By Kaylee Bendixen
I grew up knowing very little about of my culture, Unangax, and have always felt like some part of me was missing. I also know that I am not alone in this feeling, this yearning. I believe it is necessary to explore this feeling and connect with those that feel the same way and, on the journey of self-discovery, to build each other up and share the new knowledge amongst each other. Weinronk (2017) states that cultural continuity and maintaining one’s identity is essential to the health of young Alaska Native peoples. One way to keep culture alive and help build a sense of identity is through storytelling, more specifically, Elders telling stories from their own life experiences and stories of their culture that they heard from their Elders. It is important to note that throughout this paper there is a difference between my use of “elders” and “Elders.” Elders refers to Julie Ross’s definition, “the people recognized within their communities as having, using, and living by traditional Native knowledge” (p. 218), whereas “elders” is referring to people above the age of 65.
Creating Intergenerational Dialogue
In her research on intergenerational dialogue, Lisa Wexler (2011) focuses on the exchange between generations in an Alaska Native community. The method used in this study was community-based participatory research (CBPR) which is aimed towards engaging the community and finding solutions to citizens’ concerns.
As for the participants of this study, Wexler (2011) gathered Elders, adults, and youth with vastly different histories. The Elders, identified as those who are older than 60, lived a subsistence lifestyle, and were forcibly sent to boarding schools in their teenage years. The adults were the first to experience the care and teachings by non-Native people at a young age. They also struggled with the historical trauma experienced by the Elders. The youth have lived a very modern, westernized lifestyle and were less likely to be involved in cultural activities. With all of these different life stories, there are sure to come many different and unique perspectives on what community means and how Elders contribute to that understanding.
Each youth participant was selected by Wexler (2011), and from there, each of the nine total youth participants selected adults and Elders from the community to take part in this study. The adults and Elders were selected as people the youth participants, who later become co- researchers in this study, felt they could have intimate conversations with regarding overcoming personal struggles. Once everyone was chosen, they were interviewed by Wexler. The youth were interviewed individually and the Elders and adults each had the youth sit in as an audience who took notes on stories and collected data. As a result of the youth sitting in, many, if not all, Elders and adults were grateful that they were able to share their stories, which were sometimes painful to tell, and life lessons that they had learned.
After everyone had told their stories and data had been collected, the youth were asked what they learned and how they felt about participating in a storytelling setting like this. To answer this question, the youth produced videos, or “digital stories”, with their response. This proved quite difficult, but not impossible as the youth had to base their responses entirely off of the videos that had been taken of the Elders’ and adults’ stories, as it is deemed inappropriate to question Elders so upfront. According to Wexler, the process of having the youth base their answers on personal experience and observing recordings resulted in more meaningful and heartfelt responses rather than having a formal questionnaire. Wexler also ran into an issue when having the youth co-researchers produce these digital stories as she tried to get them to share details about other people’s stories and they were not comfortable nor okay with doing so.
In the end, relationships among these community members had grown stronger and everyone became better at understanding each other. The youth participants had new friends and trustworthy people to go to when they were facing challenges in life. The adults and Elders also reminisced on their cultural and traditional experiences they grew up with and taught them to the youth, bringing everyone closer together. The most important take away of this study, is that the Elders and adults finally got to talk about their trauma, revealing how they have processed it and how it has been affecting younger generations (Wexler 2011). For example, one Elder was confused as to why their native language was now being taught at the local school after she had been punished for speaking it for so long.
The Role of an Elder in a Community
While researching the roles of Gwich’in Native Elders in previous generations, Shawn Wilson (1996) came to see many issues arising in the town of Fort Yukon, AK, from alcoholism to a lack of overall well-being. To try and combat these issues, a committee was created consisting of various leaders and locals, including Elders. This committee would meet multiple times discussing each issue per meeting, and when it came time to discuss the quality of education available in Fort Yukon, the Elders became extremely interested and began taking more action. Wilson explains that “it seemed that as the education summit developed, the Elders had gone through a transformation from elderly to Native Elder. Something at the summit had inspired this change in the Elders, and they became more active in their role as community leaders. Perhaps it was the opportunity to express themselves as Elders rather than being seen as elderly that allowed the Elders to fulfill their role.”
Wilson next brings up the idea of a survival pact, which is an understanding among the people and passed down through the generations rather than a formal written pact. In this pact is the responsibility of Elders to show and say how things are to be done, which varied based on environment. He claims that these traditions focused on basic needs, including psychological and sociological but were flexible give different circumstances or individual needs.
