Feature Stories

Indigenous Resilience

Community health project charts path for youth in Alaskan tribal communities
  • Wexler with tribal community members at the circumpolar EAGER meeting in DC

Wexler’s research draws from intergenerational narratives and indigenous wisdom to illuminate the problem of youth suicide in ways that offer encouraging possibilities for action.

Community health expert Lisa Wexler (UMass Amherst Department of Public Health) recently concluded a three year NSF-funded project focused on social change and indigenous culture with significant implications for the field of indigenous suicide prevention and resilience among youth.

Focusing on five circumpolar communities, the Circumpolar Indigenous Pathways to Adulthood (CIPA) study reveals how the rapid social and economic changes occurring over the last century are shaping everyday youth challenges, and most importantly, how young people are responding to these changes in indigenous communities. Wexler’s study is one of the first of its kind to use international, participatory approaches to understand these challenges and provide insight into how to bolster the necessary community-level factors that can increase indigenous youth wellness.

Wexler’s research draws from intergenerational narratives and indigenous wisdom to illuminate the problem of youth suicide in ways that offer individuals, families, and tribal communities encouraging possibilities for action. Wexler is committed to the translation of her research findings to practical applications and has worked directly with tribal communities and organizations to secure support for locally meaningful service projects. Together, these community-based programs have brought over $5 million to the Alaska Native villages with whom she works. Increasing resources and researching Indigenous resilience in arctic communities is both timely and important since the unprecedented, rapid social change taking place has been strongly associated with poor circumpolar indigenous health outcomes, particularly for young people.

This ambitious study required that Wexler work with researchers from anthropology, psychology, and public health, as well as to collaborate with diverse indigenous communities from different parts of the world. “I had to focus on the details while holding out the vision of what we collaboratively set out to do. I was vigilant about communicating with everyone so they were aware of our progress.”  In this process, Wexler learned how to translate ideas across disciplines and education levels, to negotiate shared goals, and to share important decisions. “Balancing community and academic values and priorities was a challenge, but is absolutely critical to furthering this area of youth research”, says Wexler.

Using the knowledge and the relationships she cultivated in the CIPA project, Wexler took the lead in developing an EArly-concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER) proposal that was subsequently awarded by NSF. This collaborative research effort involved youth and adults from five circumpolar communities - Northwest and Southwest Alaska, Canada, Norway, and Siberia. The researchers at each site helped youth co-researchers contextualize their community’s findings about schooling, community and family, and hopes for the future, by producing short films. The videos were then shown during a multi-day, cross-site international meeting to engage other community youth and adults in thinking and talking about the stressors and challenges arctic indigenous youth face, as well as resources and resilience strategies.  This participatory visual approach engaged indigenous youth and other community members in cross-site analysis and collaborative learning, while encouraging knowledge sharing among academics and circumpolar indigenous community members. Wexler presented her research findings at the international Inuit Studies Conference in Washington, DC in October 2012.

Wexler (seated at far left in the picture above)  believes that working directly with the community to understand key issues accurately captures the contrasts and continuities of their culture and provides a context for advocacy and change. Her research has already made a significant impact on the field of indigenous resilience and youth support.  By securing funding for both her own research and resources for the communities she studies, Wexler is providing insights into this population which have implications not only for Alaskans but for indigenous youth around the world.

David Bosch and Krista Solie