Women from around Western Alaska came together in Nome last week for the 2nd Norton Sound Indigenous Women’s Gathering.
Though its scope was broad, the conference centered on environmental health. It was organized by Anchorage-based non-profit Alaska Community Action on Toxics, or ACAT, a group founded 20 years ago to assist to communities across the state dealing with environmental contamination.
Norton Sound Health Corporation co-hosted the gathering, providing meeting space and ample refreshments for the women who attended, many of whom had flown in from surrounding villages. Over the course of three days, more than a dozen women shared troubling stories from their communities and talked about the changes they’d like to see.
Vi Waghiyi is ACAT’s Environmental Health and Justice Program Director, but she likes to introduce herself as a Yup’ik grandmother from Savoonga. ACAT has worked on St. Lawrence Island for as long as the group has existed, studying contamination from abandoned military sites as well as the accumulation of toxins in traditional foods like seal and walrus.
Waghiyi says empowering women to take action on environmental health makes sense, and for many, herself included, the work is very personal:
“It’s natural for women to be caretakers. We nurture our children; we take care of our families. These women are leaders already, they just need a springboard.”
That idea was echoed by conference participant Darlene Katchatag, originally from Elim:
“I started thinking about contaminants when I became a mother. I’ve been a mother for 32 years. You know how you just want the best for your children? You just want your children to be the healthiest, so you try your best to protect them.”
Katchatag grew concerned about the high rates of cancer in her hometown, particularly in families who fished near a former military airfield. She was one of the two dozen women who attended ACAT’s first Norton Sound gathering, in January 2015.
At that first gathering two years ago, the participants drafted a declaration that laid out their concerns, along with a detailed list of suggestions to improve environmental health care in the region. The recommendations included better documentation of cancer and incorporating local knowledge into treatment plans.
The women at this year’s conference reviewed the 2015 declaration and added new ideas. Panels on generational, historical trauma and traditional healing provided context and gave the women opportunities to speak from their own experience.
Family physician and traditional healer Allison Kelliher, originally from Nome, spoke about incorporating traditional knowledge into modern health care and drew a link between environmental toxins and what she calls “toxic experiences.”
Kelliher says bringing people together and giving them a chance to share their stories is part of what makes change happen. She says:
“Hearing personal stories is tremendously powerful. Personal testimonies and individuals’ experience are really what drive people and our behaviors.”
ACAT will use the discussion from this year’s gathering to update the declaration. They hope the document can be used as a tool for health care professionals and lawmakers in Alaska to improve environmental health throughout the state.
Image at top: Traditional healers Evelyn Karmun, Maria Dexter, Allison Kelliher and Eva Menadelook share during the 2nd Norton Sound Indigenous Women’s Gathering. Photo: Zoe Grueskin/KNOM.