Wilson states “Elders are responsible for providing continuity between the world of the past and the new world of the present.” I think this is beautifully put as the world is ever-changing and it is important to remember the past in order to use it to inform your present and future. For instance, a chance to benefit from the awareness of continuity that Elder knowledge provides would have been helpful to me when I experienced my first earthquake in King Cove; it was larger than a magnitude of 6.5 and expected a tsunami. The earthquake itself scared me but the suspense of waiting for a tsunami accompanied by the tsunami warning alarm sent me into a panic. After a while, I noticed that my grandma, who is usually in a constant state of worry, was completely calm and playing games on the computer. I asked her repeatedly if she wanted to get to higher grounds as the ocean is right out our front door and she kept telling me, “no.” After asking her if she wanted to leave for the sixth time, she informed me that there has never been a tsunami in the town of King Cove during the 75 years she’s been alive. This should have eased my worries but I still had that fear of “what if?” in the back of my mind. It wasn’t until a few days later while I was on the phone with my dad that I found out that, due to the way the mountains surround our town, it was very unlikely that we would experience a tsunami and extremely unlikely that we would experience a tsunami large enough to cause any damage. In this case, I did have a piece of Elder’s knowledge of the past that was relevant to the present, it just was not presented to me in a way that I truly understood and could really benefit from until it was further explained.
“Having a strong heritage and cultural identity has been identified as being important for psychological well-being (Red Horse, 1980b). Some consider the loss of cultural identity to be directly related to the loss of self. Many successful programs implemented to raise children’s self-esteem have a strong cultural component” (p. 11). This explains a lot about my life, as I grew up mostly unknowledgeable of my culture, Unangax, and have always felt like some part of me was missing. Is it really due to culture loss or is it the mental illness? Both? I did eventually learn some parts of my culture, but the way I learned it felt too Westernized and not genuine.
For the study, Wilson began by explaining that as a half Native, half white man he has some bias due to the way he was raised. He chose ethnography as his methodology and began the research without a hypothesis; instead Wilson observed and interviewed people in the community. The people chosen for the interviews were selected by other members of the community based on who they thought had an abundance of influence and cultural knowledge to offer. The participants of this study were Elders, high school students, a pastor, and a mental health worker. Wilson focused mainly on his interview with Elder Simon Francis of Fort Yukon as he seemed to have the most knowledge and answers about the town and way of life. Simon learned everything he needed to know when he was younger from the Elders. In his interview he stated that he thinks the youth of today don’t learn the way he used to, that they have life too easy, and should go out in the woods to learn things such as how to fish, trap, hunt, and be able to survive alone in the wilderness. Simon told stories about how he experienced and learned these skill from childhood to the age he is now. He also discussed how negatively alcohol has affected his life and lives around him.
Wilson stated that “one cannot look merely at the literal value of his words. Each sentence can have several meanings, depending upon the way it was said and what the listener reads into it. Simon conveys the feeling behind his ideas, thus it is hard to pick out concrete examples of his thoughts to study.” According to Wilson, Simon is one of many Elders whose listeners will learn the most from through inference. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines inference as “a conclusion or opinion that is formed because of known facts or evidence.” In order to understand the full story of what an Elder, like Simon, is teaching is one must take what has been said and look beyond it at what is not being said.
When I was a teenager at the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association’s Unangax culture camp in Anchorage, I was allowed to leave my group and bead with the Elders that were attending. I was walking around and admiring everyone’s work when I got to my friend’s grandmother. We got to talking and while she was talking I, out of anxious habit, began popping the knuckles in my fingers. She was very quick to tell me to stop because I would get arthritis and, at first, I took offense to it because I did not want anyone telling me what to do, as I was in my rebellious teenage phase. Looking back, I realized that not only was she genuinely concerned because my family has a history of arthritis, but she also wanted me to quit because, if I did continue to pop my knuckles and get arthritis, I would not be able to carry on the traditional arts of beading and weaving that are very important to my culture.
One thing that Wilson focuses on is holism. Holism is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a theory that the universe and especially living nature is correctly seen in terms of interacting wholes (as of living organisms) that are more than the mere sum of elementary particles.” More specifically, Wilson focuses on the holistic nature of Elders speaking in circles to overcome problems. By speaking in circles, Wilson means that there is a pattern most Elders follow when speaking; they mention the issue, discuss what steps should be taken, then circle back and mention the issue again and why they believe the steps discussed would help.
Something I find interesting that Wilson brings up is that the Elders need to heal and be forgiven before they gain respect back in the community, and respect is what is needed for Elders to fulfill their role as an Elder. This is something I had not thought of before because it is so easy to think that people are okay and have their life together when they’re older, as they’ve had more time and experience, but that isn’t the case. Simon’s story reminds us that, in Alaska Native culture, healing and forgiveness stem from his trauma and using alcohol as a coping mechanism which led to many mistakes that he regrets.
