On Aug. 24, 1952, the Silook and Oozevaseuk families of Gambell, Alaska, welcomed a baby girl into the world and introduced her to the island that had been their home for centuries. Gambell is at the western edge of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. When the weather is clear, you can see Siberia in the distance.
Baby Constance was born into a culture that was rich and well-adapted to the exceptionally harsh environment. Her ancestors had passed down skills for surviving — ways of reading the ice to know when walruses, seals and whales could be caught and methods of fishing in the cold water. Families worked together; subsistence hunting does not favor the greedy. Most people spoke the Alaska Native language, Yupik, with Russian and English words mixed in. That is the language Constance’s mother, Estelle, taught her daughter.
But things were changing. Earlier in the century, missionaries had made it to the island, and World War II had brought soldiers to a base near the village. The distance between the people of Gambell and the federal government was diminishing, and as it did, a wave of cultural destruction that had already torn through American Indian communities across the U.S. and mainland Alaska was bearing down on the community. It would hit Gambell’s children the hardest.
When Constance was in middle school, she was forced by the federal government to leave her family and move to a boarding school operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, part of the Department of the Interior. Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Alaska, was 1,200 miles away. Classes were in English, the teachers were mostly white, and the students were forbidden to speak the languages they had grown up with.
The goal of the boarding school program was simple and destructive. A founder of the program, Army officer Richard Pratt, explained in 1892, “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
Constance Oozevaseuk was taught to hate a lot of things about her culture and, by proxy, about herself. The food she grew up eating, the clothes her family wore, the way they hunted and fished, the stories they told, the songs they sang and the very words they spoke were inferior, she was taught. It was traumatizing.
Constance’s daughter Rene remembers how her mother was affected. “They told her how to dress, how to speak, how to hold herself,” says Rene. “She said there was a lot of sexual abuse, a lot of physical abuse. If you got up late or you didn’t clean how you were supposed to clean, you were beaten.”
As an adult, Constance never seemed to recover a strong sense of whom she was or whom she could aspire to be. She died in 2005, but Rene remembers noticing contradictions in her mother’s identity. When Constance was away away from Gambell, “she would cry to be at home,” Rene says. “But when she was at home, she’d be miserable.”
A 2005 study on the long-term effects of boarding schools on Alaska Natives found that many students suffered from “identity conflicts” and later struggled when they had children of their own, in part because they had been separated from their own parents at such an early age and had never fully learned family traditions and subsistence skills.
“My mother was very harsh. Nothing was ever good enough,” remembers Rene. “She never used kind words. She didn’t show her love that way.”
This is the root of what sociologists call intergenerational trauma. A family goes through something cataclysmic — in this case, a war on their culture. The family survives, but the effects of the trauma are passed down in the form of addiction, domestic violence and even suicide.
Alcohol numbed some of Constance’s pain, at least temporarily. “Both my parents drank,” Rene says. “And then they were drunk and she’s yelling at him about something. They fought a lot.”
It was a hard childhood. Her mother’s trauma was always present. Rene reacted by working extra hard in school. She wasn’t sure what she was striving to do exactly; she didn’t know anyone who had been to college or left their community for work, except for seasonal oil jobs on the North Slope. But she was good at science and naturally excelled in high school, and when she graduated, she applied to college at the University of Washington, in Seattle, with the help of young man from Pennsylvania named Jeremy Schimmel, whom she had met and fallen for.
“I had just moved out of my parents’ house and gotten my first phone number, so of course I wanted to give out my number,” she laughs. “And he was someone I wasn’t related to, which was new.”
Jeremy had just graduated from college in California and ran a wilderness guiding business in Alaska. They started dating off and on. Rene enrolled in college, moved away from her family and slowly started to build an intellectual identity for herself. She was interested in teaching, she decided.
Meanwhile, the same dynamic that had made Rene’s childhood difficult was playing out across her extended family. Alcohol abuse, drug abuse and domestic violence swept through Gambell. The suicide rate spiked.
And then, in 2000, Rene and Jeremy found out she was pregnant. Rene was then 24. She had just graduated from college.
“I was terrified,” Rene says. “So scared. How was I going to take care of a child? I wasn’t ready. We didn’t have a place to live. We weren’t married. My family couldn’t help. My own mother was so dependent on me.”
Sometimes her mother would call her, drunk, late at night, and talk until Rene insisted she needed to study. Rene knew that her son would need what his grandmother had lost: a strong cultural identity, grounded in the traditions of their family. Rene just didn’t know how she could give that to him while also protecting him from the trauma that had been passed down to her.
This child is OK
From the moment he opened his eyes, Sam Oozevaseuk Schimmel was precocious. He starting talking at 6 months, walked at 9 months and hated sleeping.
“He was a pain in the ass,” laughs Jeremy. “He exhausted you. When he was a little kid, I would read books to him. I’ve never read more books in my life. Frog and Toad would last, like, a minute. So then you’re on to Dr. Doolittle and The Little Prince, and by the time, you’re done, you’ve read nine books and it’s, like, ‘Oh my god.’ And he’s still awake. You just couldn’t satiate his need for listening and for knowledge.”
