Teaching Stewardship Through Native Legend

Teaching Stewardship Through Native Legend

Teaching Stewardship Through Native Legend


Abstract: This article provides the reader with a general background of Alaska Native education and resource conservation, focusing on southeast Alaska cultures. European contact severed these education models by creating government schools. Since then Alaska Natives have worked to balance Native culture with western education. A synopsis of several legends which speak to natural resource conservation is presented with the conservation ethic discussed. The use of these types of legends in the classroom is encouraged as a means of bringing Native values and lessons into the classroom as one means of making education relevant to Native students. The lesson from this discussion can be applied to other indigenous groups.

by Dolly Garza


To address environmental stewardship and education among Alaska Natives it is necessary to start with a brief review of Native cultures and educational systems.

Alaska Natives have lived along this northern coast for thousands of years. Groups developed cultures that revolved around local resources. The Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Eyak, Supiak, Alutiiq, Yupik, Siberian Yupik, Inupiat, and the Athabascan learned how to use surrounding resources for food, clothing, shelter, transportation, regalia, and the arts.

Careful observation of animals, plants and weather over the seasons provided the knowledge base to know when to gather, or when to move. This accumulation of knowledge was necessary to the survival of the community; therefore, it was necessary to pass the knowledge from generation to generation. Knowledge was transferred through oration, observation, and action. Written instructions were generally unknown.

In southeast Alaska, among the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian, children did not learn from their parents. It was generally understood that parents loved the children too much and would spoil them. It was the job of the aunties and uncles of the clan to teach the children important knowledge and skills.

Southeast Culture and Stewardship
Much of Southeast Alaska where I come from was owned or occupied by the Tlingit and Haida. Tlingit historians will tell you that many areas and the associated resources were part of a clan’s property. Their territory included permanent village sites. However a clan’s use,
territorial rights, and stewardship extended beyond these typical areas to seaweed picking areas, berry picking areas, and into the rivers and ocean with herring egg gathering sites, salmon streams, seal hunting rookeries, and halibut fishing grounds.

Anthropologist and early explorers documented many types of conservation techniques and practices. Legends such as Moldy Salmon or Herring Rock were lessons which Elders told to teach youngsters to respect and properly use salmon, herring, and other resources. Clan leaders would decide when fishing would begin and end, and determine other resource harvesting methods. Clan members understood their obligation to follow these rules and rituals. European Contact
In 1876 Alaska were purchased by the United States from Russian, an action which was protested by the Tlingit Nation in Sheetka or Sitka, Alaska. The Russian had a stronghold to very limited sites in the Sitka, Kodiak, and Aleutians areas.

The early traders brought beads, bullets, alcohol, and diseased blankets. In addition, early traders were sick from months on ships with poor water and nutrition. They passed along their sicknesses which were new, and tragic, to Native populations.

The ravages of diseases in the 1800’s have had one of the largest impacts on Alaska Native cultures. Indigenous populations were reduced to less then 1⁄2 the estimated pre-contact populations. In some areas entire villages died from small pox or influenza. Much knowledge was lost with the death of each Elder, hunter, or mother.

Gold miners, fishing companies, and pioneers followed. The military, preachers, and teachers accompanied these early arrivers. The military came to protect the white people, the Christians to convert, and the teachers to civilize the Native.

The Native peoples generally were moved from their traditional sites to designated communities where religion and education could be taught. In many areas the traditional clan structure of government was abandoned. The new education and religion systems were embraced in fear of the ravages of disease. Natives believed they would better survive under this new system, since their old plant medicines and ceremonies did not save them from new diseases.

Early Education Systems
After being taken away and educated at government schools, many Natives made it back home and were expected to live a new life. They tried to be religious and teach their children English and new cultural ways. This assimilation process was only partially successful. Many such as my grandmother Elizabeth were forced to stop speaking Haida to her children. She was devoted to her church. Her children were sent to boarding school and came home years later.

