Photo essay: SHI’s first-ever education conference kicks off

Photo essay: SHI’s first-ever education conference kicks off

Posted By:
Kathy Dye
Kathy Dye
Published On: June 2nd, 2017

Sealaska Heritage’s first-ever education conference got off to an exciting start on Thursday with keynote speeches and opening remarks from distinguished guest speakers including Ilarion Larry Merculieff, Libby Roderick, and US Senator Lisa Murkowski. The three-day event, called “Our Cultural Landscape,” is being held at the Juneau-Douglas High School through Saturday.

Introduced by SHI Education Director Jackie Kookesh, back-to-back keynote speakers Merculieff and Roderick presented two very different viewpoints on culturally responsive education.

Merculieff shared insights from being raised in a traditional Unangan community on the Pribilof Island of St. Paul in the Bering Sea, where an indigenous perspective permeated every aspect of life – a dramatically different education from that experienced by most Alaskan children today.

“I was literally raised by the whole village. I would walk out every day and be affirmed by every adult I ran into…. I grew up not asking any questions. I watched, listened and learned.”

Merculieff said from the beginning he learned that thinking is not the most important thing.

“I learned to listen with my heart.”

Roderick, director of the Difficult Dialogues Initiative at the University of Alaska Anchorage, discussed ways Natives and non-Natives can work together to decolonize education and create a more equitable system. Among the strategies: an acknowledgment of Alaska Native history, recognition and inclusion of indigenous ways of teaching, respect for the environment, decolonizing research, and preserving languages.

“This is a huge topic that we can and will spend our lifetimes working on,” Roderick said.

Following Roderick, SHI President Rosita Worl gave a brief welcome address. Worl said sharing traditional knowledge through education has been a focus at SHI since its founding by clan leaders, traditional scholars and elders in 1980, as has SHI’s effort to teach non-Native people about Alaska Native cultures. Worl expressed her admiration for the educators who had come to the conference to learn more about this important work.

“You educators are key to our mission – you are key to helping us ensure our culture will survive,” Worl said.

Last to the stage were Joe Zuboff, leader of the Deisheetaan clan, and Senator Murkowski, an adopted member of the Deisheetaan. In introducing the Senator, Zuboff explained that the Tlingit name given to her, Aanshawátk’I, means “Lady of the Land” and that she was given the name because of her work on behalf of Native peoples and the state.

The Senator said she was proud to see the work that’s being done in Alaska to strengthen an awareness of cultural diversity, adding that a neighborhood in Anchorage is the most culturally diverse census tract in the country.

“To reach our children, to reach our students, we have to be able to understand them and see the world through their eyes,” she said.

Senator Murkowski said she has also learned that indigenous languages play a key role.

“Rosita has taught me many things, and she has taught me that language is at the core… without a true understanding of one’s language, you can never truly have an understanding of the soul of your community,” she said.

Murkowski also emphasized that the work being done to foster culturally responsive education benefits all Alaskans.

“You’re seeking to not only (improve) education, but to enhance young lives through an appreciation of ancient cultures and traditions. How can that not make each of us richer?”

SHI’s education conference continues through Saturday. For more information, visit

(Photos by Nobu Koch and Amy Fletcher)  

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