LEARNING TO LOVE EDUCATION AGAIN
Chief Tayuk, Guy the Bear Hunter, and Me: How Elder Wisdom is Rebalancing School
By STUART GRAUER
Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition. He consults with schools worldwide and been awarded the University of San Diego Career Achievement Award, plus various international educational exchange fellowships including a Fulbright. Stuart is one of the nation's top authorities on small schools education. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Discovery Channel, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” A regular essayist for Community Works Journal, new book is Fearless Teaching, “a rare book about education that is both beautiful and critically imperative,” is available at www.fearlessteaching.com/. email Stuart
Long ago in Nanwalek, long winter nights, the aurora borealis, and life on the edge of the vast natural world led to a mythology-filled consciousness. The last century, the petroleum century, eroded this life, and we ventured north to learn if it could be coming back.
This is a story of elders, and how we can use their wisdom in our schools. This is also the true story of how I joined the Nanwalek Band of tribal rock n’ rollers in a far outpost of Alaska, where the salmon are running again.
When we arrived in Nanwalek, Irene Tanape met us on the beach. We had read of her in back issues of the Homer Tribune. She was a grandmother of many in the village. She recalled speaking only Sugt’stun (the native Sugpiaq language) while she was growing up in Nanwalek in the 40s, the decade before it almost disappeared from the schools forever. Irene had to wait three generations to see signs of a revival, and to get rid of the strange name, “English Bay,” for her village. Now, it was like the Nanwalek people were awakening from a long hybernation.
In the first of those three generations, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) programs sought to remove all traces of Native American language and culture across the nation. Students were relocated to boarding schools where they could “assimilate” into mainstream American culture. All the other ethnic and racial groups had assimilated—why not the indigenous Americans?
By the time the BIA assimilation program had shut its doors and the kids could stay home with their families and tribes and be taught locally again, the native language and customs had eroded; that was the first lost generation. Materials to teach native language and traditions in school were scarce and people had forgotten how to be grateful for them. The young had become shadow Americans and shadow Indians without much clear heritage or pride. There in Nanwalek, the state curriculum was shipped in like fast-food, and the population of the village thinned out while some of those who stayed became obese. A second generation was lost.
Then things got bad. That past summer, the salmon had spawned upstream in Nanwalek and set out on their migration. But most of those salmon would never return, and much of the seal meat would be gone along with them. In March of 1989, the Exxon Valdez spilled half a million barrels of crude oil in the nearby Prince William Sound. By day eleven of the spill, as the elders sat in the tribal hall passing around the salmon jerky, they could see the black slick gliding onto their beach (Exxon Valdez Spill Trustee Council), and the jerky tasted savory and rich, and they suddenly chewed more slowly, more deliberately. The little bit of black meat they had in home stores would become the rarest of delicacies for, on a seal’s fur, oil destroys insulation, leaving the seal to freeze to death. The local education was already gone, but now the age-old ways and rituals of subsistence—of eating—were about to degenerate, too. Through the years it took to “clean up” the 1989 oil spill and restore local education, the U.S. government (using Exxon’s damage payments) shipped in every standard, high-processed, high-fructose corn syrup, high-salt fast-food they could. 1 Less than half a percent of the food consisted of fruits and vegetables (Rempell, C. 2010). There would be no fresh meat.
Through those same years, government officials and even a number of locals somehow fell under a spell that made them believe shipped-in, mass-produced food was better than living off the land. Living off the land, subsistence living, came to be viewed as the lowest form of human existence. As we visited, the Nanwalek were waking up from this spell, subsistence living was now in revival as a core value of the tribe, and we were given the gift of a new world view.
Sugpiaq natives, coastal people from whom Nanwalek are descended, have fished the Alaskan waters for seventy-five hundred years. (Sugpiaq, http://www.sugpiaq.com/about-sugpiaq/) But during this strange time, around the time of our visit to see their school and meet their students, the tribe had almost lost their taste for salmon. Subsistence cultures manufacturing basic goods by hand had long been in decline. The past generation could easily have been subjects for a controlled experiment in the development of diabetes. “The oil spill kinda took away our unity in our village—the government was coming in and trying to give everyone a quick job,” said an elder, John Tabasnikoff. The bear rarely visited any more, for there was so little salmon to eat. The young developed a refined taste for Coke and packaged food. The bear didn’t have options like that. They went the way of the salmon. And of course the bear and seal hunters went that way, too. This hurt more than the people’s diet; it hurt their identity, for who could be more esteemed in Nanwalek than the bear hunter and the seal hunter?