When children were sent off to school parents had no control over what they did, what they wore, what they were taught, or what they were led to believe. This generation, my mothers, came home and began their own lives. They sent their children to school and believed that this is what should be done. “Send your children to school and expect the system to do everything”. Many in my mother’s age believed they had no right to interfere with their children’s education; and for the most part this was true at the time.

Many of the “educated” from my mother’s generation came home and believed that their parents lived backward lives; or if they tried to live this new life they found their were no jobs, and no money to buy all these new commodities. Many put this education aside and went back to living the old way: hunting, fishing, putting up food, living in old ramshackle houses, some with no running water, or sewer.

Current Educational Efforts
In some senses Native people have come full circle. Part out of necessity, and a great part out of love for our culture and land, we continue to live simple lifestyles. Alaska Natives are working to balance Native culture and mainstream education.

However there is still the early education mantra that prevails among the conscious or subconscious of our Elders and thus our community: “Native people must be civilized and cleansed of their former ways”, “Western education is better”.

Today many Alaska Natives still believe that the western education is better. They see education as severed from their daily life and do not feel that they can add to this educational process. Children come to school still thinking their home life, and cultural dance or stories, are archaic and not important. This leads to poor self-esteem and often, an aversion to Native ways. It is important to help Native students understand the value of cultures.

Recent efforts such as those of the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative, funded by the NSF, promotes incorporating Native science, knowledge, and education skills into the classroom as a means of making the science relevant to local areas and helping students understand the value of parental knowledge and their culture. One part of this broad educational effort focused on Native stories or legends that were taught to children. While these stories are entertaining their main purpose has been to teach respect.

Native Legends as Teaching Tools
As an example of ritual, in some areas salmon would be harvested only after the first salmon went upstream and were properly honored through dance and ceremony. It was told that this was done so that the spirit of the salmon would return to its brothers and sisters and report that these were good people and that the salmon should give themselves to these people.

Someone would notice the first salmon coming up stream and alert the community. Eagle down was gathered, regalia donned, and people commenced to the river. Songs were sung, and words were spoken to the salmon. Respect was shown. After this, fishing could take place at the chief’s orders. In the time it took to set up these ceremonies, hoards of salmon went up the river. Today we refer to this as escapement; the necessary brood-stock to ensure continued survival of the salmon. Without the eagle down, this is a standard fishery management practice.

In the Moldy Salmon story a young boy is taken to live with the salmon people after he disrespects salmon. Upon his return to his people he educates them on how important it is to eat all of the salmon and to respect salmon.

In the herring rock story a man is turned into a stone after he disobeys the clan leaders rule to not fish for herring after nightfall. The rest of the community understands the consequences of fishing after nightfall as they pass by this rock everyday. The rock was known to recent time in the Sitka area until it was covered during a construction project. Herring biologists know that herring school up and rise to the surface at night. During this time they are very susceptible to over harvest. A “legend” as it is now called served as a regulation.

As we teach environmental ethics to our young it is well worth using Native or other indigenous folklore to highlight traditional means of conservation. It is important to keep Native children in the folds of education and help non-Natives to understand that Natives were not savages, but lived in balance with their environment.

But as we use legends we must remember to respect tribal and clan property rights. I have not written any legend in full nor do we have permission to commercialize these legends for
profit. However the use of these legends as an educational tool is welcomed by most Elders and tribes.


Dolores “Dolly” Garza is a full-time Professor for the University of Alaska Marine Advisory Program. She has worked in Kotzebue and Sitka and now works in Ketchikan as a Marine Advisory agent, interfacing European science with Alaska’s marine resource users in the areas of subsistence management, marine mammal management and marine safety. This article reprinted from proceedings of the 2006 North American Association for Environmental Education annual conference in Anchorage, Alaska.

