Studying Role of Grandparents

Alaska Natives’ role in communities, caretaking explored.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

Tradition holds that Alaska Native grandparents become deeply involved in the lives of their grandchildren, sharing their values, language and cultural identity, and respectfully living and working on land and sea.

“It was typical for grandchildren to go and spend time with their grandparents, who would teach them how to make parkas. They also taught whaling, hunting and fishing,’’ said Tammy Henderson, associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at Oklahoma State University. “They taught them to do no harm, show respect, be quick to listen and slow to speak, and to give back to their community.”

Henderson wants to discover more about the experiences of Alaska Native grandparents in both rural and non-rural areas, specifically “whether they still grandparent according to traditional ways, or whether economic and cultural changes have forced them to resemble grandparents in the lower 48 [states]. We don’t know, for example, to what extent grandchildren are being forced to assimilate into Western culture, or they adapted by learning to live in both worlds simultaneously.”

Grandparents are a rapidly growing population in the United States. More than six million have grandchildren younger than 18 living with them, according to 2008 Census Bureau data. Of these, an estimated 41 percent provide their grandchildren with basic necessities, such as food, clothing and shelter, according to the census report. 

Henderson and her colleagues are studying Alaska Native grandparents, hoping the research will produce important insights about how grandparents from diverse cultures are adapting to their increasingly complex roles in U.S. society. These include such issues as being primary caretakers for their grandchildren as result of family and social changes, continuing to work beyond retirement ages, and needing social and legal services to support their care of grandchildren.

The intent of the study, funded with $1.15 million from the National Science Foundation as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, is to improve the understanding of a diverse group of grandparents, meaning Alaska Natives, and likely also will have an impact on overall policies related to older Americans.

“I think Alaska will share with us how grandparents keep families together, and the best practices to encourage community resilience,” Henderson said. “What we have done already in this country is to over-study grand-parenting in poor communities. We need to know what’s happening in the lives and experiences of other groups in this country. We have not yet documented their [Alaska Natives] history and the intersection of social constructs.”

The team hopes to design a model from the data regarding “how communities are helping one another, and what resources we can be bringing to communities to support their way of taking of care of their own,” she added.  “Grandparents are a unique case. Often they are caring for children because they want to keep families together. We don’t know much about this group at all. We haven’t studied the resilience and community capacity. We don’t know what grandparents provide in promoting individual and family development.”

At least 17 jobs are associated with the project, which involves a partnership between Oklahoma State University, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and Alaska Community Services. An informal partnership also exists with the University of Alaska-Anchorage.  The arrangement ultimately is expected to attract additional high caliber faculty to Oklahoma State, and eventually generate an increase in students and more money for the university and the state. 

Beyond Oklahoma, the research team also is “bringing cash into rural communities in Alaska, who choose to live more traditionally,” Henderson said. “While we will respectfully partner with rural communities by getting their guidance and approval on all aspects of the research process, we also will pay for translation services, food, transportation, and lodging in rural communities where there are few cash industries. Against the backdrop of a cash-driven economy, how else can you get cash into communities who respectfully live off the land?”