passed the Indian Health Improvement Act but the reality is that no substantial decline in the rates of suicide have been achieved (Dorgan 2010). Apparently, only a broad federal program coupled with the implementation of culturally-based standards of education and health can help Alaska Natives to overcome the suicide problem.

Alaska Natives are facing a number of serious issues. Suicide produces huge influences on the quality of life among Native American nations in Alaska. The rates of suicide among Alaska Native youth are twice as high as among mainstream Americans. Community-based interventions and culturally-based mental health care used to be the most popular form of dealing with suicide in AI/AN tribes. Apparently, only a broad federal program coupled with the implementation of culturally-based standards of education and health can help Alaska Natives to overcome the suicide problem. 

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