'Silence is okay'

My short week in the village of Allakaket left me with memories and lessons that will not soon be forgotten. I witnessed the tight family bonds that form between village adults and their children. It was apparent that children are the lifeblood of individual villages and the culture as a whole. As such, every effort was made to instill the values of that culture into the children.

Prior to arriving in Allakaket, my travel partner and I had heard that in Athabascan culture, women of childbearing age were not to speak of, look at, or eat bear. We both forgot this fact when a bear appeared on the banks of the river near our camp. One of the female Elders pointed out the ‘large animal.’ My friend and I insisted that it was a bear. The Elder again pointed out that it was a ‘large animal.’ It took us three or four of these interactions before we remembered the cultural significance of this animal. This small interaction was an example of the gentle education that the elders used to guide the children in learning the values of their culture. Though not always apparent, the elders allowed their kids to explore their environment but used this gentle guidance to help them notice important aspects of their culture.

This experience, though brief, changed the way I interact with my classroom. The school I taught at in Anchorage is one of the most diverse in the nation. I made it a priority to celebrate the cultures of the families in my classroom. I meet with each family before the school year to get a sense of their goals for their child and learn about their culture. As a teacher I understand that I am with their children for a few short years, and want to ensure that I am preparing the student to live and work within their family and culture. Throughout the year I would invite families into the classroom to share an activity or meal that is unique to their culture. This celebrates the diversity of our classroom family.

As I was boarding the plane to leave a village elder gave me a bit of advice that I’ve tried to follow. ‘Silence is okay.’ I think in my own culture I am used to trying to fill silence. As a special educator I work with parents and other professionals quite frequently, usually in a group meeting format, and that urge to fill silence doesn’t always allow time for processing of what is being said. Remembering that advice (something I’m still working on) has allowed me to listen to what is being said instead of always focusing on what I need to say.

My experience in Allakaket is not one I will forget. Baassee (thank you,) Alaska Humanities Forum, for the opportunity!

---------- The Educator Cross-Cultural Immersion (ECCI) Program is an experiential program to help public school educators in urban Alaska better serve their Alaska Native students, communicate across cultural differences, and incorporate Alaska Native Ways of Knowing and Learning into their classrooms. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Alaska Native Education Program, ECCI has operated across the state of Alaska for the last fifteen years.

During the program, educators receive graduate-level credit for completing coursework in cross-culturally competent pedagogy, enhanced by an immersion experience at an Alaska Native Culture Camp. Educators attend a 1.5 day orientation in late May, travel to a Culture Camp during the summer, attend a 1.5 day debrief in September, and submit reflective coursework.


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