Climate Change, Youth and Hope: Debunking the Paradox

Climate Change, Youth and Hope: Debunking the Paradox

by Megan McGintyCCC-Reidel_Baker-500x332
North Cascades Institute

Last year we began a service-learning summer program for high school students focusing on climate change. The Climate Challenge program consisted of a summer residency in the North Cascades followed by a service project in which elementary-school students were taught by the returning high-school students back in their home communities that fall. We planned a challenging field itinerary for the summer portion – studying glaciers, interviewing scientists and exploring hydrological systems. The student team made both geographic and intellectual discoveries and practiced presentation skills in order to bring their stories to their hometowns. We anticipated that they would struggle to master new skills, become proficient communicators, and hoped that they would become passionate teachers.

ALERT: You need to be a CLEARING subscriber to read the rest of this article.
(enter password then hit return button on your keyboard for best results)


What we did not anticipate was the strength of the reaction from the adult audiences that the students encountered. The first clue was a rant posted online in response to an article in the local newspaper that briefly mentioned the then-pending program. (From the reference to “enviro-nazi youth,” I can only assume the comment was made by an adult.) Other reactions were far more favorable. People consistently commented upon how inspiring the students were, mentioning the word ‘hope’ again and again. The rangers and resource mangers that showed the students their daily work thanked us for the opportunity to interact with the students. The most striking meeting happened over dinner at our environmental learning center one evening when the students gave a brief impromptu presentation as a way to introduce themselves to a group of adults attending a naturalist class. When the students sat down, a woman across the room stood up and turned towards them. “I want to thank you all. We have done such a poor job of taking care of the Earth and now my generation has left you such a mess. I am so grateful to you and want you to know you are our only hope.” By this time, tears were running down her face, the dining hall was still and a few other adults also had red eyes. As she sat down, I looked over at the students, who were gape-mouthed. I had been nervous about them confronting the enormity of the task before them and wondered if the woman’s address would discourage them.

Over the course of the rest of the program, the students referred to that night as the point when they began to take the program more seriously, realizing that people were relying on them in earnest to address climate change. At times the amount and intensity of the expectations being put forth seemed a bit overwhelming and unrealistic for the students. As staff, we were often asked how to teach kids about climate change without getting depressed or depressing them.

climatechallengeAmid all this, the students never struck me as burdened. Yet neither did they seem uninformed. If anything, they were saturated with information and were quick and adept at adopting new ideas and applying scientific concepts. Flux seems to be a natural state of affairs for them.

The youth who are growing up now, with climate change as a primary concern, are facing a far different threat than any confronted by previous generations. Since the founding of the United States of America, people have faced civil war, wars in Europe, unrest over race, wars in Asia and the possibility of annihilation by nuclear war. While variations of all these threats still exist (and may always be present to some extent), they are all generated by humans.

In these cases we are both the victims and the agents. Meeting these challenges is a matter of appealing to the humanity that lies within the enemy, an enemy that is biologically identical to us and therefore subject to all the great strengths and debilitating weaknesses that we ourselves are capable of. Hope is rooted in our vision of ourselves not just as a nation or race, but as a species.

The problem with casting climate change as a foe is that we can barely define it or its effects in concrete terms. At best it is a poorly understood process, driven by forces that we struggle to comprehend, let alone grasp well enough to manipulate. We may know enough about the gross concepts behind the carbon cycle, meteorology and hydrology to understand that our climate is changing, but these topics become exceedingly challenging and intricate when combined with the physics of aerosols and clouds, quantum mechanics and paleoclimatology. In addition, climate change occurs on a scale far greater than most of us can easily fathom. We know what tens of thousands of years is, but how many of us can honestly say we have an actual operating sense of even a hundred years? In terms of both the mechanisms involved and magnitude of change, climate change is a great unknown. The level of uncertainty posed by climate change is far greater than that posed by war.

This is probably where the generational hinge folds. Students today see climate change as a static fact, a reality that looms in the form of species loss, desertification, and wars about water. They consider themselves optimistic yet realistic. They expect to see changes in the climate, but they also expect to adapt, to develop technologies for a different planet and to live under laws that strictly regulate the use of resources. They anticipate losing habitats, biodiversity, and undeveloped landscapes. I’ve asked students what they think the difference between older people’s views of climate change are compared to theirs. Upon hearing their answers, it occurs to me that the fear surrounding climate change is ours, not theirs. Climate change is a great unknown, but this is true of so many other factors in these students’ lives- whether they will go to college, fall in love, have children, what career they will choose, whether they will encounter fortune, illness or wealth. To them, the issues resulting from climate change are among a host of many other big questions. These students still embrace uncertainty, and right now, that fact is to their advantage.

This past fall, the same students that addressed the group in the dining hall were presenting their views on youth, climate change and involvement before a panel of federal officials. One young woman stood up and related a pivotal moment that occurred for her during the summer. As she spoke about standing on top of a mountain and realizing that the land as far as she in every direction was public land, her voice cracked and tears ran down her face. She took a deep breath and continued. “I realized that this land was my responsibility and that I want to do everything I can to protect it into the future.” While some of us may see a reason for despair, there are others who hear a call to arms.

When these students learn about pressing issues, their response is a desire to inform others about it. They intend to catalyze the change they believe their communities need. One student said “It’s easier for us because people who grew up earlier kept seeing things get better and all we’ve seen is things go downhill.” They consider themselves naïve, but are looking forward to making and seeing change. They realize that not all the changes will be good, just as they realize that they will not be successful in all they undertake. They also understand that climate change has winners and losers, but they see no reason why they, and we, can’t adjust.

session2group4Perhaps as these students age, and go on to both succeed and fail at the challenges that occur in the course of their life journeys they will become jaded, tired and lose hope. Their expectations don’t seem as high as those of students 10 or 20 years ago, but they also seem to be more accepting of the situation. I am confident that as they go out into world they will find some assumptions that they are working under to be far more challenging than they imagined, but also suspect that their lack of pre-set notions about what should be will serve them well as they innovate and adapt their way onward.


Ear to the Ground – Saul Weisberg, North Cascades Institute

Ear to the Ground – Saul Weisberg, North Cascades Institute


This interview is the first in a series that will be a regular feature in Clearing. Check back each month for a new interview with a leading environmental educator in the Pacific Northwest.

Saul Weisberg is executive director and co-founder of North Cascades Institute. He is an ecologist, naturalist and writer who has explored the mountains and rivers of the Pacific Northwest for more than 30 years. Saul worked throughout the Northwest as a field biologist, fire lookout, commercial fisherman and National Park Service climbing ranger before starting the Institute in 1986. He authored From the Mountains to the Sea, North Cascades: The Story behind the Scenery, Teaching for Wilderness, and Living with Mountains. Saul serves on the board of directors of the Association of Nature Center Administrators, the Natural History Network, and the Environmental Education Association of Washington. He is adjunct faculty at Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University. Saul lives near the shores of the Salish Sea in Bellingham, Washington with his wife and daughters.

Clearing talked to Saul on April 12, 2010:

You were the co-founder of the North Cascades Institute in 1986 and have been its executive director ever since. What changes have you seen in the field of environmental education over the years? (more…)

You are Brilliant and the Earth is hiring

You are Brilliant and the Earth is hiring


By Paul Hawken

From a commencement speech given at the University of Portland, May 3, 2009.

When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a simple short talk that was “direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate, lean, shivering, startling, and graceful.” No pressure there. Let’s begin with the startling part. Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation… but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement. Basically, civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.


Knowing One Big Thing: The Role of the Nature Center in the Next Millennium

Knowing One Big Thing: The Role of the Nature Center in the Next Millennium

Knowing One Big Thing: The Role of the Nature Center in the Next Millennium

By Mike Weilbacher
From The Best of Clearing, Volume V

It’s a very rainy day in the middle of Aesop’s fables, and Hedgehog is stuck outside without a dry place to hide. He finds a den, but Fox already occupies it. After much begging and whining, Hedgehog squeezes in alongside Fox, raises her prickles, and a needled Fox quickly vacates his dry den to the now contented Hedgehog.