Then, like an awakening, families began repairing their old salmon smokers and seaweed dryers. How that reawakening came about was an extraordinary thing that any school could benefit from studying and, up in Alaska, we were walking right into it. But first, at least the briefest historical sketch is essential. More than salmon smokers had been broken up there in Nanwalek.
Long ago in Nanwalek
There is an old Jewish folk tale where the little girl asks, “God, is it okay to love strangers?”
God replies, “I don’t make strangers, you make them.”
God does, however, make us into elders. And although it is hard to assign a precise time when we made strangers out of our elders, it is easy to see the trend of isolating our elders accelerating over the past century, nationwide.
Elder wisdom has always been presumed to be a big part of any culture’s educational process. Historically, most cultures have used their elders as a fundamental part of education and often the term “elder” implied a teaching role. For instance, the word küpuna in native Hawaiian means “wise elders,” a word which has no counterpart in English. The French language has doyen. A “sage” is historically someone wise and, usually, older. The storytellers of many cultures have been the elders, as well, and education is normally viewed as fundamentally intergenerational: a passing along of traditions and wisdom. Elders were viewed as those who had the experience and perspective needed by the rising generation, hence, a normal part of education. However, this tradition appears to have silently disappeared in American schools, changing a subtle, age-old balance. In the village of Nanwalek, we were able to observe a rebalancing first-hand, as a national harbinger.
Three generations ago in Nanwalek, traditional subsistence life required everyone to be involved in education. “We cleaned the smokehouse and gardened—putting up food and picking berries,” Tanape’s sister Kathy Brewster said. “There was always something to do” (Klouda, 2008). Kids in local schools had to learn these intergenerational skills, passed down from their elders.
Two generations ago, Bureau of Indian Affairs schools changed all that and a generation came through with a new kind of education and all new words were passed down. Irene and Kathy’s parents taught at the BIA School. What did they pass down?
The BIA displacement of indigenous kids, mostly in the 1950s and 60s, must seem like legend to the Nanwalek, because it sure isn’t covered in the high school history books. As Indian kids across America were moved to boarding schools, their native language and customs were “cleansed.” Tribal schools were disbanded. The campaign ultimately foundered and ended and now, with some sense of victory, the Nanwalek were calling themselves Sugpiaq, meaning “real people.” They were proclaiming on their website that their culture “has steadfastly survived the Russian and later American impact on traditional lifestyles” (Chugathmiut): one more testament to the astonishing tenacity of ethnicity through the ages. How did they do it?
Here is an association that has not turned up in any educational journals we can find. During this same time frame, call it the BIA/Valdez time, American elders were moved to a reservation of another kind. “Up to the 1950s, about 2 percent of the country’s senior citizens were in institutions of some kind. Between 1960 and 1976, nursing-home beds increased by 302 percent, and the revenues received by the industry rose 2,000 percent” (Foundation Aiding the Elderly). By the year 2000, nursing homes in the United States had become a $100 billion industry. The proportion of those over eighty-five years in age increased to 25 percent, largely supported by social security, Medicaid, and Medicare. Notwithstanding Congress’s method of entitling the disadvantaged, the parallel between old age and Indian treatment could have come right out of a Russell Means speech: “The United States is one big reservation, and we are all in it.”
When an environmental disaster strikes a remote, traditional culture, the toxicity creeps into their spirit and their schools as much as into their land and wildlife. What the Nanwalek feared losing after the spill, and still feared losing later on, was not much different than what any community in the country was concerned about losing: unity. Unity of the family, the community, and the ecosystem. But risk, loss, and fear can also be calls to arms. And while a more detailed history might be a greater draw for the scholarly, this brief but hopefully substantial background was our canvas as we journeyed. Essentially, the old ways were being recalled to life, and we were about to learn this from the least likely source for elder wisdom: the kids.
