Reaching for the culture and the children

Posted: Friday, July 12, 2002

Just minutes after Greg Brown's student dancers received a standing ovation at Celebration 2002, he was preparing to take a break. His students were preparing to get back to work.

"Everybody was giving fives," said Brown, the cultural specialist at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, of his students' reaction during the early-June Native cultural festival in Juneau. "Everybody was so happy. They were asking, before Celebration was over, 'When are we going to practice again?' "

That's the sort of impact Brown has on his students, said Devin Jones, an English and social studies teacher at Dzantik'i Heeni.

"He's a special individual," Jones said. "He relates well to adolescents. You can't really describe the impact that somebody like Greg makes on students - (a) number of students, not just a few and not just Native students. His skills are rare."

Brown, 47, who was born and raised in Hoonah, moved to Juneau to pursue a teaching career seven years ago, after a construction accident crushed a disc in his back.

He began working with children through the Native Values Project, a three-week camp sponsored by the nonprofit groups Natives for Sobriety and Healthy Nation. Brown saw the students enjoyed learning about their culture and heritage, and at their urging he created a student group called the Juneau Drum Dancers.

The group grew quickly, with membership swelling to more than 100 participants who ranged in age from 3 to 21. They received a number of awards and traveled throughout Alaska, but the group was forced to disband for financial reasons.

"It takes a lot of your time and it was all volunteer time for me," Brown said. "I was just getting so engrossed into it that I wasn't paying attention to anything else. ... I had to concentrate on my work."

After being hired by Dzantik'i Heeni, he quickly established a similar group, the Dzantik'i Heeni Lexi, which has about 105 members. During Celebration, the youths earned standing ovations for performances in Centennial Hall and Marine Park.

"When we first got there, there was nobody there," Brown said of the Marine Park performance. "I thought, 'Oh, I guess we're going to perform for no one.' (But) everybody came who stopped by and before we knew it, there was no place to sit or stand.

"I love to do that," he added. "I love working with the children. I like to see their happiness within themselves and their pride that they get to show when they do things correctly. You can tell they're real proud of themselves. That's the best feeling you can get."

The dance group is just one of a number of programs and classes Brown oversees during the school year. Operating within the framework of the school system's learning requirements, he helps integrate Native values into Dzantik'i Heeni's core curriculum.

This year, he oversaw classes in blanket-making and in culture and communication, as well as several extracurricular activities that included the dance group and a culture club. Classes in Tlingit language and stenciling will be added next school year, Brown said.

In each of these activities, Brown strives to teach students respect for one another and for the Tlingit traditional ways.

"Our No. 1 rule in Tlingit protocol long ago was that you always respected each other," Brown said. "If the clan owned some river or some piece of land where you wanted to go berry-picking, it was up to you to respect them and ask them if you could do that, and if you did, you had to leave 50 percent of whatever you picked for their clan."

Jones said instilling such core values is one of the goals of a large upcoming project he, Brown and several other teachers at Dzantik'i Heeni are working on. During the fall semester, the instructors hope to take 120 students to Glacier Bay for an in-depth look at the numerous social, traditional and political issues in the area.

Phyllis Carlson, manager of the federally funded Johnson-O'Malley Program for Native education at the Tlingit-Haida Central Council, has approved several grants for Brown's work. Recently, she approved funds for the Glacier Bay trip.

"That seems to me like a piece of our education that we don't get anywhere," Carlson said. "(The) understanding that history and participating in this area is much older than the American encounters."

Elders from the Hoonah area will join students on the trip to share their stories. Their presence wouldn't have been possible without Brown's help, Jones said.

"He's the one that makes this happen," Jones said. "I don't have those connections to the Hoonah elders and know the protocol. ... He's doing all the background work and the outreach. He has connections to the (National Park Service) and to the various Native community groups that would support something like this."

Brown has his own deep ties to Glacier Bay, traditionally a fishing and hunting area for Hoonah Tlingits. In 1996, he was taken to court by the U.S. government for shooting a seal in the bay, which is part of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. After a heated legal battle, he was acquitted. The victory was important both politically and spiritually, and cemented his ties to the area, Brown said. Today, one of his grandsons, Michael Glacier, is named after the bay.

"We've got to raise him right so he can own up to that name," Brown said. "He's gonna be a smart one. I hope to teach him enough of his lineage to where he can teach other people too, and hand it on to the next generation."

Genevieve Gagne-Hawes can be reached at geneviev@juneauempire.com.



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