Jeremy and Rene had moved back to Alaska, in part so Sam could be born at the Alaska Native Hospital where Rene had health coverage. As a child, Sam spent most of his time outside with his parents and with Rene’s family.
“He never was inside. He hunted and fished,” says Jeremy. “He was catching fish when he was 2 — off the dock.” Sam watched and listened to his family in Gambell with the same intensity he gave to books. He memorized old songs and stories his great-grandmother sang and told. She would hold his little body close and press her cheek to his, as if to convey: “You are one of us.”
Sam pestered his relatives to let him hunt seals with them. When Sam was 5 or 6 years old, they handed him a low-powered rifle and told him to start practicing; if he could shoot a ground squirrel “through the eye,” he could hunt with them. For a couple weeks, he shot all day, every day. By the end, he was ready to accompany his family out to the seal blind.
Sam’s cultural education was going well.
Rene breathed a small sigh of relief and refocused on her own goals. She decided to get a master’s degree in education. The family started splitting their time between Alaska and Seattle, where she was in school. When she graduated in 2004, she got a job at one of the best public elementary schools in the city. “I was so happy,” she remembers.
Her classroom was different from those of some of the older teachers, who put desks in rows and told children to speak only when they were spoken to. “In my classroom, it was more like everybody’s working together. We’re a team. We’re going to teach each other,” Rene remembers.
When Sam turned 5, he entered kindergarten at the same school.
“Oh, I love that boy. Sam was just full of energy,” remembers teacher Kathy Coglon. “I could tell he was smart.” Coglon would ask her students what their favorite activities were. “If they can tell you a lot about the thing they’re interested in, that’s a good sign,” she says.
When she asked Sam what he liked to do, he said he loved fishing and then listed dozens of fish and lures and nets he had used with his family in Alaska.
But school was difficult. Sam didn’t like sitting still and didn’t understand why he needed to follow so many rules about when to talk and what to say. He started getting in trouble in class.
Rene and Jeremy would meet with school administrators. Some teachers and counselors suggested Sam had a learning disability or a behavioral disorder. His parents entertained that possibility but explained that Sam was growing up in a different environment than his peers. The family still spent summers in Gambell. No one else at the school was from a subsistence hunting culture. Might it make sense that Sam would learn differently from most other students?
“They didn’t listen,” says Jeremy, standing at his kitchen table in Seattle and picking through a box of old progress reports from the time. “They told us: ‘You need to go back to Alaska. Go back to the village.’ It was terrible.”
“I remember one teacher told me I wouldn’t go to college,” Sam adds from the couch. He’s 18 now, lanky in a baseball cap with a fish pattern on the front. “Who says that to a child? Like, if another kid says, ‘Your shoes suck,’ you can just tell them, ‘Well, your shoes suck, too.’ But you can’t deflect like that when an adult is mean to you.”
As hurtful as it was for Sam, that period was even more destructive for Rene. As she continued to advocate for her son, she felt something change in how the school viewed her as a teacher. She felt that her parenting and her teaching were being belittled, as if she and her son had less of a right to be at the school than others did.
“It went right to how my mother would treat me,” she says. “I was left with nothing, and I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t mentally say ‘I’m not that.’ ”
Rene Schimmel’s mental health spiraled downward. In 2014, the Schimmels and the Seattle Public School District settled a lawsuit related to Rene’s teaching, the details of which are confidential. Asked for comment, a district spokesperson said that Rene had resigned in November 2011 and that school administrators from the time no longer worked for the district.
But the effects of Sam’s elementary school years didn’t go away. Rene and her son reacted very differently to the pain of feeling like they didn’t belong. He bounced back. She did not.
Freedom to learn
In sixth grade, Sam’s parents transferred him to Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences, a private independent day school that gave him a scholarship. Alana Bell was assigned to be his mentor that year, 2006, and her first memory of Sam is a class field trip to do a beach cleanup.
“As soon as we arrived, he was just gone,” she laughs. She spent the entire afternoon trying to make sure she could still see him, while she supervised dozens of other kids who were tentatively moving along the beach. “I’ll always have this image of him, this little dude with this shaggy hair and this walking stick. So happy, so curious, and there was this notion that he could handle it, whatever it was.”
Sam was still different from his classmates. The other boys liked television, comics, soccer and tennis. Sam liked fishing, hunting and sport shooting — in fact, he was on his way to winning back-to-back state shooting championships in the two states he split his time between, Washington and Alaska. Plus, his new school attracted a lot of richer families, so, in addition to being the only Alaska Native student at the school, there was a socioeconomic gap between him and a lot of his peers.
But Seattle Academy was different from his previous school in some key ways. It was more flexible, both about behavior and about how he learned. Sam hadn’t liked reading very much, but he discovered he loved audiobooks and started listening to everything he could get his hands on. He was assigned to a teacher who helped him keep his assignments organized. He learned that he loved to debate.