Nanwalek is located at the farthest point of the Kenai Peninsula. To reach this place, one must head by car west and south out to the bitter end of the Kenai Peninsula. And so we set out. Along the highway, out on the peninsula, we passed a sign stating how many moose and caribou had been struck by cars this year, so far. 180. Just past this sign, along a river bend, a grizzly bear sat in a shallow cove of the Kenai River, pawing three red salmon he'd fresh killed. Of course we pulled over. As if called by the wild, our students were lured too far down the embankment and we had to call them back.
Continuing on towards the edge of civilization we passed bald eagles and beachfronts with no footprints, eventually reaching the end of the road: the Homer spit. To continue, we boarded a single-engine Cessna 207 at Homer Air, piloted by a twenty-one-year-old bush pilot named Ricky. We headed south towards the end of the peninsula, passing bay after bay along the Cook Inlet. Then, just before leaving Alaskan airspace entirely, our pilot bore full speed upon the last mountain on Kenai, the last landmass between us and the open, North Pacific Ocean, and just as we became certain that the only possible course would be to crash straight into that mountain, Ricky banked hard into a hairpin turn and caromed straight into a perfect, one-wheeled, sandy beachfront landing onto a crescent beach, the smoothest landing you’d ever see.
We wobbled out of the plane onto the damp sand and pebbles of Nanwalek Bay and found the tribal youth coordinator, Darryl Kreun, and the former tribal chief, none other than Irene Tanape, sister of the current tribal chief, Wally.
Irene and Darryl hiked us straight up to the Nanwalek School for our introductory tour. As we peeked into the classrooms, we got a glimpse of something that we had always wished to see down in the lower 49 States . Like the salmon, the local language, traditions, and customs were in revival, right there in the classrooms. In one class the question on the whiteboard was: “Why is it important that we know the names of our berries?” (Local bushes hold the blueberry, mountain berry, salmonberry, high-bush cranberry, and more.) We heard the elders were making their way into the classes and were teaching how they used to make bread from back when it still had whole grains in it.
In mainstream America, grandparents are no longer really a part of our schooling, and a diminishing part of our cultural transmission occurs from the eldest generation to the youngest. We are searching for an equivalent to the salmon run or the bear hunt. But in Nanwalek, we had a unique experimental group to study: a microcosmic, multigenerational culture relatively disconnected from mainstream America. You can’t even drive here. You needed permission from the tribal chief to even visit.
For the record, none of the Alaskan students we met were “Eskimos” (depending on where you are, some find it rude to call these indigenous Yupik and Inupiat people in Alaska this name) and none were living in igloos. In Nanwalek, about a third of the people we met were of Native American or “Indian” blood, from the ancient indigenous peoples of the area, and about a third have Russian blood (from migrants crossing the Bering Strait); the other third are of European descent. For illustration, the tribal chief’s name was: Tayuk Wally Kvasnikoff: Native/Western European/Russian.
I surely wanted to meet this tribal chief. I wanted not only to thank him, but to learn why, after three months of trying, he finally accepted our request to visit, to learn what he, as a leader and a grandparent, had to share with a group of affluent Southern Californians. What could he want from us?
Leaving the school with hints of revival, a few of us walked down to the Nanwalek grocery store. A young, powerful-looking villager with a Mohawk haircut motored the whole two blocks of the village on his off-road Honda four-wheeler, rifle strapped to the back of the vehicle, before pulling in to the store. In the mudroom, a three-year-old was downing a clear plastic bottle of Coke while his mom sat on the bench, pulling in long and slow on a Marlborough.
Inside the store were four twenty-foot aisles, most with colorful plastic packaging. No fresh food, everything in cans. Of the four rows, one full row was of Kool-Aid and similar fake, sugary drinks. Another row was all canned drinks, mainly soda. The baked goods and breads were all made of bleached, sugared white flour. Leaving the store in a few minutes time, the same man was loading two boxes onto his four-wheeler: two cases of Coke and, under his arm, a case of cigarettes. Later that day, in a different kind of world, we were to meet this man. We would know him, and revere him, as Guy, the Bear Hunter. But here at the store, as his post-millennial self, he was one among the diabetes generation, the Valdez generation.
I missed much of our culture of the 80's by living in Europe at that time, so I am still puzzled by the hair bands that captivated our youth culture during that time. I also missed the entire Reagan revolution, though I’ve been briefed. But missing the second half of the twentieth century would have been a whole lot more puzzling—no Baby Boomers, no Gen X-ers—imagine jumping from the Greatest Generation straight to the “Millennials.”
