Amber Christensen Fullmer, ABD Ph.D.
Inupiaq, Caddo, and Choctaw
Inupiaq, Caddo, and Choctaw
First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is pleased to launch a new online series of essays that focuses on Native justice. With generous support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), First Nations invited multiple experts to discuss the root causes of Native injustice and highlight possible frameworks to move forward toward Native justice.
In this essay, Amber Christensen Fullmer, a doctoral candidate at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and owner of Inua Research and Development, discusses her personal journey to reconnect with her culture and her professional experience seeking justice on behalf of her people and community.
As Fullmer points out, settler colonialism has had a devastating impact on Alaska Native families and communities. She argues that the intergenerational trauma caused by missionaries, boarding schools, and other harsh assimilationist polices still impact Alaska Native people today. Through Inua Research and Development, Fullmer has begun to address some of these important social justice issues.
About Amber Christensen Fullmer, ABD Ph.D.
Amber Christensen Fullmer, M.A., ABD Ph.D., is Inupiaq, Swedish, Irish, Russian, Scottish, Caddo and Choctaw descent. She was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. She obtained her Bachelor of Arts in sociology/psychology from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, her Master of Arts in community/clinical psychology, and is ABD (all but dissertation) for her Ph.D. in Indigenous studies, with an emphasis in public health and social justice from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She began her career in the division for juvenile justice as a youth counselor on the girls’ treatment unit. She moved on to juvenile probation in Anchorage, and then adult probation in Colorado for five years. Upon returning to Alaska in 2012, she became an assistant professor in the human services department at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. In 2020, Amber became director of Native Student Services, focusing on building programs to recruit, retain, and graduate Alaska Native students. In 2023, she took over as the director of operations at the Alaska Native Justice Center to focus on advocacy and re-entry services in Alaska.
Amber and her husband, Chad, have three 20-something children (and all their friends), three dogs, and five cats. They enjoy traveling, camping, and cooking together as a family. She hopes to continue finding time to read and catch up on sleep now that the kids are adults.
By Amber Christensen Fullmer
I was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, during the post Trans-Alaska pipeline boom. I am of Inupiaq, Swedish, Irish, Russian, Scottish, Caddo, and Choctaw descent. My grandmother, Edna, was born in the Norton Sound region in a place called Haycock, Alaska, near Nome. She was born in 1920 and was the baby of six children born to my great-grandmother, Jessie, and great-grandfather, Sven Svensson (later changed to Swanson to appear more American).
My great-grandfather left his family home in Harstena, Sweden, to travel to the United States, eventually landing in Nome, Alaska, in the early 1900s during the Gold Rush. He married, but lost his first wife to a drowning accident. He married my great-grandmother in a transactional (purchased) marriage. There was a 21-year age difference. They had six children in nine years ‒ two girls and four boys. My grandmother was born in 1920, and was the youngest of the six. Her mother died in 1922 of tuberculosis, one of the many communicable diseases that plagued the remote regions of Alaska post-contact.
Given that my great-grandfather owned a trading post, saloon, and several schooners, he was ill-equipped to care for a toddler. My grandmother was sent to live with her grandparents up the East Fork River, a very different life than was had in Nome. This move, combined with the establishment of a territorial school, likely saved my grandmother from being adopted out to a waiting white family, and later from being forced out of her community into boarding schools. She returned to her father when she was about 7 years old. She remembered being afraid and confused by the transition. Her father only spoke Swedish and English; my grandmother only spoke Inupiaq. Her sister, Ebba, took over her care and that of the four boys between them, Carl, Walter, Charlie, and Oscar.
Growing up in Nome was difficult for children of mixed heritage. The Gold Rush brought many people to the area ─ at one point approximately 20,000 people resided in the area. Post-Gold Rush, however, the population plummeted to as low as 500 permanent residents. Despite not being a state until 1959, Alaska did not escape the racial bias from the contiguous United States. Signs were posted refusing service to Alaska Natives in many saloons and outposts.
