Alaska Native storytelling: Will it survive?

Kyle WorlWhen the boarding schools came to Alaska and the lower 48, an entire generation of Alaska Natives was robbed of their language. Those who went to boarding school and went on to have kids carried shame in speaking their own language, and their language was not always passed down.

“A lot of the storytellers are now gone,” said Shirley Kendall, a Tlingit term instructor in the Alaska Native Studies department. “We need to start looking at new ways to present the training that used to be done by grandparents.”

Boarding schools sought to assimilate Alaska Natives into Western culture, often through violence.

“The first shock you have is when you can’t speak your language,” Kendall said. “As soon as (teachers) started hitting me, I learned English about that fast.”

Yup’ik term instructor Marie Meade experienced similar abuse, but both Meade and Kendall have reconciled their time at boarding school with their native culture.

“I’m not going to say I live in two worlds,” Meade said. “I can’t put the other (worlds) lower or higher — I’m not going to do that … I’m not a victim anymore.”

Earlier this semester, Kendall’s Oral History class students adapted the Alaskan children story “The Blind Man and the Loon” into radio plays.

- Advertisement -

“The teachers that work with students today don’t have that kind of information or ability, to tell those stories to the kids,” Kendall said.

After recording finished, Kendall submitted the stories to KNBA radio.

There is meant to be a lesson behind every Alaska Native story.

“It’s not just for us, it’s for all humans,” Meade said. “Our traditional stories, legends, there’s always something behind it. There are wonderful life lessons to be learned from these stories.”

Meade has been working to preserve those traditional stories and legends.

“Oral history storytelling had been put away,” Meade said. “Now we’re trying to keep these stories alive however we can and with whatever tool we can use. We have all the technology.”

Meade is confident that the next generation will carry Native Alaskan culture.

“We’ve gotten to this day surviving,” she said. “Maybe they’ll be better survivors (than us).”

But even with the efforts to keep the culture alive, Kendall is unsure of the future.

“I think the culture is really depleted,” she said. “Those that are my age or younger without agreeing … to do so didn’t teach our children the language.”

Despite this, Kendall maintains hope that the culture will survive in successive generations.
“We have very creative and artistic young people,” she said, “and I think something could be done with (our language).”