A Dleit Ḵáa in Lingít Aaní: Teaching History to Fight for the Future of Alaska

forestry building at UAS
I've finished two of my four summer courses here at UAS, and I thought I might as well post my writing assignments from my multicultural education course here. This was my overall reflection on the course, which I titled "A Dleit Ḵáa in Lingít Aaní: Teaching History to Fight for Alaska’s Future."

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Education in Alaska sits at a critical juncture between a colonial, assimilationist past and a hopeful but unknown future. Today, prospective teachers face a number of ambiguities in how they will shape Alaska’s school system, many of them related to questions of cultural survival and change. In this context, learning about multiculturalism and intercultural communication is incredibly important, but ultimately insufficient. Beyond merely considering multicultural education, educators must formulate their own philosophies of action that will propel new generations of Alaskans to re-envision their society’s future. This multicultural education course has exposed me to new ideas and perspectives, and helped me to further develop my commitment to teaching meaningful, challenging history in Lingít Aaní, the land of the Tlingit. In order to explain this stance, I intend to discuss my background, my experiences in the course, and my plans for teaching. One student at a time, I hope to engage Alaska’s challenges in whatever ways I can.

Family influences, childhood experiences, and recent explorations all tie me irrevocably to the city of Ketchikan, or Kichx̱áan in the Tlingit language. I credit my close relationship to my hometown to my grandparents’ settlement in Ketchikan, and my father’s childhood, just as much as I attribute it to my own upbringing there: Family stories and multi-generational connections to place deepened my sense of belonging from a young age, such that I have almost always felt—and expect I always will feel—that Ketchikan is my one and only home. Additionally, my attachment to home increased even more over the course of the past year as I wrote a thesis on nineteenth-century Tlingit history and conducted a good deal of research: Learning about the pivotal history of my islands and the roots of Southeast Alaska’s colonization and present dynamics brought me closer than ever to an intimate intellectual bond with the rainforest and ocean that surrounds my family and me.

Although the recent joys I found in exploring the history of Lingít Aaní have certainly increased my eagerness to teach there, my interest in the career of a high school history teacher began much earlier, when I took two history courses as a high school sophomore. One class was Advanced Placement European History, taught by a family friend who challenged my abilities and probably taught me more about writing than any English teacher ever did. The other was non-A.P. World History, taught by a man who had my father in his class decades earlier. While European History helped me develop my love for the past and the academic investigation of it, World History incited many more thoughts of becoming a teacher—mainly because I thought I could do better than the one I had, who used a large number of videos and worksheets. In retrospect, I may judge that teacher too harshly: He likely paid most of his attention to less motivated students than me—hardly a horrible practice—and focused the course on his preferred topics—also not an unpardonable offense—even as I found it unrepresentative of “world” history. Nevertheless, those classes served as complimentary inspirations to teach, and drove me down a path to eventually devote most of my undergraduate studies to an insatiable love of global histories.

By the time I enrolled in the University of Alaska Southeast, I had formed a strong commitment to teach history in Lingít Aaní in ways that would enrich students’ understandings of their homeland and their connections to the past, regardless of their heritage. I imagined teaching Tlingit history and the history of U.S.-indigenous interactions regardless of the courses I had, whether it was Alaska Studies, U.S. history, or world history, all of which the Tlingit and indigenous Americans in general have touched in many ways. This multicultural education course, however, helped bring me into closer contact with the realities of what young Alaskans experience in school, and caused me to realize I have a long way to go in my planning: Merely addressing indigenous and local histories in the classroom does not inherently make for better education. Even more than having important topics covered, students need schools that foster inclusive, supportive communities, and they need education that will inspire them to work for better lives.

our course textbook
Both readings and discussions in the course triggered my recognition of these facts. In the book Beyond Heroes and Holidays, one article dealing with gang violence made particularly clear that academic content and intellectual rigor can be far less important than other factors when it comes to how school affects young people’s lives. If students face a real risk of being harmed or killed, or committing criminal acts themselves, teachers and school communities must act. To be sure, the education system does not bear the full responsibility for such tragic conditions, but if educators do not act in such situations, even more children will be lost. While this example may be extreme, and Alaska does not have veritable gangs, problems for students in Lingít Aaní are just as real—violence, suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, and the grinding depression of cultural alienation or anomie. Conversations with fellow MAT students and remembrances of my own high school experience confirms for me that these problems will touch almost every teenager in Alaska to greater or lesser degrees, personally or through friends.

I trust that my upcoming term of student teaching will help me ruminate on this challenge further, and I can benefit in countless ways from working with longtime educators. Nevertheless, I cannot trust that student teaching will give me all I need; I know I will need to think critically about my mentors’ failures as well as successes, noticing the students who fly under the radar just as much as those who stand out. I intend to develop my own curricula as much as I can while I student teach, and I aim to use insights acquired in this course and elsewhere along the way. Among these insights is the exigency stated by one article that “culturally responsive teaching is validating, comprehensive, multidimensional, empowering, transformative, and emancipatory.” If I spend my whole career striving to fulfill those adjectives, I should feel proud of what I did.

While including Tlingit history in curricula is certainly not enough to improve education in Lingít Aaní, I intend to use it as a starting point to make history validating for students: Their lives are still impacted by Alaska’s colonial and neo-colonial experiences, as well as other national and global histories that influence their place in the world. This exploration of sometimes-difficult stories should not encourage a sense of victimhood, however; on the contrary, I believe that understanding real, unsanitized histories is empowering, as the past abounds with courageous acts that changed the course of human events. Knowing such actions and studying the people who took them holds an inspiring and emancipatory potential: Given the right conditions and building on an inclusive, supportive community, even a dleit ḵáa—white man—could contribute to building a better future for Lingít Aaní and Alaska, one in which new generations value and share each other’s cultures while fighting together for justice and equity. These are the dreams that should stir a person to teach.

[Note: The blog post title is amended from the original assignment title—from "Alaska's Future" to "Future of Alaska" because Blogger dynamic views will not support a mere apostrophe in a title.]

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