My grandmother followed her sister to Anchorage during World War II to find work in the many canneries desperate for laborers. Three of her brothers were drafted and served in the Armed Services; the fourth died during his adolescence due to an infection caused from a broken hip.
While in Anchorage, she met my grandfather, Glynn, a 20-year-old Army soldier back from his tour in Germany where he assisted in liberating concentration camps. My grandpa was from deep East Texas, and was also of mixed heritage, including Caddo and Choctaw Indian. They settled in Anchorage, building a house for their five children (my mom was the 4th-born). My grandmother only returned to Nome once, in 1948. Her father, who died in 1936, was buried next to my great-grandmother in Dime Landing. Currently, there are no residents of Haycock or Dime Landing.
My grandparents spoke little of their upbringing, experiences, and being of mixed heritage. It is only as I became an adult on my own journey of reconnecting to my Indigenous roots that I discovered the rich, painful, and beautiful history and heritage. I am the eldest of the grandkids ─ my mom had me when she was 18 years old. As such, I spent a significant amount of time with both my grandparents. My biological father was an inconsistent presence at best, and absent after I turned 5.
My grandfather died when I was 8 years old, and my world shifted. Some of my earliest memories were listening to my family debate politics, which I would likely call “social justice” issues in the current time. I stood with my mom and aunts picketing during union labor disputes. I had family members with mental health, addiction, and legal issues – with an unhealthy amount of unchecked trauma. I realize looking back how much my grandmother taught me about justice, family, and Indigenous values without ever naming those things. She taught me to love the person, confront the behavior, and offer support and a path back to those who love you. I learned that people are not their mistakes, but are accountable for their actions; and family is family.
During my journey to reconnect with my heritage, I have learned a tremendous amount about what it means to be Indigenous. While the relationship and journey are personal to each individual, what remains is our connection to our lands, our ancestors, and our families – not a blood quantum as dictated by the U.S. government. We have depended on each other, taken care of these lands, and put family at the center of our being.
Contact and colonization in Alaska resulted in many things, but most damaging was the removal of our children. Forced adoptions by various religious entities and boarding schools created a gaping hole in the center of our communities. The children who were removed suffered heartbreaking abuse, forced assimilation, and in many cases, death. Many kids were never returned to their home communities, and many communities were forced out of their subsistence lifestyle into permanent settlements. This impacted their ability to provide for their communities and practice their traditional beliefs. Forced assimilation into Judeo-Christian religions, away from their traditional beliefs, practices and languages caused irreparable and cascading harm. Bigotry fanned the flame of shame, rejection, and loss. Poverty, combined with the inability to provide in traditional ways, forced many Indigenous people out of their home communities into larger, urban areas, decimating Alaska Native villages and traditional ways of life. This loss cannot be quantified in any meaningful way, but it can be seen in every social system currently standing in the United States.
The current state of the justice system in the United States is clearly failing – not just Indigenous people, but all people. Alaska is not exempt from the issues often discussed in the contiguous United States. Alaska Natives, particularly Alaska Native males, are charged and incarcerated at a disproportionate rate compared to the overall population. Law enforcement services in rural Alaska are sparse and inconsistent. It can take hours to days for a law enforcement response to crimes due to the availability of Alaska state troopers.
Village Safety Officers are often related to the people being accused of crimes and their victims. Law enforcement agencies in rural Alaska struggle to recruit, retain, and appropriately train officers for work in rural environments. Recently, several law enforcement agencies in Alaska were found to employ officers who had criminal records involving intimate partner violence and substance abuse issues.
To add to this, bringing in non-Alaska Native law enforcement officers and judicial employees reinforces the power dynamic and assimilation practices brought about by colonization. We often forget Alaska’s “first contact” was much more recent than most people consider, and the ramifications are still being felt in every facet of our lives.
Regarding the criminal justice system, Alaska Native people who reside in rural areas and villages are forced to serve their sentences in facilities across the state, and in some cases, in out-of-state placements. They are disconnected from their families, communities, and cultures. Rehabilitation and treatment modalities are Western, ethnocentric models that often strip away the cultural and spiritual needs of the individuals who need these services in favor of “standardized” models that focus on the dysfunction of the individual and “billable” diagnosis.
