Ancient methods of health care for Alaska veterans 7-07

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - Ancient Alaska Native healing techniques will soon supplement modern-day treatments for mental health ailments afflicting Alaskans returning from service in the Middle East.

Many Alaska National Guard soldiers come from isolated villages. Few have doctors; fewer yet have mental health professionals.

So traditional healers like Kenny Timberwolf will use talking circles, steam houses and subsistence hunts to help Native soldiers relieve their stress.

"Honoring them and welcoming them home as a veteran isn't enough," said Kenny Timberwolf, an Alaska Native shaman. "It has to go a lot deeper."

Tribal doctor Rita Blumenstein, left, passes the eagle feather to Ossie Kairaiuak so he can talk during a talking circle at the Southcentral Foundation Traditional Healing Clinic in Anchorage.
AP Photo by Al Grillo

Timberwolf said like others, some Native veterans will have problems readjusting to life at home when they return in October, and Bush communities, because of their extreme isolation, need to start preparing now for their arrival.

"That lingering feeling of being in combat is going to be there," he said.

The soldiers, who are part of the largest Alaska National Guard deployment since World War II, have been gone for almost a year. The unit represents 81 different communities and more than a half dozen cultures, including Eskimos, Tlingits, Haidas, Aleuts and Athabascans.

It can be easy for people whose lives have been so disrupted to slip into depression, alcoholism or crime. "We need to have a healing process that doesn't have labels," Timberwolf said.

Native healing methods - ranging from placing hands on a person's body in a therapeutic touch to participating in Native songs and dances - can do that, said traditional healing tribal doctor Lisa Dolchok, of the Alaska Native Medical Center.

They are part of the holistic approach that is a common thread to traditional healing, which teaches people that they are responsible for their own recovery.

"Traditional healing for us in this state is the norm, and Western medicine is new to us," she said.

Talking circles and other traditional counseling techniques are the most accessible options for many returning soldiers because of the extended families found in many villages, said Dr. Ted Mala, director of the center's Traditional Healing Program.

"I think there are many different roads to health," he said. "Traditional healing is important because we take the healing that's come from our ancestors and hand it down."

On the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, an area the size of Oregon, 109 Guardsmen from 25 villages were deployed last October with the Alaska National Guard's 3rd Battalion, 297th Infantry.

"We're preparing for our troops to come home with our existing staffing and funding," said Danielle Dizon, a spokeswoman for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. "It's such a massive area, we can only provide so much."

There are 25 tribal health centers across the state. Only about half of them have doctors, said Chris Mandregan, Alaska area director for the Indian Health Service, a government agency. The rest make due with midlevel providers: physician's assistants and nurse practitioners.

There are 176 small villages across the state that have clinics, he said, but those are staffed by people who complete at least one six-week training course in basic medical care, similar to an EMT.

Behavioral health aides are beginning to show up in some villages, but services remain limited.

"Recruitment and retention is very, very difficult in some of these areas," Mandregan said.

Partly for those reasons, his organization tries to incorporate traditional healing practices - acupuncture, steam houses, manipulation of joints, prayer, smudging and healing herbs - into contemporary medicine where possible, he said.

Mandregan said he thought traditional healing could be of particular use because some Natives remain distrustful of Western medicine, he said.

"They're nervous about it, and they'll often consult with a tribal healer first," he said.

The apprehension dates back to the 1940s and 1950s, he said, when infected Natives were rounded up and put into sanitariums to prevent the spread of tuberculosis.

At the agency's Mount Edgecumbe Hospital in Sitka, 138 people - mostly Native children - died and were buried in poorly marked concrete caskets, which were stacked inside abandoned military bunkers. The makeshift graves weren't found until the late 1990s. In many cases, family members were never told what happened to the loved ones who were sent to Sitka.

"Regardless of the good intentions, it became a system that was a little bit scary," Mandregan said. "You never really knew what became of them."

Despite some distrust, health care providers are planning to increase availability of Western care as well.

Victor Rosenbaum, of the Alaska Veterans Affairs Regional Office, said his office is working on plans to start offering a three-hour course for health care providers - including those at village clinics - in September to teach them how to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder and other readjustment issues.

While military officials say the unit hasn't been engaged in combat, Rosenbaum said PTSD is only one factor that can contribute to psychological problems to deployed veterans. Officials are preparing for the worst because they don't know what to expect, he said.

"Those folks that are coming back are younger Alaska Natives, and the villages are trying to bring back a total care approach for their catharsis," Rosenbaum said. "What they do from a whole person standpoint is going to be beneficial."

Alaska National Guard Spc. Paul Demmert, 24, served a year in Baghdad on a previous deployment. Now living in Juneau, the Tlingit Guardsman said his unit saw combat and its soldiers were shot at, though none was killed.

"You have your nightmares and your dreams about being back over there," he said.

When Demmert returned he visited his hometown of Kake, a small, mostly Native southeast Alaska village, where he was able to talk to his elders.

While Demmert said the military provides great coping tools, it helped him to talk to people who understood both his experiences and his heritage.

"A lot of them were veterans too and it was good to talk to them," he said. "I believe it's good to go through traditional ways."
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