After I returned from four days of rock climbing in Valdez, I had two weeks of classes in Anchorage and Fairbanks. Although our own school year had finished, I had enrolled in a couple of professional development courses. The first was a Multicultural Studies class, required for Alaska teaching certification. The course took place in Anchorage at a local high school, and was taught by a Native Alaskan from the Unangax people in the Aleutian Islands. Anchorage Schools have been called the most diverse in the nation, and although this class came from a specifically Native Alaskan perspective, the principles teachers gain from this kind of course are easily transferable to any multicultural setting. And even though the class was just five days, it was the remarkable character of my teacher which struck a chord which will continue to resonate as I muse on life in Alaska.
My teacher’s name was Ethan, and he is from the village of Atka on the far western island of Atka, hundreds and hundreds of miles away from Anchorage. He taught us Unangax words, and shared with us certain cultural values and body language signals which are often misunderstood or overlooked by non-Natives. For example, there are many ways in which Native Alaskans use subtle body language to convey simple messages, rather than expressing through words. Non-natives often miss these social cues and don’t realize that their question has already been answered by a raised eyebrow (signifying “yes”) or a downturned gaze (signifying “I’m listening to you with respect). Small talk or acknowledgements of obvious facts, such as “It’s such a beautiful day!” are uncommon, and feelings of community are expressed in different ways than I am accustomed to. I loved this class.
When Ethan related to us key artistic and technological developments of his people, particularly the kayak and how these people have learned to live with the sea, I could sense the pride he took in his heritage. He drew on the board every day, emphasizing traditional artistic designs and the cultural significance of symmetry. He tested us with an Unangax riddle. “What goes down to the river and comes back weeping?”
Most poignantly, he taught us about internment camps in southeast Alaska which housed refugees from the Aleutian Islands during World War Two, and in which many people died of neglect, cold and other preventable causes. It had the function of a genocide, whether or not it was intended to be one. The Unangax people used to number in the thousands and lived a sustainable life on their islands, accustomed to the stormy weather and living in harmony with the sea. Now the village of Atka numbers perhaps one hundred people, but Ethan has been one of the primary organizers of the revitalization of his culture, and is an active member of the Unangax dancers. He inspires me.
He took us to the Alaskan Native Heritage Museum here in Anchorage, and showed us types of traditional architecture, clothing, and tools. Ethan is a remarkable teacher, both gentle and forthright, sensitive and bristling with energy. And he loves children. He is the director of the only Native Alaskan preschool: Cook Inlet Native Head Start. As he related to us part of a traditional raven story, I could see the pleasure he took in storytelling, and wondered what it was like for the children in his school to hear and see him tell these stories. His hands and fingers flickered like wings, his dark eyes sparkled and his smile broke into sudden chuckles as the story sprang from his lips. Such people are born to teach.
. . .
It’s the day before I leave for Zürich. With the last few days at my disposal, my friends scattered to the summer winds, and no pressing work demands, it feels like my life has been in slow motion. I finally have the time to reflect on every detail of my preparations, muse over alternative possibilities, check, double-check and dream. This is no sudden transition. I will miss Alaska very much. But I’m ready for the road to stretch out like a ribbon, for the ground to fall away beneath my feet, and for the horizon to grow until it fills the whole sky.