A fox knows many things, concludes Aesop, but the hedgehog knows One Big Thing: how to use prickers.

Which brings us to fuzzy little beasts called nature centers, a.k.a. environmental education centers. I carry an exquisite love-hate relationship with these beasts. As a freshly-scrubbed, greener-than-a-tree-frog college graduate, I was offered the irresistible opportunity of not only directing a small nature center tucked into the middle of central New Jersey, but directing it when its nature center building had just been erected! Imagine my luck, walking into a vacant building as my first full-time job and inventing a nature center.

In the years since, I’ve had the pleasure of working at and visiting quite a few centers, and I know that my corner of the eastern seaboard is blessed with an abundance of centers. By contrast, when I recently spoke at Montana’s environmental education conference, I was stunned to learn that Big Sky country was only that year building its FIRST nature center. I hope the concept takes root in the West the way it’s proliferated in the East.

But I worry about nature centers. Always underfunded, many centers suffer from severe physical plan maintenance concerns, are almost perpetually understaffed, the staff almost always crammed in too-small spaces not originally designed as offices, stuff stored in every nook and cranny of the too-small building. The exhibitry is often tired, the touch table full of objects that should have been removed months ago, the touchy-feely boxes mostly empty, and the few live animals mostly immobile in cramped aquaria. Light bulbs are often shot, terrarium text is missing letters, the information presented anachronistic, irrelevant — scientific name, adult length, average lifespan. Horribly, and frankly, unforgivably, nature center are easily 100 years behind the state-of-the-art science exhibitry techniques practiced by their big-city peers in science centers and museums.
And yet, for all that, never has the mission of the nature center been as vital as it is today. No, “vital” is not the right word. Imperative. Critical. Necessary. In a perfect world, every single student in every single elementary school would have regular, ongoing access to a nature center, its staff, and its programs. Because in this hugely imperfect world we inhabit, something horrible is happening.

We live during perhaps the largest extinction event in natural history. Certainly, we are fueling the largest Holocaust since the Great Extinction wiped out dinosaurs, marine reptiles, ammonites, and more during the end of the Cretaceous Period. Evolutionary forces cannot keep pace with the changes we have wrought on the landscape, and pieces of the plane’s jigsaw puzzle are mysteriously vanishing daily. The web of life is unraveling: frogs dropping out of pristine ecosystems, large mammals in decline in many locations, coral reefs being dissembled and sold to collectors, white-tailed deer removing wildflower populations from Pennsylvania sanctuaries, the Amazon again set ablaze to produce more of those damn cows.

While there are many notable conservation success stories — peregrine and pelican, alligator and eagle — there are innumerable losses (one estimate is between 70 and 100 species daily).

The unfolding story of the extinction of life — the sinking of the global ark, if you will — is perhaps only one large mammal away from receiving the full world’s attention. When the last mountain gorilla or black rhino, two highly endangered creatures in politically unstable parts of the world, disappears, the headlines will begin, and that unfortunate mammal will jump-start a conversation we should have been having for decades. Here’s a prediction: in the next millennium, global warming and extinction will emerge as the environmental Scylla and Charybdis through which the world must navigate to survive, and the entire environmental movement will rally behind the great struggle of keeping the burning ark afloat.

In that context, then, the nature center will play an increasingly important role in the extinction story. Today, the zoo has claimed for itself — partly through creative public relations seeking to preempt the animal rights movement — the title of the ark, for zoos maintain professional staff working daily on preserving and building breeding populations of animals like gorilla and lemurs, pandas and vultures.

