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Barren land proves fertile learning ground

Barren land proves fertile learning ground

The barren northernmost reaches of Alaska may seem like a far way to go to prepare for a social work career in Counties Manukau, but for Elizabeth Ruru her time with a far-flung indigenous Inupiaq community proved the ideal training ground.

As a student in the Diploma in Bicultural Social Work Practice at Manukau Institute of Technology, Elizabeth was required to gain practical work experience as part of her coursework.

While most students tend to find work placements in the wider Auckland region, Elizabeth gained her learning deep within the Arctic Circle. The Otahuhu resident spent three months in the remote Alaskan town of Barrow working with the indigenous Inupiaq people.

Barrow is the northernmost settlement in the United States lying 550km inside the Arctic Circle and has a population of 4500 of which 69 per cent are Inupiaq.

Elizabeth was invited in to the community after hosting five Inupiaq representatives who attended the World Indigenous Peoples Conference in Hamilton last year.

For Elizabeth the experience was both heartening and heart wrenching. She worked at a shelter for female victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, run by a local social work agency, Arctic Women in Crisis. Here Elizabeth observed first-hand how modern social problems, such as alcohol and drug abuse, are tearing at Inupiaq families.

“It is a landlocked community – the only way in or out is by air. There is no real industry and people have to endure either 24 hours of daylight or darkness. Drugs, alcohol and domestic violence are huge problems.”

However, Elizabeth was also awed by the resilient spirit and overwhelming generosity of the Inupiaq people, saying there is much New Zealanders could learn from this nation.

“They share everything. If someone has extra food it is given to their neighbours or family. I have not seen sharing on that level before – not even in small New Zealand communities.”

In spite of being worlds apart, Elizabeth found several similarities between Inupiaq and Maori.

“As a nation they are very similar to New Zealand Maori in their beliefs and values. They are an extremely strong community in which the family plays a central role.”

From a social work perspective, Elizabeth found her attitudes toward the male perpetrators of domestic violence challenged during her time in Barrow. The rehabilitation programmes Arctic Women in Crisis runs for these men impressed Elizabeth so much she has decided to focus on domestic violence intervention in her career.

“By trying to help perpetrators of domestic violence change for the better you can put that person back into the family and community.”

One of the highlights during Elizabeth’s time in Alaska was to witness one of the principal Inupiaq customs – the spring whaling season. The Inupiaq lead a subsistence existence and whales are their main food source.

“The Inupiaq rely on whaling for their survival and do not waste any part of the animal.”

Elizabeth was also extremely lucky to spot a polar bear in the wild. “I met many people who have lived in Alaska all their lives and have never seen a polar bear.”

Overall, Elizabeth has made strong links with the Inupiaq people of Barrow and looks forward to receiving her host family on a visit to New Zealand, while her partner has been invited to participate in next year’s spring whaling season.

In the meantime Elizabeth will focus on completing her diploma in order to put what she has learnt in Alaska into practice in Counties Manukau.

MIT’s Department of Maori Education, Te Tari Matauranga Maori, and Department of Social Sciences plan to introduce a new Bachelor of Applied Social Work (Level 7) degree to replace the Diploma in Bicultural Social Work Practice. The proposed new degree is pending approval and is expected to be offered from next year.


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