If the American public school system is efficient at a single thing, it is this: testing groups so that they can provide them with labels. In Nanwalek, with little real change, what had been a traditional school a half-century ago was now being described as a public school with 72 percent of all students labeled Economically Disadvantaged, sevety-eight percent Alaska Native/American Indian, and a fifty percent graduation rate (http://www.edline.net/pages/Nanwalek_School). All new labels for the same old Nanwalek. Today’s Nanwalek “natives” are more ethnically mixed and seem to test better in reading, but that’s about it.
It was as if most of their educational values and traditions had lain in hibernation for at least a couple generations, and they were now awakening. Even the bears were coming around again. This was a startling anthropological situation for the Nanwalek in particular, because a generation ago all the signs threatened the death of their traditional culture. But the elders in this remote Kenai Peninsula village had not yet been marginalized from the community in the same way that they had in the lower 49. Why? Because they were now essential.
The elder John Tabasnikoff, who would later become chief, said, “The spill took away the resources like fish, seal and sea lion, seaweed, and it took away our unity. They are still trying to recover, and we’ve made progress, but I personally don’t think they are all the way there yet” (personal communication, 9/27/2011).
A few years into the new millennium, as the summer work of harvesting gardens and putting up fish restarted after the long sleep, Tanape and other elders started passing on the old stories of how things were done in the old days. We found these stories drifting into the school, and even into the curriculum. The Sugpiaq language was required again (as a second language), although this remains a part of an ongoing fight with the district office that keeps wanting to cut it back. All the same, every Thursday when the elders would meet to talk Sugt’stun and have their community meal, the kids were wandering down to listen to them, to learn the language. The students were building a traditional smokehouse. The self-reliance of growing gardens and putting up winter food was taking on new significance in this age of high electrical and fuel costs. “We didn’t have refrigerators, so we salted, smoked, or dried our fish…and gathered up goose tongue (grasses),” Tanape recounted with the pride of tradition. “We ate bear, moose and seal” (Klouda, 2008). And now they were eating this again.
A few local teens met us upon our arrival at the school. They didn’t look like Alaskans, or sound like them. They looked like kids, although our kids looked preppier. As I followed two of them into the school I overheard one student whispering to her friend: "We could intimidate them.” Just a few hours earlier, while encountering a bear, we had had to order our non-intimidated students back up the hill; now they huddled together at the school doors, eyes widened—a separate pack.
All generations are defined by their stories but, in our Southern California community and probably also in the rest of the nation, the old stories are rarely being told. Back at our school earlier that same year, we had attempted an elder “story recapture” and observed the difficulty of warming up different generations to one another. In one such project, each of our students was assigned an elder community member from our town. One seventh grade girl was paired up with a ninety-two-year-old gentleman from a neighboring assisted living facility. She began her interview with him:
“Can you tell me about your family?”
“I can’t. My family all died in the gas chambers, in Nazi Germany.”
The seventh grader jotted down a word, scanned his interview script, and continued, “Have you suffered any hardships or misfortunes in your life?”
The gentleman processed this information, silently for a while, as the young student studied her paper some more, mystified by the silence that it often seems only elders are wise enough to allow. Then, shyly, she risked this:
“What’s a…gas chamber?”
The gentleman took a big, deep breath, recognizing with the compassion that only a man that old might have, that he was not only needed as an elder, but as a teacher. He told her the story of Nazi Germany, a much bigger story than his own.
There in Nanwalek, the struggle never leaves Tabasnikoff’s voice: “Now the families tend to buy all the stuff money can buy, like satellite dishes; it takes away people getting together—they go home and watch TV, and they could be visiting and have human contact, have a cup of tea. We’re trying to work that back, but it’s hard to grasp it back; the elders practice it, and to tell the stories, but the kids are plugged into headphones.” He then waxed, “Some are starting to understand how much we lost.”
Guy the Bear Hunter
We had not known that we were flying into a revival in self-reliance and subsistence, but we were quick to embrace it. Public art featuring traditional scenes and nature adorned the buildings. Berry picking and gathering was once more feeding the community, and elders were showing the young how their grandparents had made jams. When a fisherman donated fish, an elder had given notice that she would be there in the community hall kitchen to teach anyone who was willing how to can it.
