Where we’re working: Alaska Native Medical Center

There aren’t many jobs that would make you want to write a blog entry and post a bunch of photos for your friends and family. But, our workplace here in Alaska does just that. We’re working in the Emergency Department at Alaska Native Medical Center. This hospital serves as the hub for the main healthcare services for all Native American people in Alaska. In short, our hospital only admits patients with Native American blood. Anyone can show up to the ER, but non-Natives who need to be admitted will be transferred (kind of like Kaiser). Working here has been a unique, challenging, experience, and it has inspired us to become more informed about the history of the Alaska Native people.

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The Indian Health Service (IHS) is an operating division of the US Department of Health and Human Services, specially designated to fund and manage health programs for Native American tribal people. The IHS, which has received a fair amount of criticism (just Google that), was established in the 1950′s to take over the health programming previously managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, started in 1824. It is one of multiple ways in which the US federal government has attempted to manage the needs of Native American people since it conquered many of their inhabited lands in the 1700′s-1800′s.

In 1953, Alaska Native Medical Center (ANMC) was built in downtown Anchorage due to a significant tuberculosis outbreak in Alaska. According to the Alaska Humanities Forum, in Southeast Alaska alone, “the death rate from tuberculosis in 1932 was 1,302 per 100,000. The rate among non-Natives in the U.S. was 56 per 100,000.” See below:

Alaska’s Heritage: Health and Medicine

Remember that 1964 earthquake we mentioned in our Seward posts? It significantly damaged ANMC, and although it was slated to be rebuilt after that, completion of a new hospital didn’t occur until 1997, when services were moved into the hospital we currently work at. We frequently have patients who used to receive care or work at the old hospital.

One of the notable characteristics of this hospital is its artwork. The hospital actually has a curator who manages the artwork, which they say is the same kind of stuff that goes in the Smithsonian. We’ve collected photos of some of the artwork here.

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Excerpt from The Native People of Alaska: Traditional Living in a Northern Land, by Steve J. Langdon:

The Salmon Boy

(a Tlingit & Haida native legend)

Tlingit believed that an essential spirituality characterizes all distinct forms of existence and that living forms cosmologically cycled between this “living” plane of existence and a plane of death where they resided until reborn. These principles guided perceptions and moral behaviors in daily life.

The moral order of one’s specific obligations are well illustrated by the Tlingit mythic charter known as the Salmon Boy story. In this myth, a young boy insults Salmon by throwing a piece of moldy dried fish to the ground in an expression of disgust.

He then goes outside, wearing a copper necklace, and falls into the bay where he would have drowned without the intercession of the Salmon People, who, at the behest of their leader, transport the boy to the home of the Salmon offshore from the village. When he arrives, the boy is amazed to see the Salmon take off their exterior skins, revealing a person like himself.

The head of the Salmon teaches the boy how to treat salmon. Later, when the Salmon People prepare to return to their spawning grounds, the boy travels with them, and, appearing as a salmon, is eventually caught by his father. When his mother cuts into his gills, she discovers the copper necklace and is dumbfounded. She asks her husband what to do. He then asks a shaman who tells him to put the fish up into the rafters overnight. The next day the fish has transformed back into the boy to the amazement of his parents.

He then tells them what happened, but more importantly explains how people are to relate to and treat salmon (with respect and ritually returning all their bones to the stream) in order for them to be re-born and return to give themselves to the people. He then became a powerful shaman.

For Tlingit and Haida native people, this story provides the most fundamental lessons and perspectives on how to conduct themselves in relation to the other living and nonliving life forms with whom they coexist.

 

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