There were still some bumps. At least once (accounts vary), Sam caught a pigeon and set it loose in the teacher’s lounge at school, but he didn’t get in big trouble.
As Sam made his way through middle school into high school, Jeremy saw new skills emerging in his son.
“He was terrible at handwriting” in elementary school, remembers Jeremy, which masked Sam’s skill as a writer. “But now he’s able to get his thoughts [out]. He verbalizes, that’s what he does, and he’s a beautiful writer. His writing is very direct, raw and alive.”
As Sam got older, he started to use his writing and speaking skills to work on things he believed in. His sense of identity and connection with Gambell and the city of Kenai, where his mother went to high school, had only grown stronger as he matured. He saw some of his cousins struggling with alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts, and he heard from his family in Gambell about how climate change made it difficult to pass down hunting traditions and to catch enough food to survive.
“I see that, among my peers, I am much less likely to fall prey to alcoholism and much less likely to be suicidal as a result of being brought up in the laps of my elders, listening to stories and being engaged on a cultural level,” Sam explains. “What I’ve seen is that when youth are not culturally engaged, you see higher rates of incarceration, higher rates of suicide, higher rates of alcoholism, higher rates of drug abuse — all these evils that come in and take the place of culture. We’re talking about my cousins and my family members.”
In the past four years, Sam has become something of an all-star when it comes to advocating for Alaska Native youth. He was a youth delegate to the Tribal Nations Conference, a Center for Native American Youth awardee, a youth representative at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference and a member of Alaska Gov. Bill Walker’s climate team. This spring, he interned for Alaska’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C.
Sam has turned into exactly the kind of person his parents hoped they would raise.
“Oh god, ‘proud’ isn’t even the word,” gushes his middle school mentor, Alana Bell. “I’m just so honored and blessed to see a kid evolve in the way that he has.”
“In a lot of ways, Sam is a unicorn,” says Stacie Cone, an adviser at Sam’s school who has worked with him throughout high school. “There’s no one like him. And that’s really cool. Everyone loves a unicorn.”
“But,” she continues, “the thing about unicorns is, there’s only one. I think it’s lonely, in a lot of ways, to be different.”
As Sam has flourished, his mother has struggled. When she resigned from her teaching job, she fell apart. “I didn’t get out of bed for days on end. I didn’t shower. I didn’t eat,” she says. “I thought about suicide a lot. Like, every day.”
Her marriage collapsed. Rock bottom was last year. Sam had won an award for being a Native Youth Leader, and he was supposed to travel to Washington, D.C., for a ceremony.
A few days before, Rene nearly killed herself. Sam was in the back of the car doing chest compressions on his mom on the way to the hospital. Neither of them wants to talk about the details — it’s private and painful, and they’re both trying to figure out what their relationship will look like going forward. Rene says she is more stable now. She is teaching again, at an elementary school south of Seattle, and loves her job. Sam is spending the summer in Alaska, guiding with his dad.
Sam traces his mother’s pain back to the same forces that his cousins are dealing with today in Alaska: cultural isolation and intergenerational trauma.
“Her parents’ generation were all sent off to boarding schools,” Sam explains. He is talking, of course, about his grandmother, Constance Oozevaseuk.
“Nothing was put in the place of where culture was. I think some of that trauma was passed onto my mother. I’m not as deeply affected as she was, of course. But I am affected by it, because she wasn’t able to be a mother for a portion of my childhood, because she had to take care of herself.”
Rene agrees, although the fact of her family’s traumatization doesn’t make it any easier to deal with the guilt she feels over breaking down. “I wish I had been stronger,” she says. “We tried the best we could. I’m so proud of him.”
She and Jeremy both say they think Sam has drawn strength from the challenges he has faced. “He has this rock-solid sense of who he is and what he believes,” says Jeremy. “That’s never changed.”
Sam says his cultural identity — formed during all those hours hunting and fishing with his family — is something to fall back on when things get difficult, a source of resilience.
“You’re sitting in a seal blind, you’re talking to your uncles, you’re telling stories — you’re disseminating culture, is what’s going on,” he explains. “It’s not only hunting, it’s passing down traditions, stories and ways of life that would otherwise not have a chance to be passed down.”
So, will he be able to pass down the same traditions to his children?
Sam grins, looking like the teenager he still is. “Well, I don’t have any kids,” he says. “That’s, like, a really existential question.”
But he keeps turning it over in the back of his head, and a few minutes later, he circles back to the question. “I think having children must be really rewarding, and probably really scary,” he says. “I hope I’m able to be the one who stops the passing down of my family’s traumas. But I don’t know. We can only hope.”
If someone you know exhibits warning signs for suicide:
- Do not leave the person alone
- Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used to harm themselves
- In the United States, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
- Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional
NPR researcher Katie Daugert contributed to this report.