'Every Voice Matters'

StoryCorps project records stories of Alaska Native education experiences

A new oral history project at the Juneau Public Library is inviting people of all ages to share stories around the theme of Alaska Native educational experiences.


The Juneau Public Library is one of 10 libraries selected from more than 300 applicants nationwide to participate in the “StoryCorps @ your library” project, which will record community stories around specific themes over the next few months. The selected libraries, chosen through a peer-review process, will receive grant funding, training and equipment. Juneau Public Library program coordinator Beth Weigel and community outreach librarian Andi Hirsh are organizing the Juneau project.

The American Library Association called for proposals last fall, as the Juneau School District was discussing the replacement of elementary school readers that many believed whitewashed the history of Alaska Native boarding school experiences. The JSD replaced the challenged texts in April.

“One of the things that came up … was people in the Native community saying, ‘We want to tell our own stories,’” Hirsh said.

The StoryCorps project, with the motto “every voice matters,” seemed like a way to allow people to tell their own stories, and create a resource for teachers, researchers, and interested community members.

Organizations supporting the project include Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida, the Alaska Native Sisterhood and Brotherhood, Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, Sealaska Heritage Institute, the University of Alaska Southeast, the Alaska State Library, the Juneau Douglas City Museum, and the Alaska Library Association. Other individuals who were instrumental in getting the project started include Freda Westman, Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, Sorrel Goodwin at the Alaska State Library, and UAS professor Xh’unei Lance Twitchell, Weigel said.

Now, all the project needs is participants. The first interviews were scheduled last week, and the project will continue until October.

StoryCorps is a conversation between people who know each other, typically between family members or friends. The topic of education is one that lends itself to conversations between family members across generations, Hirsch said.

“You can have children who are currently in the school district asking their parents, ‘What was it like when you were in school?’” she said.

Interviewers are given examples of questions they can ask — examples on the StoryCorps website include “Did you enjoy school?” and “Was there a teacher or teachers who had a particularly strong influence on your life?” — but the project is not limited to experiences in schools and formal educational settings.

“It could also include other ways of learning, other ways of knowing,” Weigel said.

“We’re looking for people to come in and talk about how they’ve learned things, and how they’re passing on things they know.”

If people don’t have a personal story to tell, a story from a parent or ancestor would also be welcomed, she said. “Even voices that are long gone – how does that voice come through the generations to speak now?”  

The library is scheduling interviews Tuesday evenings at the downtown library, Thursdays at the Gruening Park Learning Center, and Saturdays at KTOO studios. But if these times and locations don’t work, the recording equipment is mobile, Hirsh said.

“Our goal is to have it be as simple and easy for the participants as possible,” she said.

Although participants usually bring a friend or family member with them to be their interviewer, they can also bring more than one person, or the library can provide an interviewer. Conservations can be as long as 40 minutes or as short as 10 minutes.

Participants will receive a CD recording of their interview. If they choose, their stories can also be archived with the Juneau Public Library, Sealaska Heritage Institute, StoryCorps, and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

The StoryCorps format welcomes any kind of storytelling and, in general, provides a “venue for folks who want to think deeply and talk deeply,” Weigel said.

“Sometimes you just need a different format for discussion,” she said. “This is just another way of opening that door.”

For more information or to schedule an interview, contact Beth Weigel at 586-0434 or e-mail libraryevents@juneau.org. To learn more about StoryCorps and to listen to examples of recorded stories, visit http://storycorps.org/


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