Alaska Native Women Land and Water Protectors Retreat
Across Alaska, Indigenous women are often the first responders to threats to our lands and waters. Working day-in, day-out to protect their communities–often while juggling the demands of being a mother, auntie, tribal administrator, corporate board member and knowledge bearer–can take its toll, and for many of these women, fatigue, burnout and depression are the very real consequences of their dedication.
In an effort to develop meaningful support systems for women doing this frontline work, Alaska Venture Fund (AVF) invited a cohort of Alaska Native women to co-create a program designed to foster self-care and peer-to-peer support. The initial program was designed in 2019, with the intention of hosting two three-day retreats for fifteen Alaska Native women from across Alaska in both April and November 2020, accompanied by virtual sessions over the course of nine months. The pandemic delayed the in-person portions of this program design. Instead, AVF adapted to an all-virtual program to run over two years, supported by a team of traditional healers. The virtual program included group Zoom community building to strengthen nurturing and collaborative relationships between participants, healing and wellness teachings, as well as one-on-one sessions. At the end of the virtual program, participants were gifted the curriculum to share back their teachings in community. Contents of the curriculum included learning self-care techniques to empower physical and mental health and wellness, contemplation training such as mindfulness/mindlessness, and plant medicine.
“Our goal is to support the sustainability of Alaska Native women in these advocacy roles, and build a stronger more collective voice of land and water protectors from throughout Alaska working for the long-term wellness of our lands, waters, peoples and ways of life.” - Helena Jacobs, AVF partner and project leader
Building on the success of this virtual program, and made possible with generous support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, AVF held the first ‘Water, Land and Culture Protectors Retreat’ in Anchorage this summer.
The retreat aimed to provide traditional medicine for the soul, mind and body. Retreat participants brought hunted and gathered items to share, and were fueled by a regenerative menu of Alaska subsistence foods like moose, salmon, blueberries and nettle. Group sessions included talking circles–a time to gather, share, reflect and hold space for healing and understanding–along with traditional healing, massage therapy, therapeutic yoga and acupuncture. The women also had the opportunity to learn practical applications of self-care, traditional healing, and complementary and alternative medicine techniques to support their continued health and wellbeing. Evening activities centered on ceremonies and journeys through the drum–guided by the prayers and intentions of participants–as well as songs from their hearts and support from their Ancestors.
“The retreat was beyond all my expectations. It was well planned and beautiful. It will take time to reflect and integrate the experience. And I am committed to making time to integrate it.” - Participant
“There was time to rest, walk the land, and be in community. There was time to process grief of the past and present. There was time to celebrate, to laugh deeply together–honoring the work it took to be here now, grounded in presence, receptive to transforming perspectives, anchoring and cultivating awareness,” said retreat facilitator Jennifer Andrulli.
Beyond the immediate restorative effects of the retreat, participants will continue to benefit from their experience, receiving support through monthly Zoom gatherings and ongoing mentorship from the event’s facilitators. The bonds nurtured and developed between participants during the retreat have created a new network of mutual support and assistance.
The event clearly revealed there is significant need and interest in ongoing networking and support for women on the frontlines of Indigenous rights, and climate and environmental justice in Alaska.
“I am so grateful for the time we had together, and for everyone in our circle. I will remember our weekend for the rest of my life,” said one participant. Another added, “Our inner work never ends. I feel supported, respected, and seen.”
For more information on the Alaska Native Women Land and Water Protectors program or to explore supporting similar efforts, please contact AVF Partner Helena Jacobs at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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