Six different types of salmon had been back in their inlets this year, along with halibut, cod, octopus, and razor clams. In learning and observing all this, we began to draw some parallels between sustainability, salmon, and the role of elders—we began to discern their cultural ecology, much different from our own.
At some point on any great trip, we become aware that something larger than the trip is happening, that a shift is occurring—a new set of eyes—and we begin to observe different things in a different way. Walking around, we start to see things, see beauty that we completely missed when first passing through. Maybe new colors or sounds start to pop out in our awareness. We see.
Walking through the village again at the end of the day, we now noticed that the salmon driers had been newly mended, and at mealtime we listened as people recalled the natural seasonings that their grandparents had prepared for cooking. People brought up old debates about the texture and flavor of the Coho versus the Chinook salmon. They had restored the seaweed dryers last spring: four types of kelp. As all this came back, something else was being recalled to life such as I had not seen elsewhere: the elders.
I had yet to meet Chief Wally, and did not know if I would, but I had read a quote in the local newspaper from him: “Our elders are very important and we want to take good care of them. This ties young people back to the stories of the old days. It keeps them busy and wakes them up to the real world.” (Klouda, 2008).
The community garden was being harvested, the first-picked going to the elders. That was the tradition. And at the school they were passing around CD-ROM disks of the Sugpiaq language songs and rhymes. The social and educational cultures were shifting.
The Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar has famously suggested that, culturally, around 150 is the "cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships." The rule is based upon cross-cultural studies of villages (“ecovillages”) of various sizes. (“Social network,” Wikipedia)
In large schools boasting of diversity, culture is hard to define and harder to shift. The standard public high school is an easy place to observe students retreating into groups, confining most of their interactions to those who seem most like them in attitude, attainment, and background: cliques (Nash, 1973). Schools of over two hundred students, and certainly those of over four hundred, routinely spawn clique formation in such a natural way that few ever become aware that it need not be this way. In our region, schools have over eight hundred students, if not over three thousand. For sociology buffs, you might recall this as Max Weber’s old gesellschaft.
Nanwalek is tribe-size (population of a little over two hundred) with a school of eighty students in kindergarten through grade twelve (ninth grade class size = one student). Here we can observe theory in action. In small groups, people talk and interact freely across groups. They feel connected, even with their teachers, their grandparents, and their village elders (Conway, 1994). They are tribal in a way which management gurus incite schools and organizations to be for high performance. The very old and very young, the nerds, bear hunters, and singers—all mix and share the same core values. Gemeinshaft.
It was time to retire to the cabins for the night. According to the local kids, the cabins were right around the corner at Second Lake. We pulled on our muck boots and marched into cultural relativity and chilling air. “Right around the corner” was a slog longer than we’d had in a month, through ruts and mud, up and down hills, across the stream beds, and brushing against stinging “devil’s club” nettles. Guy followed us on his four-wheeler, cradling a loaded rifle, just in case. If Guy were in our home community, he would be the fullback on the football team—he’d probably be too busy with the team and cheer squad to pay much attention to us. For our students, it was a revelation to spend time with someone fulfilling the role of popular high school athlete, yet doing something real. It is hard to prove that there is a true difference, but we sensed one, joked and sang about it, and Guy became its personification. In an age where the distinction between reality and virtual reality is blurring rapidly for students, where student value and worth are assessed with “validity and reliability” after they pencil in bubbles on a paper score sheet, it can be hard to find any schooling we can call, with certainty, real.
Walking across the last streambed before the lake, we heard crackling. Looking down, blended into the mud, we saw an embankment of dead salmon—stacks of them. Last year the humpy salmon (more widely known as pink salmon) came in so thick that when they spawned and died you could literally walk across the stream on their dead backs. Two days earlier we would have thought this many dead fish was an eco-disaster rather than something to celebrate: the salmon were back!
At last we arrived. Second Lake is a pristine, two-mile lake surrounded by virgin forests and mountains so high we could see glaciers. In our town, this property would be worth billions. In the lake, five-pound salmon were swimming so thick we could snag them with a treble hook, Guy always on hand to unsnag us. Across the lake, two bald eagles sat perched in a cottonwood tree. It was the third week of September. We looked up at the mountain at the season's first snow. A rich life, but a tough life, closer to survival than we'd ever seen; life lived with a loaded gun. September and we all had three layers on, waterproofed. Guy, in a tee shirt, twenty-one at the time with two children, had six kills this past season. Bears. He said he was looking for number seven.
