The Native American village of Tanana is located deep in interior Alaska, along the banks of the Yukon River. There are no roads to Tanana; the nearest city, Fairbanks, is an hour away by small plane. Home to about 200 Athabascan Indians, the village is in a wilderness most people would find daunting and difficult to travel. But not the Athabascans. For centuries they’ve traveled and hunted the rivers and lands of the interior, surviving in a harsh subarctic climate with limited resources.
But today, while modern conveniences and technologies have diminished the threats from famine and cold, Tanana, like many Native American reservations, is dealing with even more serious threats to their survival. Many in mainstream America are unaware of the persistent problems of suicide, violence, poverty and substance abuse present in many Native American reservations and villages. Native American youth have the highest rates of suicide in the nation, with some children as young as eight committing suicide. In Tanana, youth as young as 13 have attempted suicide, and there is a high rate of neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
Concerned residents have decided that enough was enough and that it would take people both from the community and outside to address the problems. With the support of local storeowners Cynthia and Dale who started a 4-H club in Tanana, a new youth development program got under way, with a focus on martial arts.
The Tanana 4-H Martial Arts program was born nearly two years ago thanks to the efforts of the Cooperative Extension Service, with support from the US Department of Agriculture, National 4-H Council and the Nike N7 Foundation. Volunteer instructors, including Grand Master Robert Castro, from ESKABO DAAN, a Filipino Martial Arts School based out of San Francisco, have been traveling regularly to Tanana to teach classes. The ESKABO team seeks to give these youth positive role models and self-empowerment via many modes that go beyond martial arts. Non-practitioners may not be aware of the many benefits that martial arts have for the body, mind and soul. It is the culture behind the martial art and all of its positive attributes that the team wishes to teach to village youth.
Self-empowerment is what the youth need. The goal is to give them that physically, mentally and internally. The question was how to convince the youth to train. It turned out that it was quite easy. Once the Tanana youth learned something about the history of the Philippines and the strong cultural similarities between Filipinos and Native Americans they became inspired. They were unaware of the conquest of the Philippines by Spain and how Filipinos eventually challenged colonization. As Alaska Natives, this is a history they could relate to, and the evolution of Filipino martial arts contains a message of hope.
So far, there have been three trips to the village, each one lasting from one to two months. In this short amount of time the results have been very promising. The youngsters went from being shy and reserved to being affable and outgoing. And, as often happens, some of the more "troublesome" kids turned out to be among the most consistent and dedicated students. They are now sharing their dreams and are showing the motivation to pursue them. They seem to have a newfound perspective on life as a whole, although it will take consistency and further effort to make this stick.
It’s been a win-win situation. The youth need a productive program to enrich their lives, while the ESKABO DAAN volunteers have had the opportunity to travel and spend time in a part of the world that few people get to experience. Volunteers hope the program will help these kids prepare for adulthood and give them the tools needed to achieve whatever their hearts desire. The first step is to be convinced that they can achieve whatever they put their minds to. This step is within grasp, as their confidence has soared with every class.
For more information on Eskabo Daan, please visit http://www.eskabodaan.org. (Photo L-R) Professor Michael Morell, Grand Master Robert Castro, and Bob Squeri. Professor Morell is responsible for starting the partnership program in Alaska. Grand Master Castro with the help of Bob Squeri, the director of One Child at a Time, Inc., facilitated the partnership with Eskabo Daan and the Alaska community to bring the kids from Alaska to the Bay Area.