Traditional stories are a wealth of knowledge for exploring cultural practices and values. They contain complex patterns of concepts and metaphors about how to live, survive, relate and engage in the world. To pass this complex knowledge on to future generations, it requires a vehicle that is engaging, illustrative and relevant. Using stories, teachers can encourage this traditional teaching process by engaging youth in deeper cultural learning, at the same time as building upon skill sets.
As non-Indigenous teachers engage with and use traditional Indigenous stories, they must be mindful of how they evaluate or discuss traditional stories with their students (Archibald, 2008; Sarris, 1993). It is important for any educator of Indigenous students to gain a background experience of cultural contexts and values that are integral to the community, and build a collaborative relationship with an Elder or a tribal community member if no Elder is available to advise or lead class discussions. It is further imperative that Indigenous heritage not be relegated to a fraction of the school year or reduced to an arts and crafts exercise. Rather the culture indigenous to a place must be integrated and acknowledged into all aspects of learning for the wellbeing of Indigenous children (Cajete, 1994; Kawagley, 1999). As Oscar Kawagley (1999) writes in support of Yupiaq learning, “[b]y not teaching the Yupiaq youngsters their own language and way of doing things, the classroom teachers are telling them that their language, knowledge and skills are of little importance” (para. 30). The same is true for Alutiiq or any Indigenous community. Culture is transmitted through education and language, therefore it should be present and acknowledged daily in schools so that students have an opportunity to learn within a familiar context. As Barnhardt and Kawagley (2005) explains,
Indigenous people have their own ways of looking at and relating to the world, the universe, and each other (Ascher 2002; Eglash 2002). Their traditional education processes were carefully constructed around observing natural processes, adapting modes of survival, obtaining sustenance from the plant and animal world, and using natural materials to make their tools and implements. All of this was made understandable through demonstration and observation accompanied by thoughtful stories in which the lessons were embedded. (p. 10)
Without personal exposure to deeper cultural knowledge, the non-Indigenous teacher risks inadvertently making judgements about what they may think are “ancient” traditions, believed dead, or may evaluate the culture based solely on metaphorical stories, which can perpetuate harm long prevalent within the western educational system.
As a metaphor for understanding the transformation and living nature of cultural practices, an Aboriginal Elder in Australia compared knowledge systems to a tree (Gorringe & Spillman, 2008). The roots represent heritage values that provide nourishment and structure. The trunk represents the traditions or rituals that endure from generation to generation, but can transform and grow over time. The leaves are the cultural practices or daily lifeways of the people, which change with the seasons and are influenced to change by their environment. Understanding culture as a transformative concept is essential for viewing it as a living process, which allows for inclusion of multiple identities within a cultural group. This empowers the people of a community to accept that some things change in the new context, but the enduring values at their roots must be protected, respected and nourished for the people to thrive.
Within our modern contexts, Alutiiq traditional stories can and should be used to teach Alutiiq children, as they form the trunk of our knowledge system. The best way to do this is to engage Elders with students in a culturally-relevant environment to orally share stories and visit about understandings of their meaning and relevancy within their own lives (Kawagley, 2006). As Wilson (1996) explains, empowering Elders is an important part of supporting the community and an Alaska Native culture for the greater wellbeing of the individual. Storytelling is an excellent means for honoring Elders as our primary knowledge providers.
However, if the logistics of oral storytelling are prohibitive, teachers need to still have a means to convey traditional stories of the local place and to explore their meaning, contexts, and lessons with their students. Because traditional stories can be used as the framework for wider curriculum exploration, there function should not be ignored, but should be viewed as an important resource for learning about our place on the planet. As many Indigenous educators have found, traditional stories can be used to teach social studies concepts, history, language arts, composition, mathematics, science concepts, technology and art (Cajete, 1994; Deloria & Wildcat, 2001; Eder, 2007; Silva, 2000). By incorporating once fragmented subject lessons into the context of a traditional story, a teacher can provide students a more holistic approach to learning new concepts and developing skills.
As Silva (2000) describes in an article on Hawaiian education, metaphorical symbols embody cultural lessons (p. 73), symbols within cultural stories are physical embodiments or metaphors for larger concepts or lessons. The process of encoding knowledge into elements of the natural world is a means of teaching and is a common practice and within storytelling. Further, for nature-based Indigenous cultures, landscape and animal relationships hold a great deal of influence within stories and significance within their belief systems. In comparative reference between Native and western cultures, Barnhardt and Kawagley (2005) describe that Native cultures are rooted in “[c]ommunication of metaphor and story connected to life, values and proper behavior” (p. 16). Therefore, Alaska Native education must continue to engage students in learning through metaphor and story within their own cultural contexts. In this manner, usage of storytelling is an effective way to build a common experience for Native students that is essential for their sense of self-esteem and identity, across the curriculum.
Esther Ilutsik (1999) further dismisses the myth that schools should not have to provide opportunities for teaching about Native cultural traditions, when administrators or teachers unfairly claim Native youth should be learning this at home. Her descriptions of a home life prior to western contact compared to home life after western contact make it clear how much change has happened in Native homes and how disconnected children often are from their own families as a result, as they are daily influenced by school, peers and western media. Ilutsik’s (1999) argument clearly supports that while parents and communities need to be more involved with their schools, schools need to be open to taking their lead. Not all parents are aware of how their child's school needs to be a partner to them, as schools have been an assimilative, colonizing force, driving a wedge between parents and their children. It is hard to change an institution that is rooted in just that history of practice, but it is possible when more and more Native researchers and educators are pointing out how school can be done right to build confidence, real life skills, and connections between kids, families and Elders in a culturally responsive manner (Barnhardt & Kawagley, 2005, 2004; Deloria & Wildcat, 2001; Cajete, 1994).
While development of communication skills within our modern context is important, it is equally important that young people grow rooted within their culture and community, as no amount of skill can compensate for a sense of wellbeing. Our growing sense of alienation within the modern context of Native life today often results in identity crisis and a pervasive search for meaning (Kawagley, 2006; Berger, Berger, & Kellner, 1974). Therefore, education practices need to continually build cultural relevancy and opportunities that will strengthen students’ sense of identity and belonging within their community and homeland.
Elders today are the last first language speakers of our Indigenous languages, with rich life experiences prior to rapid technological and western cultural assimilation so prevalent for our current generation. Beyond our cultural traditions and language loss, Nabhan and Trimble (1995) states, “While [Indigenous] communities may not immediately recognize the severity of this loss of orally transmitted knowledge about the natural world, the consequences are perilous, for once the reservoirs of folklore have been dissipated, it is increasingly hard to replenish them” (p. 86). Given the rapid cultural shifts Indigenous communities have suffered through colonization and assimilation (Nicholas, 2009; Wyman, 2009; Kawagley, 2006; L. Smith, 1999), clearly renewed attention to reestablishing oral traditions and preserving traditional knowledge are invaluable for future generations. It is this reality that drives culture-based, place-based education efforts, so that the lifeline is not broken between generations.
As research of Alutiiq or Indigenous storytelling expands, this study of Alutiiq storytelling is intended to serve as a reference point for exploring more deeply its role, the meaning of spiritual and cultural metaphors and the effectiveness of teaching through story. It is my hope that Alutiiq traditional stories, and other Indigenous stories, will become more accessible to children and families, regaining value as essential learning tools as we allow space for storytelling to continue to flourish as a lived tradition.