Guy was possibly the toughest man we’d ever seen, but he stood in the balance of some tough forces. The Nanwalek dependence on the satellite dishes which the federal government had made so cheap during the dark days after the oil spill did not make for a hearty tribe with a deep connection to the natural surroundings. From Southern California, we naturally love the image of people up there living off the land, savoring folky traditions. But when we call up there and ask them what they’d like us to send, they often say: warm blankets. Tabasnikoff said, “You know, not everyone can be doctors and lawyers, and that’s true up here, too. But not everyone can be a bear hunter, either.” Guy was hoping to get a little posse of kids to learn the ancient skill, continue the tradition and the connection to the land; but there aren’t too many people out there as tough as Guy, the bear hunter.
How I joined the Nanwalek Band
On our last night in Nanwalek, we prepared to gather for a village feast in our honor: a feast and a dance. What we got now seems surreal.
We moved over to the tribal hall. There we were to meet the elders, commune with them, and to thank the tribal chief, Wally Kvasnikoff, whom we had still to meet.
We arrived on time to the minute, but tribal time doesn’t work like that and hardly a soul was there, except in the kitchen. In a far corner of the tribal center was a full rock band set-up: drums, guitars on stands, amps, etc., and it drew me right in. Presently, a man ambled over and started warming up on an acoustic guitar. I said, "Show me a song." He opened up a guitar case and handed me a vintage Fender Telecaster, showed me a rock standard, and we started playing around some. Just noodling. (I’m a hack, but he was good.) After a couple songs like this, a villager sat down behind the drums and joined in, and soon enough another guitar player. In the most natural way, an actual song started up, a blues progression with a minor chord, an easy one, and the song developed with our new combo. Probably what makes classic rock classic is the connective power it has, pretty much worldwide. It’s like unity. I won’t be giving up my day job as a headmaster for a music career, but in this situation it suddenly meant the world to me to keep up with this impromptu rock’n roll combo. Magic.
The elders had mostly arrived at the tribal hall by that time, and the real ceremony began. The youth emerged from the kitchen, dancing in a line to a boom box, forming a circle around the hall. They then presented our students with traditional gowns they had made themselves: a blend of indigenous and Russian trimmings. Next, drawing our student group into the circle, the two groups combined to dance the old dances of their elders. Later, Olivia, grade eleven, said, as only a teen could, “It amazed me that they were able to keep the dance alive through all the years and still not be embarrassed to perform it to a group of outsiders they just met.” The tribal gathering was finally under way.
We set up encounter groups of four to five mixed Nanwalek/California high schoolers. Using World Café methodology, these high schoolers from remote cultures dialoged in small groups and, after a while, their stories, aspirations, and fears came out. "Waking up, seeing the same people every day, every day. I gotta get out of here, man." Big issues.
“What are you afraid of in life?” we asked the mixed groups. A nineteen-year-old who graduated last year picked it up from there: "I wanna leave but I don't wanna leave." Another disclosed, “I'm scared to go out to the outside world because I don't think I could do it on my own. 2
Elders here had somehow engaged the youth in a forgotten perigee to prompt not just a rediscovery of knowledge, but a renewal of ritual people have always relied on to survive in the sometimes forbidding and incomprehensible world of adolescence. The Nanwalek were attempting to rebalance their rational and spiritual worlds, the practical and the ceremonial, the light and the dark, the old and the young, which contrast so harshly in this part of the world. Forming a circle with their California counterparts, the students from both worlds began another traditional tribal dance, the fish, as the elders watched on.
Villagers were using furs again, and our teachers were presented with pillows of sea otter and fox to take home. The Russian Orthodox minister said a blessing. Then it was time to eat.
In Nanwalek, the first catch always goes to the elders. The first cut of bear meat goes to the elders. Students served their elders, while our kids acted like that was normal, then all the students and other villagers began moving down the food line. bear and seal meat (“black meat”), salmon roe, and locally smoked tamuuq and balik salmon, the likes of which Russian czars killed for, the elders told stories about hunting and cold times. We heard of times when the salmon spawned in the millions. The women are still not allowed to hunt, but they described processing and preparing the food brought home by the men. Smoking, drying, and canning. Stocking up for the dark, six-month winter.
