Knowing diversity within Native culture important

Posted: Sunday, April 17, 2005

Southeast Tides By Ted Wright

When I am asked to represent the Alaska Native view on one or another issue, I usually respond that it isn't fair for me to speak for Native peoples; just like it wouldn't be fair for me to ask a Caucasian, Euro-American, middle-class, man to speak for all white Americans. I typically add that I can speak about Native peoples, insofar as I have studied my own and others. But even then, the information I provide is generalized from a variety of sources, and interpretation of information, especially when it has to do with Native tribes, is a risky business. So, the question becomes, to what extent can I represent Native peoples, and how do I approach the issue in practice, as a teacher?

Well, for one thing, I have studied Native groups other than my own. It would be impossible to teach if I were confined only to talking about my own group. But the issue here is one of perspective, not knowledge. It is possible to have access to and familiarity with a somewhat vast store of information about Native peoples and indigenous life ways. But to speak from a group's perspective a person pretty much has to be a part of that group. And even then, each group has different and competing voices. For example, among my people I am considered mixed-blood and somewhat non-traditional, depending on whom you ask, and I might also be labeled as over-educated, elite, and even "white." But I also know that I am a northern Kaagwaantaan (wolf clan), Eagle tribe, transplanted by virtue of my grandmother's journey to the middle of Tlingit country - Sitka. Well, you get the picture. When talking issues of identity and group affiliation in the era of self-determination and casino gaming, one must tread lightly and not over generalize.

So let's simplify what is decidedly a complex issue. There is tremendous diversity among Native American peoples, certainly more so than within the general population. The reason for this is that American Indian and Alaska Native peoples, through their cultural, political, and social institutions, tend to reject the notion that we should melt into the all-consuming culture that is America. We want to be Native in a society that tries to dominate and assimilate. But it isn't necessarily true that Indian people understand how different we all are one tribe to the next, even considering our similarities.

I was reminded of this again awhile back when I read an article about a presentation on tribal sovereignty by a Lac Courte d'Oreilles tribal councilmen published on the American Indian Policy Center Web site. The councilmen said that Indian people are different for good reasons and that these differences are misunderstood because schools do little to help students see what is real and true.

But this begs the question, "What is accurate information, and who decides?" I agree with the speaker that tribal people are different and tribes share some of those differences in common. But from my point of view, the truth about perspective lies in the details. Getting and using "accurate" information about tribal, indigenous people is not simply a matter of sharing the most common set of facts, or providing a superficial description.

To illustrate this point consider my own people, the Tlingit. How would I help apathetic much less eager students learn about my people's politics, history, language, culture, and more to the point, their perspective? After all, there are about 20 sub-regional and community groupings within our extant Southeast Alaska territory, and dozens of related and unrelated clan and clan house affiliations within each of those sub-regions. Even to begin to talk about larger issues of Tlingit tribal history, politics, law, spirituality, and language, the basic cultural family and clan connections must be covered. And yet, when Tlingit people themselves get up in front of a group and say the Tlingit this and the Tlingit that, they sometimes forget they are only talking for the Wolf people of the Salmon Stream Tribe, for example. There are a few elders that do not forget this, but they are seldom invited to speak at the kinds of gatherings where people talk about Tlingit people as a generic subset of Alaska Natives inhabiting the Southeast panhandle.

So, what's a teacher to do? When I first started in education, nobody had a clue. Nowadays we understand that sticky issues of Native or indigenous perspective are opportunities for students to take on a subject in-depth. So teachers should seek out tribal elders and others and bring them into their classrooms. And they should make certain their students aren't afraid to respectfully ask direct questions about what they are told. And teachers should attend summer workshops like the Place-based Native Education Academy to be held in Juneau the last week in June. And more than anything else, educators should learn as much as they can about the homeland of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people, no matter what subject they teach. Armed with such knowledge, every teacher can help ground their lessons in the true historical and cultural reality of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.

• Ted Wright is an assistant professor of education at Antioch University in Seattle and a former Alaska educator.

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