I believe that to heal is to really look at yourself and the things you’ve done or things that have been done to you and understand how they have affected your life. The next step is to accept that they happened and you cannot change the past but you can make a better future for yourself. Next is, not only forgiving yourself, but seeking forgiveness from others that you have harmed. An important thing to note is that, although it is comforting to have people’s forgiveness, they don’t necessarily owe it to you and it is up to you to learn how to healthily deal with that.
Through the interviews, Wilson noticed three themes: roles Elders are expected to play in their community, personality traits of said Elders, and the needs of the Elders to fulfill their role. He explains that the role of the Elders is to pass down traditional and cultural knowledge and skills to the younger generations, to act as model citizens for the younger generations to look up to, and to be the backbone of the community by maintaining family and social values. Another responsibility of an Elder is to, as Wilson puts it, “provide a sense of continuity in the community.” To link the past to the present and future to ensure that cultural and traditional actions and wisdom are maintained. The most important thing Elders need to know how to do, according to an Elder whom Wilson interviewed, is to know how to speak to and relate to the younger generations so they will actively listen.
Among the characteristics that Elders should have are: a willingness to share their knowledge, a concern for well-being in the community, and a consideration of the physical, technical, moral, and spiritual aspects to every issue culminating in a holistic way of life. In fulfilling the role of Elder, they will need: respect from those in the community, engagement in their own healing, and forgiveness from community.
Wilson found that Elders are very important in carrying on culture and tradition, but they cannot do so alone; it takes the work of the whole community. The younger generations must understand what the Elders have gone through and forgive them for any wrongdoings. Once this is done and the younger generations have shown they respect the Elders, the Elders may be more comfortable and motivated to share their knowledge and stories. Everyone must work together to be happy and healthy, not only physically and mentally, but also spiritually.
Elders’ Responsibility to Maintain Culture
Elders have great responsibility in taking back the culture they have lost in the last century. Today’s youth have less of a connection to their cultural and tribal resources and, therefore, their connection with Elders is weaker (Kahn, Reinschmidt, Teufel-Shone, Oré, Henson, & Attakai 2016). Grandbois and Sanders (2009) stated that the stories of survival by American Indian ancestors assist in resilience building of younger generations. Growing up with these stories of survival and resilience are part of a person’s cultural identity, which is important for an individual to have because it is what connects a person to others in a community and provides a sense of belonging. A study done by Kahn, Reinschmidt, Teufel-Shone, Oré, Henson & Attakai (2016) studied Elders in an urban setting. The Elders strongly believe that culture relies heavily on intergenerational relationships. They found that Elders also encouraged the youth to take part in cultural activities so they can understand their role in life and connection with nature as well as the animate and inanimate aspects of it.
As for Elders having responsibility to bring life back to their culture, many Elders have suggested having it implemented in schools’ curricula. More specifically, they wanted more Elders to be participating in the youth’s educational endeavors, such as, including their teachings in classroom settings as they are usually the only ones who know about their culture and how to speak their Native language. An important suggestion from the Elders, is teaching youth about local food systems, in which, they can have their traditional foods, or close to it (Kahn, Reinschmidt, Teufel-Shone, Oré, Henson & Attakai 2016). Food is important when it comes to culture, as it has a lot of tradition surrounding it and has the potential to bring people closer together and build relationships through the process of making it and eating together.
Many of the Elders in this study by Kahn et al. (2016) agreed that education, whether it be formal, Westernized, or traditional, was important for lifelong success. Yet, no matter how far their education takes them, it is each person’s responsibility to come back to their homeland to help their people (Kahn et al. 2016). They believed that there is much to benefit from formal schooling, but that it is also important to learn the stories of a person’s ancestors and be proactive in keeping the culture alive. Doing these things, as well as a Westernized education, has potential to encourage the youth to make good choices and know how to help their communities culturally in modern society.
In his research on “Indigenous Intergenerational Teachings,” J.B. Ross (2016) sought to answer the following question: “how did the Elders of one Ojibwe community, participating in a museum setting, transfer Ojibwe culture, language, and knowledge to the youths? More specifically, what strategies did the Elders use to teach the youths?” Ross states that “parents are typically the first teachers to their children, but the elders, who may be grandparents, often become the language and cultural teachers within Indigenous communities.” This is true because parents can teach their children about life, but Elders can teach beyond that.
When it comes to understanding the importance of cultural identity for young Alaskan Native people, like myself, Ross offers critical insight. “For generations, oral storytelling has been a strategy used for the passing of Indigenous cultural wisdom… Elder oral teachings are culturally relevant but can also document historical timelines and oral histories that detail local family, tribal, and community events.” In other words, storytelling is a very important vessel for younger generations to learn about their culture and who they are.
Ross states that the Elders told stories of their own life experiences within their culture such as: 1) having their culture and language taken away from them because of being forced to attend boarding school; 2) the important roles in their community such as pipe carriers, healers, medicine people, and elders; and 3) the pride they felt in taking over these roles. These stories encouraged the younger generations to not only learn more about themselves, but to learn about the history of their culture and the traumas they faced to get a better understanding of how their culture is presently.