Hunters I have met have always told me that bear meat is too hard to cook and hardly worth eating, but this bear was tender and tasted like lamb. Our student Kelianne, grade eleven, added: “We couldn’t get enough of the bear and the salmon jerky.”
As dinner and the ceremony wound down, a new situation unfolded such as, while pondering a teaching career over three decades earlier, I could never have predicted in my wildest dreams , and it is recorded in my journal as this:
The Nanwalek guitar player gives me the nod, and points to the Fender. A new band member, one of the elders, comes up next to me and straps on the bass. A teenage lead guitarist leans over and gives me the chords and we crank up. These guys can play! The new kid is tearing it up on the guitar, and the new elder is pulsing away on the bass, rockin’. This is the full band, formerly called the English Bay Band. The lead singer is a round, smiling, rich-voiced elder woman, former chief Larissa Jimmy, and she knows every lyric from the classics: Stones, Eagles, Zeppelin.
The grown-ups are out on the floor, rock dancing. Next, our students and the Nanwalek teens move onto the floor, except they are not doing California or rock ‘n roll dances. All the kids form a dance circle. They are dancing the seal dance and the bear dance, dances the Nanwalek elders made up long ago to mimic the movements of the animals that gave them sustenance.
What we witnessed must have defied anthropological wisdom: the elders rockin’ out, the kids dancing the ancient, traditional dances. In a thousand moons, could this be happening? The song is more than just a Rolling Stones classic, it’s a cultural universal. The bass player, a bearded, seasoned looking elder man and I are riffing off one another. I lean towards him, synching our two, stringed sounds as the song comes to an end with a sense of triumph, and I can only grin at this man, who reaches out his hand and says:
“Hi, I am Wally Kvasnikoff, The Tribal Chief.”
At last, proof: Everything in the universe is connected to everything else.
The Way Back Home
So that was the story of how I was in the Nanwalek Tribal Band. It may not be the world’s greatest story, but it’s not bad. More importantly, it is the story of how the most historical and natural source of educational wisdom and tradition since the dawn of civilization has been almost completely removed from schooling—and how there are some signs of a revival up in the North Country.
Things change and all enduring cultures embrace that change while simultaneously resisting things which disturb their delicate equilibrium too much. The Nanwalek model suggests the great power our elders can retain by watching over that equilibrium with kindness and patience.
We cannot identify much in the way of trends because the topic of elder wisdom in schools is not seriously studied, nor is it covered in research journals or current schools of education.
All the same, I recommend communing with them. Trying their bear meat. Because up there in the once but no longer forsaken outpost of Nanwalek, they were happy to show us the frontier, and the salmon returning two or three years after they had spawned, coming back home to sustain their village. They showed us that devil’s club, boiled to a condensed mixture and taken only in small doses, can hold pain-healing properties and help with arthritis, that wild rhubarb and parsley taste great (although not all the native dishes did). And that it’s hard to get vitamin C way up there, hard to find enough muktuk ! I cannot prove that elder wisdom is a necessity for schools—it’s all a matter of values—but this much I know: without our elders we can advance, but only with them can we sustain. It’s harsh up there, and not a place to take wisdom for granted. Back in California, what do we care about that resembles this? What sustains us?
A posting from a student journal: “Friday, September 25. This morning we woke up and it was so cold and windy that we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to fly back to Homer. Luckily I had my ‘Cat’s Meow’ sleeping bag to keep me warm.” But the planes arrived and we were gone.
We had brought them fruits, nuts, and vegetables from San Diego. In exchange, they gave us furs, bear meat, salmon, and many of the things that come from their land. Somehow, as almost always happens when we set out in the world to serve others, we left feeling we’d gotten the better end of the deal. We brought home a message we shouldn’t have to travel to the edge of civilization to find: land and our forebears are sacred because they mean survival. Our student, Olivia, commented, “While in Nanwalek, I found how sacred the land, culture, and traditions were to them.”
