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.
by Megan McGinty
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.
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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.
Amid 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.
Perhaps 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.
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…)
by Julie Corotis
Children were taken hostage in Russia, thousands died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and bombs were detonated in Palestine and Israel. All of these events have occurred while I have been an environmental educator at IslandWood. How these events define my role as an environmental educator may seem obscure at first, but they are actually paramount to my decision to devote my life to this career.
I began to question the value of environmental or outdoor education last September when I read reports of the hostage crisis in Russia. Children were sacrificed for political gain while I was preparing to teach children about ecosystems. My career choice and what was needed in the world did not seem to be congruent. I could not see how what I was doing was alleviating suffering and dissipating hate. I wondered why it is important to teach children the abiotic parts of an ecosystem when there is a current of hate running through our society. Through this ongoing monologue I realized what role I want to play in environmental education. I want to help children build relationships and a sense of community in hopes that they will leave their experience with me a bit more likely to make positive choices.
I do not believe that children should grow up thinking that the environment is the world’s greatest problem, and it is their duty to save it, which some refer to as the ‘gloom and doom’ approach. Personally, I think that social problems have greater potential to exterminate humans long before we have a chance to kill the planet. The point of this polemic is that I believe children should be taught the value of treating everything with respect, which includes the natural world.
My role as an environmental educator is to teach about the environment, both natural and human-made, and to help others see and value the relationships in and between both. At IslandWood I spend a significant part of 4-day School Overnight Program discussing communities, those in a watershed or ecosystem, our group’s and their home community. Mornings begin with a focus question, which I have altered so that they are broader and can have answers that apply to the students’ own life. For example, “What is an ecosystem?” becomes “What is a community?,” so that human and natural communities can be discussed. The final question of the week “What can I do to make the world a better place?” can have myriad answers that connect their experiences at IslandWood and their lives back home.
I think that the experience of being outdoors in a small community can change people’s lives in extraordinary ways. The setting removes familiar pressures and attitudes, the people often feel freer to be themselves, and the experience is interesting. The combination of environmental education in the outdoors has had a great role in bringing me to this point in my life. I have lived, worked and studied in small communities in nature and believe that I am a better person because of it. I have facilitated these experiences for others and am consistently amazed by its impact. Patience, tolerance, respect and gratitude are virtues that can grow from environmental education, and I believe that these virtues are what is needed to save the world.
Julie Corotis is a graduate student of the IslandWood School on Bainbridge Island, Washington.
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.