But the nature center movement must organize itself to become recognized and treasured for the One Big Thing it does that a zoo does not it preserves a precious piece of habitat, serves as an island of green in a sea of McAsphalt. That first nature center I worked at in central Jersey was surrounded on three sides by development, the fourth by a four-lane, concrete-barrier highway. To a migrating songbird, that park’s emerald canopy was a welcome neon sign; to resident birds, one of the few habitats left. As the suburbanization of America transforms everywhere into Nowhere so that Denver, Miami and Albuquerque all look just like, well, Jersey, as beige stucco townhouses advance like slime mold across the width and breadth of America, the preservation of a hunk of diversity embedded in a sliver of habitat will emerge as perhaps the largest contribution of nature centers to environmental quality.

Which rises an intriguing question: are nature centers and their staff up to this challenge?

Here’s the result of years of mulling. First, nature centers have spent too many years wrestling with the meaning of the phrase “nature center.” As nature study begat environmental education, so did naturalists evolve into environmental educators and nature centers transmogrified into EE centers. The reasons are many, and not necessarily a mistake. With the emerging mass awareness of environmental degradation in the late 1960s, our profession wished to be on the front line of environmental interpretation, and teach about energy use, lifestyles, pollution, consumption, conservation, resources, etc. As a college student in the early 70s, I rebelled against the teachings of my professor, one of the foremost American naturalists of this — or any — time. I, too, had bigger fish to fry that knowing which woodland bird sings “drink your tea.” Drink your own tea, thank you very much, I have a world to save. Nature centers gave themselves a face-lift, a work-over, and began re-naming themselves as environmental education centers, biting off a larger mission, interpreting in parallel both the wonders of nature and the destruction of the environment.

Trouble is, this large mission forces environmental educators to be so many Foxes, trying too hard to know too many things: when does the ozone hole open? Why do we recycle glass when sand is so plentiful? What’s the role of water vapor in global warming? Paper or plastic? Disposable or cloth? And the center’s exhibits begin to reflect this scattered mission, becoming a hodge-podge of disjointed displays that, in concert, present no unified vision of what an environmental education center is.

Worse, the public has never rallied behind a banner called “environmental education,” and the phrase still carries little or no resonance with mass America.

So allow me to suggest a smarter strategy: centers must, like corporate America, downsize and streamline. It strikes me that, with acres of land in which to teach and interpret, the role of the nature center and its staff is to know One Big Thing: the community of plants and animals that inhabits the special piece of the planet in which the nature center resides.

Yes, someone must teach about ozone holes and Amazonian fires, and there must be environmental organizations dedicated to getting good lifestyle information to large numbers of overconsumers. But it’s been suggested in this space before that perhaps the ultimate solution to our environmental ills is to install nature study as the beginning of any environmental education curriculum, and graduate a nation of naturalists. If we are to realize that vision, then communities need Master Naturalists capable of teaching this information, people who inhabit one place for a very long time and get to know that place so well, they know which wildflowers bloom in which location in what numbers, which frogs croak in which wetlands in what order, which migrating songbirds return in which succession — and scream loudly if those wildflowers or frogs or birds disappear.

This is a very high calling, and very necessary work.

The naturalists that inhabit nature centers must then master three skills: knowledge of nature, the ability to communicate that knowledge, and conservation biology. Naturalists must begin to learn which tools they can employ to manage their green oases correctly to keep their ecosystem’s fabric from further tearing.

If the nature center focuses on this mission, other problems centers face might resolve themselves. It becomes clearer, for example, what skills one is looking for in staff to hire. It gives the center a context for successfully appealing to the corporate and foundation community for higher levels of funding (after all, it’s not just nature study, it’s species preservation). And it gives the center One Big Thing to tell the public, over and over: we are the people who preserve the plants and animals that are your natural neighbors. For once, the public might finally get it. And support it.

So if you’re a nature center staff, feeling foxy and scatterbrained, here’s a strong recommendation: follow Hedgehog. Dig yourself deeply into your center’s burrow, learn One Big Thing, teach it masterfully, and teach it so well that it rallies the world behind solving the single most intractable dilemma of our time: how Homo sapiens will ever learn to share a sinking ark with any other species but himself.


Mike Weilbacher is the executive director of the Lower Merion Conservancy, and is, he confesses, required to teach Too Many Things.