A Storyteller and Apprentice Network
As we increase our understanding of Alutiiq storytelling as a community, growth of our human resources is an important next step in revitalization if we are going to foster our oral traditions as lived practices. One way to do this within our modern contexts is to establish a network of storytellers able and willing to visit classrooms and to perform for the community. Such a process must include recreating oral tradition practices—not just offering a library-style reading hour—but truly reintroducing the performance-based storytelling tradition that captivates audiences and includes ceremonial aspects that engage the senses and connect us to the story. While some Elders may be interested in serving this role, we also need more adult and young adult storytellers or culture-bearers to revitalize a tradition, building further momentum within the cultural revitalization movement. Part of this network development should include creation of storytelling apprenticeships for youth with our best remaining storytellers. While ultimately the revitalization of the Alutiiq language should be central to this process, there are many Alutiiq Elders today who do not speak Alutiiq given our history of language oppression, and yet are powerful storytellers in English. Fostering the Alutiiq oral tradition should not limit their potential role in this process, as their skill as storytellers should not be dependent on Alutiiq language fluency. Apprentices to English-speaking storytellers can become bridges as they study the art of storytelling and learn to do it bilingually.
In Oscar Kawagley’s (2006) A Yupiaq Worldview, he calls for a shift in educational practices that includes reestablishing cultural traditions as the context for all learning within schools. Further, Shawn Wilson’s (1996) study of Gwitch’in Elders and the need to consciously foster the development and respect of Elders to support a healthy community is congruent with Kawagley’s recommendations. As Wilson suggests, it is the schools’ responsibility to bring Elders back into the center of education, to heal the wounds created since Western conquest disenfranchised Elders as our main teachers.
While Wilson (1996) does not explore the specifics of how Elders will become more integrated into education, Kawagley’s (2006) specificity in creating the “fish camp” model as the context for science education illustrates just how the schools can empower Elders and culture-bearers to help teach and heal their communities. Both authors emphasize the fact that culture comes through our Elders and our language, and only the perspective of both past ways and modern survival can create a holistic life to combat social problems that are rife in our Alaska Native communities. Both Kawagley (2006) and Wilson (1996) conclude that culture should not be a supplement to education, but rather the context and filter for it. This is a challenging notion for non-Native educators to accept, as it requires a significant shift in their approach or attention, and is a greater responsibility as they must become facilitators for the Native community on a regular basis within their classrooms.
The prediction that both authors hint at is that without this shift in educational practice our Alaska Native communities will continue to suffer the social and economic problems that have persisted despite well-meaning interventions. Only by empowering culture-bearers to engage regularly with Native youth can culture truly play its appropriate role within education. Involving Elders, culture-bearers, and traditional storytellers in schools is important for students, as intergenerational and community-based learning is a rich experience that connects students back to their families and contributes to a strong sense of wellbeing. Building relationships with Elders is an essential part of growing up well-balanced. To give students more opportunities to build these bonds and learn from the wisdom of those who have survived a lifetime of adventures helps students see their own situations within the larger context and gives them additional role models to pattern after. There is no other way to effectively expose students to their cultural knowledge, and the framework for their community’s worldview, than by building connections between young people and culture-bearers.
Excerpt from Alisha Drabek, Ph.D. (2012) dissertation: