How Relationships, Identity, and Connectedness Promote Child Well-Being

In our latest Q&A, Eden Pontz, Executive Producer and Director of Digital Content at CPTC, had the pleasure of speaking to Jessica Ullrich, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Jessica is a descendant of the native village of Wales and a tribal member of the Nome Eskimo community out of Nome, Alaska. Jessica began our conversation with an expression of gratitude for the land, earth, air, and water. She joined us from Anchorage, Alaska, home to the ancestral lands of the Dena’ina Athabascan people. Jessica also expressed gratitude for the ancestors, children, future generations, and community members. And she gave special thanks to her family, who has shown tremendous strength after enduring many hardships. We, in turn, are grateful for the opportunity to sit down and speak with Jessica about her dedication to making life better for Indigenous children.

Jessica Saniguq Ullrich, Ph.D.

Eden Pontz: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. Your research focuses on the importance of connectedness for promoting child well-being. Can you share a bit about your journey, and why you chose this area of work.

Jessica Ullrich: Connectedness is defined by the People Awakening Team from Southwest Alaska as the interrelated welfare of the individual, one’s family, one’s community, and the natural environment. I wanted to learn more about how connectedness is promoted. What is it that helps us have an interconnected mentality? I worked in child welfare before going back to school to get my Ph.D., and I kept seeing the same outcomes for children in terms of the disproportionate number of Alaska Native children in out-of-home care. And that’s been my passion, to look at ways to prevent the ongoing removal of our Indigenous Alaska Native children. I went back to school to learn more about ways we could use research to advocate for strategic policy and practice change. I felt like there’s just something missing in the child welfare system. And what I have come to understand is that the theoretical foundation of child welfare was not based on our Indigenous world views and understanding of relationality and connectedness. 

EP: In order to develop an Indigenous connectedness framework, you spoke to Alaska Native knowledge bearers, foster care alumni, relative caregivers, and foster parents. What did you learn from them about what children need to thrive?

JU: What I heard in many of the stories that the knowledge bearers shared with me about what they believe promoted child well-being tied into the challenges and traumas that were experienced. What kept coming up was this aspect of colonial pain. There’s been wave after wave of it. It’s not just a historical trauma. It’s something we’re carrying and still enduring to this day. I was surprised it kept coming up, and it taught me that we have to acknowledge and understand it for us to return to living and expressing our Indigenous love.

They shared stories of violence, having to speak only English, a rural and urban divide here in Alaska, internalized oppression, being ashamed of who they were as an Alaska Native person, intergenerational trauma, racism, and suicide. It helped me understand that we still have to teach our children how to be resilient because these challenging aspects are still happening in our society. We’ve been living through a pandemic and all sorts of upheaval in terms of blatant racism –systemic, institutional, and interpersonal– that has been holding people down, and harming us in many ways for hundreds of years in our country. 

My hope is that one day, our future generations can just be themselves. That our children can live in a world where they know that their actions and life matters. What they do affects others. They have gifts that they bring to this world, and those gifts benefit a family, community, the earth, and all of us as a collective. By speaking with the knowledge bearers, I learned that we have to acknowledge that we have relational wounds that have happened through colonization. I also learned how to do the relational healing that is needed. 

EP: What were some of the strategies you learned that encourage healing?

JU: The knowledge bearers shared with me their strength, their resilience, what helped them through those challenges. So much of it is embedded in our ancestral cultural teachings. They shared with me how they learned from elders, attended culture camps, engaged in ceremonies, and how to cut fish and subsist. They shared stories about getting out on the land — being out there was what gave them strength. It helped them engage in mindfulness in a powerful way that gave them a break from the challenges they’re going through. They talked about what helped them feel safe, cope, and heal. It involved things like learning their Indigenous names, attending naming ceremonies and potlatches, and learning the accurate history of their family, community, and people. And what that does, all of the different ways we connect and relate, helps a child form a relational identity. It helps them be in ‘right relationship’ with themselves. 

EP: This theme of being in ‘right relationship’ emerges throughout your research. Can you explain what this means, and why it is so important for children?

JU: Being in ‘right relationship’ with yourself helps a child feel like they belong. It helps them feel safe, appreciate others, have self-worth, develop empathy, and so much more. It’s knowing that we’re part of something greater than just ourselves. And that makes us special and unique. This aspect of our relational identity is really connected to knowing who you are and where you come from. Many of us have heard those instructions from our elders — to know who you are and where you come from. 

Our elders were teaching us that we need to develop this relational identity, this internal connectedness. It’s knowing the relationships we have with our ancestors and our future generations. Knowing our place in this continuous history. It’s knowing our relationship with our family — biological blood relatives and our chosen family as well. And then there’s our relationship with our community, whether it’s the LGBTQIA+ community, school community, or work community. As well as the place that we live in — the earth, land, water, and air. All of these relationships help us understand who we are. To know who we are means that we know we’re of the earth, we’re of a family, we’re of an intergenerational connection, we’re of spirit. All of this is how we teach children who they truly are.

EP: We’ve focused on how we can support and teach our children. And I’m curious what you believe our children can teach us? What can we learn from them to support our own journey toward wellness?

JU: One of the important perspectives from the Indigenous community is that our children are sacred. We have much to learn from children. It’s not about parents or adults seeing themselves as superior to children. Yes, we guide them and set boundaries. We help them learn and teach them, but there’s mutual respect. There’s equality. Our children are important members that we help develop so they can be in ‘right relation’ to themselves and others. 

My daughters have been some of the biggest teachers for me. They’ve been such gifts in my life in terms of helping me to heal and come back in ‘right relationship’ with myself. For my birthday this year, one of my daughters gave me a painting. It has a heart with a person standing in it and a yellow center that’s shining out. My daughter wrote, ‘Love comes from the light inside.’ That’s an example of where I feel like she’s teaching me who I am and where I come from. She has that wisdom in her. She knows who she is and where she comes from. Because who we are is love and light. I love what they can teach us and what we can teach them. I feel like our superpower is relationships. Understanding the importance of connectedness, knowing who we are, has been the greatest strength for us. 

EP: We love that! Relationships as a superpower. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged relationships in many ways. What are some of the strengths within the Indigenous community you have drawn upon to help during this time?

JU: I think about what we’ve been doing during these times of COVID, and I’ve seen us find different ways to connect, especially through social media. Last Spring, when the pandemic first hit, I saw a webpage created where children were jingle dancing (a special ceremonial dance out of the midwest with a rich, beautiful history). When I saw this, it gave me so much love and strength. I saw work being done to be creative to make sure elders’ needs were being met, to share our resources, and allow for circumstances here in Alaska to make sure there is enough food for everyone. I saw communities coming together to protect their community with travel restrictions and guidelines. And continuing to have our children connect through technology. It’s a different world we live in now, and we are adapting and getting through it. 

There’s so much wisdom that we can continue to learn from each other. That’s why it’s important to share your story with your children and listen to theirs. Teach them what you did to get through challenging times, and seek wisdom and guidance from them as well. We are all going through a process of coming back to balance. We are developing our healing journey, and it’s going to look different for each of us. Having the courage to face challenges and pain and heartbreak is where the healing happens. Sharing our truth is where healing happens. And helping our children maintain who they are, where they come from — that’s going to be the ticket to our liberation from oppressive beliefs and ultimately to our collective well-being.

This Q&A was edited for clarity and brevity by Elyse Salek. Photo courtesy of Joseph Senungetuk.

About Elyse Salek

Elyse Salek, M.S.Ed. is an Administrative Director of Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Her degrees are in Psychology and Human Development from Middlebury College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Education. She is the proud mother of two children.

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