Conference aims to 'reshape the system'

Alaska Native Studies Conference focused on preserving culture
Panelists, from left, Diane Hirshberg, Jeane Breinig and Maria Shaa Tlaa Williams and X'unei Lance Twitchell give advice to graduate students on publishing academic papers on Alaska Native topics. The panel discussion was part of the second annual Alaska Native Studies Conference held Friday through Sunday at the University of Alaska Southeast.

X’unei Lance Twitchell had a big question for the audience: “How do we reform this entire system?”

The University of Alaska Southeast educator was referring to Alaska’s education system, a major focus of the second annual Alaska Native Studies Conference, held Friday through Sunday at UAS.

At the final session of the conference, Twitchell facilitated an informal discussion on incorporating “tradition bearers into academia.” He asked the audience for their ideas and “action items” for changing the way Alaska Native culture is taught in the state.

Twitchell said after the session that UAS, Goldbelt Inc. and the Center for Research and Alaska Native Eduation has teamed up to create a new certification program for Native teachers. The idea, he said, is to get more Native language-speaking teachers in K-12 schools.

“We’re going to incorporate Alaska Native cultures and language into school districts,” he said during his talk.

He also urged conference-goers to log on to the National Park Service’s Register of Historic Places, and submit names for as many Alaskan places as possible.

“Let’s fill that thing up with so many Alaska Native names that we break the system,” he said.

The key is to “not wait for change,” but to change the system — force the government to acknowledge the existence of Alaska Natives and their languages, he said.

“I’m done waiting for the system to change,” Twitchell said.

Tlingit elder Marie Olsen urged the conference’s young people to keep fighting the good fight. She said she’s long advocated for the development of private Native colleges and elementary and high schools — “not Western studies, but our studies.”

“I encourage the young people to keep on working,” she said. “Keep on going, don’t ever stop.”

UAS Vice Chancellor Joe Nelson, of the Brown Bear clan, Eagle moiety of the Yakutat Tlingit tribe, said during the discussion that he attended schools growing up that did not value traditional Alaska Native teachings. 

“Being Native 30 years ago was not a point of pride,” he said in his talk.

But after going to school to become a lawyer, he stopped practicing law because he saw a “higher calling... a bigger need” to teach Native culture and lessons, and train future educators to do the same.

“This university is training our K-12 teachers right now, so we need to own it,” Nelson said.

He said Westernized and indigenous teaching styles aren’t always compatible, if at all. For example, Westerners see sending their children off to college or the workforce, never to move home again, as a marker of success, he said.

“That is the worst thing imaginable for Native folks,” Nelson said.

After being steeped in a compartmentalized, Westernized way of thinking, he said, “the world right now is crying for Native knowledge.”

This was the first year the Alaska Native Studies Conference, sponsored by the Alaska Native Studies Council, was held in Juneau. The first-ever conference was held last year in Anchorage.

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.

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