The justice and corrections systems are overburdened, underfunded, and do little to reduce recidivism. Rehabilitative services are low in number and overburdened, and the farther you move from urban centers, the fewer resources available. Rural areas often have no supportive and/or rehabilitation services to support re-entrants. In Alaska, Alaska Native re-entrants are often released in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska, without resources, support, or a way back to their home communities.
At times, the crimes committed lead to the tribes refusing to allow the re-entrant to return to their communities. The rate of Alaska Native people who are homeless are heavily disproportionate to the general population. And COVID greatly exacerbated all these issues.
After spending five years in Colorado while my husband was finishing his career in the U.S. military, we knew it was time to “come home.” While I loved the role I had as a probation officer, I was burnt-out fighting, both within the system and against the system. My caseload was intense, and the clients required much from myself and their larger multidisciplinary treatment (MTT) teams.
I worked with clients who were convicted of sex offenses and crimes involving intimate partner violence. They required intensive supervision, treatment, and containment within the community. As the head of the MTT, I was involved in not only their containment and judicial process, but also, I was an active member of the MTT. I assisted in conducting treatment groups and bridging the “gaps” that clients often had between understanding what happens in treatment and how to enact those changes within their own lives.
My previous role as a juvenile probation officer (and a youth counselor) greatly assisted my work with adult offenders, as I had a foundation of understanding how and why some people engaged in harmful behaviors, whether that was harming themselves with substance use and/or their family and communities with other antisocial behaviors.
When we came home to Alaska, I knew I wanted to be involved in changing the system, hence becoming an assistant professor in the human services department at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. Teaching students who would become the next generations of professionals how to “fix” a broken system and establish a foundation of community-based treatment and support options was empowering, demanding, and exciting.
In this role, I discovered the need for extra support for Alaska Native/Indigenous students within the university system. Upon accepting the role of director of Native Student Services (NSS), I developed a behavioral health-based framework called the Native Early Transition (NET) program that assists Alaska Native/Indigenous students within the first two years of their higher education program.
The foundational belief in this program is one of trauma. Acknowledging that a significant portion of Alaska Native/Indigenous students were coming into the university beyond “unprepared” was paramount. They were coming to us carrying intergenerational trauma and a belief that they weren’t “enough” ─ whether that was academically or related to the idea of “blood quantum.”
Acknowledging these issues allowed us to develop a “soft landing,” academically. Beyond the NET program, we developed the Cultural Identity Project, an elder-led semester focused on teaching these students that not only were they “enough,” but also, they belonged. Much of my time as the director of NSS was spent in the virtual world of COVID. Without the foundational belief that all students deserve support beyond their academic needs, we would have lost many promising Alaska Native/Indigenous students. Our connection and desire to see them succeed in ways other systems did not assisted us in preventing not only drop-outs, but also, supported students who were isolated and suffering from mental health issues. This is what a community should be.
Alaska Native justice means something different to Alaska Native peoples than the remainder of the population. Restorative justice, as employed in the Western systems, is not as comprehensive, connected, and focused on true healing as it is in Indigenous communities. Restorative justice does not mean serving time in a correctional facility to “punish” the offender, which does not restore the victim to who they were before the incident, and statistically, it makes offenders worse.
Victim needs are often minimized, or completely disregarded due to the overburdened criminal justice system. Preventative efforts are difficult to enact and apply on a large scale, as it is arduous to convince an overburdened system to divert funds to efforts that prevent dysfunctional behavior and harm. Historically, the overflow of prevention and rehabilitation work falls on the communities, who often have few resources and professionals in place to hold the weight. These efforts are still largely executed by religious-based organizations, which, again, reinforce the colonized systems.
In my new role as the owner of Inua Research and Development, I am “back to my roots,” so to speak, working on assisting organizations in developing more culturally competent teams focused on advocacy for Alaska Native/Indigenous peoples who have been victimized in their communities. While not all who enter the corrections system are victims, the majority have experienced traumas that have led them down a damaging path.
It is my hope that in the future, Alaska Native/Indigenous communities will be better able to establish their own tribal justice systems that focus on Indigenous beliefs and traditional values that can work next to the Western systems. Multi-disciplinary treatment teams (MTT) that can work together across disciplines/systems – from social services to corrections – will ensure Alaska Native/Indigenous people are supported, educated, and empowered in the next step in community resource utilization and development. As it stands now, clients facing any array of social challenges must be their own advocates. Community resources are often stretched thin in reach and capacity.
My purpose in starting Inua Research and Development is to bridge the gaps within our community resources and assist those community organizations in becoming experts in their fields without having to do it all themselves. With resources that are limited (nonprofits are often funded through grants and donations), we, as a community, can assist in better utilizing said resources and focus on reactive case management. Developing and growing preventative measures in our communities will assist us in reducing the amount of trauma and victimization that currently exists.
In the future, Alaska Native justice must be focused on the communities, in the communities, and for the communities. Currently, Alaska Native academic attainment is well below average. This has a compounding effect of a lack of Alaska Native professionals who can provide treatment, rehabilitation, and culturally competent services in the home community. It also means there are fewer Alaska Native/Indigenous professionals in positions of authority and/or making policy and law.
Treatment should be focused on not just the punitive aspect of criminal justice, but understanding why the event happened, what could have been done to prevent it, and what is needed to prevent further harm – for the victim, community, and the offender. Our communities are telling us these systems, practices, and efforts are not enough. Taking Alaska Natives out of our communities, away from their support systems and culture is not the answer. It never was.
Tribal justice and therapeutic courts have begun to change the way the Western systems engage with Indigenous communities, but there is a long way to go. Without the involvement and support of our home communities, our efforts will continue to fail. Failure is not an option. Building pathways to allow Indigenous people to attain their education, certifications, and skills to not only support themselves and their communities, but to develop Indigenous ways of knowing, healing, and cohesiveness is a must.
Western ways of knowing and doing are not the only option, and are often not the best, most beneficial option for Indigenous people. There is knowledge, medicine, and wisdom in our ways of being, in our ways of doing, and in our ways of our people.
We have been here for thousands of years, caring for each other in times of need and in times of plenty. The wisdom that has been passed down through story, dance, hunting, and survival has immeasurable value – and not just for Indigenous people. Our knowledge was given to us as the stewards of these lands, to assist us in ensuring our people and all people can live, prosper, and continue to grow with one another, not despite one another.
In a dream world, “justice” would not be a debate; it would be part of our everyday lives. The ways in which we care for one another are the medicine. The ways we have persevered in the face of adversity, disaster, and calamity will continue to sustain us through this next phase in society’s evolution. The ways of knowing and being that Indigenous people know to be true will always be the foundation for our communities. The struggles we are currently facing are vast, but the answers are here.
During my journey to reconnect, I listened to many elders speak. During one of these times, I heard about the ways tribes warred with one another, and how they came together to ensure they all survived and prospered. This elder told us about when the missionaries arrived, and how things began to change. Our songs, our dances, our spiritual practices were called savage and were forbidden. Tribes that had previously competed and warred came together to “hide” songs, dances, and practices within other tribes to preserve that knowledge. Some of these practices have been hidden so long that some of our people forgot they existed.
In recent times, these songs and dances have been rediscovered and given back to their people. Songs that haven’t been heard in over 100 years, songs that pass on knowledge, lessons, and morals are teaching our people again. Oral histories and traditions are being openly shared and given to our current and future generations alongside Western teachings. Dances that were thought to be lost are being taught to our children, who can grow up surrounded by their cultures.
There is pride in our people. This elder said, “We put our songs and dances to sleep to protect them and keep them safe for future generations. Until it was safe. Now is that time. We are waking our songs and dances back up for our future generations.”
We are here, we have always been here. We are waking back up. We will continue to be here, and we will continue taking care of our people. This is justice.