Calling on our Grandparents’ Knowledge: Hundreds gather to discuss culturally responsive education in Alaska

Calling on our Grandparents’ Knowledge: Hundreds gather to discuss culturally responsive education in Alaska

Posted By:
Kathy Dye
Kathy Dye
Published On: August 19th, 2021

Sealaska Heritage’s fourth culturally responsive education conference, Our Cultural Landscape, was held virtually for the second time Aug. 5-7, drawing more than 450 educators from Alaska, the Lower 48, and beyond. The event featured prominent Indigenous keynote speakers and more than two dozen breakout presentations, while providing opportunities for attendees to discuss the many complex issues surrounding culturally responsive education.

Steered by a four-person conference committee (David Sheakley-Early, Lisa Richardson, Shgen Doo Tan George and Nancy Douglas, assisted by Yvonne Christner) and made possible through a partnership with the stellar tech team at SERRC, the virtual conference offered a wide range of approaches for educators willing to re-examine and strengthen their crucial roles in shaping the educational experiences of Alaska Native youth – and their schools and communities overall. The three-day event was unified by the theme Calling on Our Grandparents’ Knowledge and a focus on the ancestral wisdom of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska.

The Culturally Responsive Education conference opened with a pre-recorded video of TCLL dancers in the clan house of the Walter Soboleff Building

“These are the lands of our ancestors where our children have been raised for generations, learning from our grandparents’ knowledge,” said George in opening comments. “We’ve designed this conference to embrace that knowledge and to apply it to our lives both inside and outside of the classroom.”

The theme was emphasized by a series of videos interspersed throughout the event featuring the revered, late Tlingit Elders Dr. Walter Soboleff and Kingeistí David Katzeek. (To watch these and other videos, visit In one clip, Katzeek described the traditional Tlingit approach to a child’s education, expressed in the phrase Ax̱ too yei yatee.

“The ancient teachers would say this: ‘Your intelligence, your knowledge, has already been released in you. It is in you. Ax̱ too yei yatee.’ It’s like saying ‘I have it in me.’…. The Elders would say ‘it is in you’ — and it is your responsibility to learn how to learn. That’s something that we don’t use in education today. We’re filling people’s minds with all kinds of information and this and that, but we’re not teaching them to learn how to learn, which gives them the ability to apply what they have learned and make what they have learned relevant to the present time.”

Such traditional approaches are often dismissed entirely, Katzeek said, perpetuating misconceptions about Indigenous cultures and making it more difficult for students to apply Native world views in their learning.

“A lot of times… we’re talked about as if we’re no longer here,” Katzeek said in another clip. “Also we’re not acknowledged as it relates to all of the math, the science, the geology, history, music, literature, and the list goes on and on. We’re not talked about in the sense of education but in the sense of culture. All of us know that culture is a really broad term that can be applied to any people. It includes education. But very few people realize that education was a very, very significant part of our way of life.”

Embracing Indigenous knowledge and learning from traditional systems has enormous benefits not just for Native students but for everyone, said Sealaska Board Chair Joe Nelson in comments delivered to participants Friday morning.

A series of family photos shared by Kaaxúgu Joe Nelson, Chair for Sealaska’s Board of Directors

“Culturally responsive education is not about successful assimilation,” Nelson said. “The whole system is poised to be retooled, re-geared, and transformed by embracing thousands of years of knowledge that all of you are inheriting by working in this very awesome place that has a lot of Indigenous knowledge just waiting to be tapped into. I want to thank all of you from the bottom of my heart for seeking that knowledge, that wisdom, and that connection. Because that is the path forward for the whole planet – to embrace the diversity of thought but also the wisdom that goes with an understanding of place.”

In Southeast Alaska, such knowledge draws on core cultural values including Haa Shuká (honoring ancestors and future generations) and Haa Latseení (strength of body, mind and spirit), said SHI President Rosita Worl in Thursday morning comments.

“These are the values that supported our adaptations to the changing physical world and social environment in which we found ourselves in the last 250 years after the arrival of Westerners to our shores. We also believe that these are values that can benefit the larger society.”