Trauma is a difficult topic to discuss and in the past it was considered taboo to do so in many Alaska Native cultures. Because it was rarely talked about, many people have never healed from it and the trauma has become intergenerational or passed down to younger generations. Many Alaska Native cultures have suffered trauma from two main groups of people: Christian missionaries and the US government. For example, my people, the Unangax people, were forcefully relocated from the Aleutian Chain to Southwest Alaska during World War II and had their homes burned to the ground. During their time in Southeast Alaska many died from being exposed to new illnesses and not having proper living spaces. They were not able to practice any of their cultural ways as the land was completely new to them. The children were sent to boarding schools and the men were forced to work for the government. After two years, the Unangax were allowed back to their homes where they had to completely rebuild everything. Since then, nothing has been the same and the culture is nearly nonexistent. Additionally, it is the trauma that has been passed down through the generations, along with alcoholism, as it has been used for such a long time as a coping mechanism. This is only one example of trauma that Alaska Native people have faced, and sadly there are many more, but they all have two things in common: the traumas were so severe they became intergenerational and almost everyone turned to alcohol to cope.
Knowing My Culture Means Knowing Myself
Research suggests Alaska Native youth benefit from learning the knowledge of Elders for three key reasons: to keep culture and traditions alive, to make informed decisions based on past experiences, and to understand more about themselves i.e. who they are, where they come from, etc. Research also tells us that Elders benefit from a chance to pass on their own knowledge in two ways: it helps them fulfill their role as an Elder and keep their culture alive and it helps them heal from past traumas.
My project investigated the ways that having limited knowledge about my culture feels like a piece of me is missing. When I say “missing,” I mean that I feel I am not whole, like I cannot reach my full potential without knowing and understanding all of who I am. This is not something that I had given a lot of thought to in the past, but the feeling has always been there. I have recently realized I was looking too hard to find the stereotypical Alaska Native culture I know when part of my real culture has been around me all along. I feel at home when I’m just listening to my Elders talk about their lives and how things were “back in the day.” I was looking for stories directed at me without noticing that stories are told to the entire audience, not just an individual. Although this isn’t my culture in its entirety, it is enough to make me happy. Even though this makes me happy, it does not make me feel whole and I think that is something I will have to live with.
I think this feeling of having something missing is important to notice and give attention to in Alaska Native youths as that feeling is how cultures will come back. It encourages the youth to find that piece of them and bring it back to life and make sure that the younger generations will not have to experience that same feeling.
Why Is it that I don’t Know this Significant Part of Myself?
I feel, as though, my culture will never be the same as it was before and any attempts to make it appear so are futile. I have no idea where this thought came from, but I think it began when I joined the Agdaagum Aksasniikan (King Cove Dancers) that was led by a teacher who moved here from Nevada and took it upon herself to create her own Unangax dances. This made it seem like my culture was stolen and turned into something it should not have been. That it was being mocked or not taken as seriously as it should have been. Later, I had a better experience attending my first culture camp through the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association (APIA). Still, the way that traditions and practices were taught there seemed to be more of just an experience at the time rather than knowledge that would stick with everyone for the rest of their lives.
I know that, in Alaska Native cultures, most traditional knowledge is passed down through storytelling. Why is it that I cannot remember an instance of this occurring in my own life experience? I believe that part of it is because I have blocked out a lot of my childhood as a trauma response and, therefore, cannot remember a lot of what my Elders had taught me during that time. I think I am also forgetting that I will never stop learning from my Elders and have learned from them and their stories recently without paying much attention to the fact that it happened.
Questions for Others
Can people be carrying and teaching traditional knowledge, unknowingly, after the culture has been nearly lost due to trauma? Who are the people to go to for cultural knowledge when the Elder population is decreasing? What happens if we’re too late?
Kahn, C. B., Reinschmidt, K., Teufel-Shone, N., Oré, C. E., Henson, M., & Attakai, A. (2016). American Indian Elders’ resilience: Sources of strength for building a healthy future for youth. American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research, 23(3), 117–133. doi: 10.5820/aian.2303.2016.117
Ross, J. B. (2016). Indigenous Intergenerational Teachings. American Indian Quarterly, 40(3), 216. doi: 10.5250/amerindiquar.40.3.0216
Wexler, L. (2011). Intergenerational Dialogue Exchange and Action: Introducing a Community-Based Participatory Approach to Connect Youth, Adults and Elders in an Alaskan Native Community. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 10(3), 248–264. doi: 10.1177/160940691101000305
Wilson, S. (1996). Gwich’in Native Elders: Not Just Knowledge, but a Way of Looking at the World. Alaska Native Knowledge Network.