Listening to elders to teach the young

Native leaders say teaching Tlingit is critical to its survival

Posted: Friday, September 30, 2005

Teachers, legislators, students and elders gathered at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall early Thursday evening to discuss education issues for Native students.

Native elders took turns telling stories and discussing the future of Native cultures in Alaska in front of a full house dining on traditional Native cuisine.

Tony Strong, a Juneau lawyer who helped organize the event, said it is important to listen to the guidance of the elders while the chance remains.

"The elderly people here are wanting to give their experience and their wisdom and their ideas," he said. "It will come out in various ways. Some people will express frustration, some people will express a lot of love and affection, and some people will have very technical ideas."

Master of ceremonies Lance Twitchell, 30, said it is important to foster strong relationships between Natives and non-Natives to strengthen the education system in Alaska.

"I think education is a real key to not only teach new habits to all of our children, but also to find ways to incorporate our culture and traditions into the school system so that our kids have a better sense of who they are," he said.

Twitchell, a Raven of the Lukaax_.adi from the Chilkoot area, said Native languages were a major focus of the event. He said the Tlingit language is in a critical situation and needs some public attention.

"It's probably the single biggest thing that can happen over the next 10, 20 years because it's make it or break it with the language at this point," Twitchell said.

Strong, an Eagle of the Kaagwaantaan from the Klukwan area, said the event gave educators a chance to listen to elders to get a better understanding of the culture. He said he thinks incorporating more Native activities and language opportunities in the schools would be good for all students.

"The educational system has made some efforts in the past but they really need to be molded more to meet the needs of what these elderly people have in their minds, their experience and what they think people should be learning," Strong said.

Twitchell said the organizers wanted to bring together educators and legislators with the elders to find solutions for making Native students feel accepted and valued in Southeast Alaska schools. He said the elders have great of knowledge that teachers could benefit by using in the classroom.

"We're talking about thousands upon thousands of years of knowledge that could be shared that historically has not been shared," he said.

This event was a way to help people understand how important Natives are to the community, said Twitchell.

"We need to get some of our teachers to start learning our culture and our language so they understand why it's so important to us," he said.

• Eric Morrison can be reached at

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