Worl also said that the work of educators is even more necessary and valuable as polarizing discussions about cultural appropriation and critical race theory become increasingly common.

“While we have made great progress, our country today is facing a multitude of challenges to social justice, equity, and diversity,” Worl said. “These challenges are contrary to the essence of what we are trying to accomplish with this conference.”

Keynote speakers Dr. Tiffany Lee, Dr. Candace Galla, Nikki Sanchez, and Ethan Petticrew unanimously agreed during a panel discussion at the end of the conference that in spite of the substantial challenges, and though the desired outcomes may seem far away, gatherings such as SHI’s conference show that great things are happening in our communities. There is hope that those who are willing will continue this journey and share with others who are new or struggling.

“I have a dream, that I don’t think is too far-fetched, where all educators understand and teach Indigenous histories, especially the ones from the land they are on,” said Dr. Lee.

Conference keynote speakers (left to right): Nikki Sanchez, Tiffany Lee, Candace Galla, and Ethan Petticrew

Building dialogue

In addition to providing opportunities to listen to and discuss some of the big-picture issues facing students and educators, conference breakout sessions on a wide range of topics offered attendees a chance to focus on building strategies for applying what they’d learned. Each breakout session also included a half-hour block for discussion to help build community and connections.

In one session, “Tlingit Affirmations and Songs,” conference co-organizers Douglas and George, with the help and knowledge of Daasiyaa Ethel Makinen, Gooch Tlaa Anne Johnson, and Chuck Miller, demonstrated a practical approach for incorporating Elders words’ into classrooms by giving participants Tlingit phrases derived from Elders’ advice, and teaching them to create children’s songs based on those phrases that could be used as teaching tools, including the phrase Ax too yei yatee. Douglas said as an educator she is inspired by the words of Elders in everything she does.

A slide from a Friday afternoon breakout session, showing the Tlingit phrase, ax too yei yatee (it is in me.)

“The voices of our Elders is what grounds me every day and in the work that we do to be culturally responsive,” she said. “It is those voices of the Elders that I hear every day in my work, when I’m thinking about curriculum, or thinking about creating songs, or thinking about what we need to be doing next.”

Several sessions, including “Seeking Cultural Relevance in Your Classroom? Seek Genuine Relationships Instead” and “Stronger Together: Engaging Families through a Cultural Lens” highlighted the importance of personal connections, and of seeing students as full human beings, within the context of their families, communities and interests.

“Attending sports and extra-curricular activities is a great way to see students as a whole person and know who they are outside of the classroom — and other community members as well. We have to be a part of the community, not just in schools,” said one participant.

Others, including “Culturally Responsive Literacy and Place-Based Education through Performance Literacy Storytelling” and “Teaching based on students’ strengths is a key to success!,” focused on incorporating narrative.

“Using the narrative storytelling approach to learning centers the student and their experience. This makes learning personal and strengthens the connection between student and learning environment,” commented one participant.

A screenshot of a breakout session Thursday morning led by Harvest Moon Howell who told stories and discussed the impact and art of storytelling

Session topics also included ethnomathematics, land acknowledgements, language basics, and overviews of selected SHI programs including Baby Raven Reads, Opening the Box: STEAM, and Thru the Cultural Lens, the program through which the conference is operated.

Another forum for dialogue and feedback was provided during morning gatherings in which participants were asked to share aspects of the previous day’s discussions that had resonated with them.

“The essentiality of the voices of the Elders,” commented one participant.

“Community wellness, connections, and learning from our students’ grandparents and traditional cultures and interests are the keys to real success in the indigenized education that we dream of for the future. I loved hearing that in many ways yesterday,” wrote another.

“Making the investments in time, preparation, resources, and collaboration to get this right,” said a third.

Gunalchéesh, Háaw’aa’uu, and T’oyaxsat ‘nüüsm to the presenters for sharing their knowledge and strategies, to the breakout session presenters for supplementing these frames of thought, and to all attendees.

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