In an age of educational metrics, there is still no pop-quiz to assess this knowledge to the satisfaction of the Board of Education or even the local Nanwalek board. Even they, like everyone in the lower 49, tend to see subsistence living as relatively primitive and uncivilized. This year, every Nanwalek teacher had to sign a new contract agreeing to acknowledge the traditional values of the village but, as Wanda Kvasnikoff (she married into the family) explained, “We had to fight tooth and nail to have our school acknowledge our traditions and, luckily, we now have a great principal.” Most of the principals I know would kill a bear for a strategic plan as clear and as good as that new contract demands. Now the teachers will need the elders. It is hard to prove that there is a difference between the book learning the teachers could do on their own and elder wisdom but, for our students, time with the Nanwalek elders opened up different ways of seeing the world. And now, in an act of courageous leadership, the principal is bringing Guy into the school for a semester to teach students bear hunting and outdoor skills.
The news of movements like this worldwide do not guarantee that elders teach better or that students will learn better from them—culture is not like that. What matters here is simpler than that, and being acted out on the U.S. national stage regularly. A culture can develop with intentionality, can choose the values it aspires to, can preserve and focus on what its people find valuable—can do all this, unless it stops revering its past. Intelligence is, of course, culture- and values-based, it is not an external standard someone sets in an office of education somewhere afar (!), and we forget that in the lower 49. It’s not that Nanwalek kids will test higher now that the elders are involved in the schools; it’s that the Nanwalek will fight to change what’s on the test. In the past couple decades, in addition to a growing body of research on the subject, we have witnessed, first-hand, ancient, endangered native languages being re-introduced in schools far and wide across the globe: Ireland, French Polynesia and Hawaii, Guatemala, and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation—enough to make us wonder about a rebalancing of schooling on a larger scale.
From the courageous Nanwalek elders, we were given a living laboratory detailing how to rebalance our rational, sacred, and spiritual selves, on our land. In return, we send them fruits, nuts, or blankets. That much cold and dampness really can give you the chill and feel of death, a reminder such as we all need now and then of the power of the human will to survive, and how much we all need one another. On the way home, waiting on the beach landing strip for that crazy bush pilot from Homer Air, our lead teacher, Christy Goodson, said: “What I observed during my stay with them was how close everyone was.”
Why do United States schools distance themselves from elders, their wisdom, and their concept of a shared sense of community wisdom and self-reliance? (We never talked about that in graduate school.) “Unity is what…what we lost…” said Tabasnikoff, his voice filled with mixed feelings.
Alaska, translated, is the final frontier, an apt metaphor for our elders’ place in life. In many cultures, this frontier is honored. In many cultures, "the Teaching of the Elders" is the most revered teaching. We saw why: in Nanwalek, a whole culture had been lost—not just in the schools but in every institution—and only the elders could show them the way back home.
That week we were eye to eye with salmon, bear and bear hunters, bald eagles, and traditional wise men (and women), but not with a moose. Back in downtown Anchorage on the way to the airport, magic was delivered. Stopped at a mid-city red light nibbling grass was a three-year-old, four-point bull moose. The crosswalk light turned green, and our moose ambled across the street while cars waited, the most natural thing in the world. Just a few moments later we boarded the 747 headed south for Encinitas, Southern California, where week-old Sugpiaq salmon is called “sockeye” and gets fifteen bucks a pound, signs on four-lane roads caution drivers about surfers crossing, and elders live largely in remote, homogeneous tribes, never to set foot in a school. “Unity is what we lost…but we can get some back,” said the wise elder, but it now seemed more of a challenge for us than for the Nanwalek. A universe of old and new, natural and technological forces, inside and outside influences on education could almost seem overwhelming, and it seemed to me that the tribe’s school was culturally approaching a place of balance that we cannot attain without elders, providing the pretext for inviting us in.
Later on, I had a good laugh with Chief Wally about how all he really had anticipated from our visit was just to jam a little.
Nanwalek, Alaska; Teahupoo, Tahiti
1. Government subsidies for meat, dairy, sugar, oil, and alcohol are 85.5 percent versus the 0.4 percent for vegetables and fruits.
2. Overall, American Indians have the lowest rate of eligibility for college among ethnic groups in the nation. [Pallack, B], and yet tribal colleges which provide general education as they preserve tribal wisdom are growing rapidly.
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