Early study shows surprising optimism among homeless Alaska Natives

Grand Entrance to Celebration. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)
A University of Washington researcher says a strong desire to pass down traditional knowledge may be related to high levels of optimism that he’s found among homeless Alaska Native elders. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

A University of Washington professor has found high levels of optimism among homeless Alaska Native elders living in Seattle, and he’s connected the finding to a strong desire to pass on knowledge and experiences to future generations.

As an Aleut who grew up in Naknek, Jordan Lewis knows a little something about Alaska Native culture. Whenever he’s back home, Lewis says he likes to talk to elders and soak up traditional knowledge.

“They tell stories about how Naknek used to be when they were kids, because it’s changing so much now,” he says. “And I think just the fact that they talk to you and share their experiences, and pass on recipes, or how they used to make things, or where they used to pick berries, is this idea that they are hopeful that you’ll take that knowledge and use it to benefit your own life, but then pass it on again.”

Lewis is an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work. His research focuses on Alaska Native communities and generativity, a concept developed by psychologist Erik Erikson. It says that as we grow older, humans tend to want to pass on their experiences and knowledge to future generations.

“The first generative act most people have in their lives is having kids,” Lewis says. “That’s going to secure your future. But as you grow older there’s this need to pass on your legacy, write your memoirs, storytelling for elders, and passing down stories you heard to your grand kids.”

Lewis has studied how generativity helps Alaska Natives age well and become role models, as well as overcome addictions.

He says he became interested in the homeless because it’s an underserved and often overlooked population. Years ago, he says, his family had a relative involved with the Chief Seattle Club, a nonprofit that provides meals, housing assistance and other services to low-income and homeless Alaska Natives and American Indians. That’s where he and a student interviewed 14 Alaska Native elders last year. He says the results surprised even him.

“All of the elders talked about the importance of giving back and teaching others,” he says. “Whether it’s through sharing a sandwich, giving extra change if they had extra change to someone who wasn’t doing as well as they were. Volunteering at the Chief Seattle Club was almost everybody’s response. That’s what made them happy, that’s what got them up every day. And they all said that they did that because it’s going to come back to them in a positive way.”

He says other themes of the interviews included the importance of laughter and religion.

In addition, each of the elders – ages 45 to 70 – filled out surveys to measure generativity and optimism. Lewis says 12 of the 14 individuals scored very high in both.

“That kind of complimented the qualitative interviews. So I could say, you know, 85 percent of the people I interviewed are very optimistic and like to give back and teach the young people, and then here we have specific examples of what they do to do that,” Lewis says.

While he’s excited about the early results, Lewis admits more research is needed to confirm his findings. He’d like to do more than 100 interviews, and has considered expanding to include American Indians.

He’s planning to present his research at the Chief Seattle Club, and ask officials there for ideas on how to do a broader study of Native homelessness.

“How could we either help the people who are homeless, or how do we prevent homelessness, or how do we make their lives more enjoyable from these experiences of what these elders are doing for themselves,” he says.

Lewis also hopes to publish his findings in a peer-reviewed journal. The initial study was part of an online Stanford University program on successful aging that he participated in last year.

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