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Creating cultural competence in Northwest Alaska

September 15th, 2017 | Kirstie Lorelei Willean Print this article   Email this article  

Breathing slowed. Standing. Watching. Silent awareness. The hunter glides upon calm water, patiently waiting. Respect and humility. Cooperation and responsibility. Traditional values interwoven in the moment. The seal is hunted, harvested, and will provide. That afternoon aqpiks (salmon berries) and tundra tea (Labrador tea) are gathered. The tundra and waterways of the Northwest Arctic region provide sustenance and generations of traditions carried forward through subsistence practices.

These Inupiaq traditions, values and heritage are imbedded in the cultural immersion experiences, which are a part of the Alaska Humanities Forum's Creating Cultural Competence (C3) program model. Each summer, newly hired teachers arrive in Kotzebue, the region's hub, to begin a 10-day cultural immersion experience to help prepare them for their new journey of living and teaching in this region of Alaska.

Arriving at 66.? N latitude one month past Summer Solstice, the diminishing daylight hours are hardly noticeable. Most of the C3 teachers are new to Alaska, and have each chosen to participate in this summer's cohort. They are bonded by a common desire to learn about Inupiaq culture and ways of living prior to the start of their rural Alaska teaching career.

As part of the multicultural studies course required for Alaska teacher certification, this year's C3 model was a collaboration between the Alaska Humanities Forum, Northwest Arctic Borough School District, University of Alaska, Chukchi College, Buckland IRA (Indian Reorganization Act) and the Kiana Traditional Council. Together, the teachers were provided a variety of opportunities for practical and reflective learning. Teachers participated in two initial days of orientation with Chukchi College Director and local Inupiaq Elder Linda Joule.

Joule led teachers at the cultural orientation through the lens of traditional Inupiaq values (Inupiat Ilitqusiat); a foundational understanding of who the Inupiaq people are, their culture, and their relationship to the land and seasons is built. Joule shared techniques to help develop and build lasting relationships through awareness and fundamental types of communication; always connecting lessons to Inupiat Ilitqusiat. The Alaska Humanities Forum designed effective evening gatherings, which deepened each day's lessons through activities and discussions.

Equipped with the newly planted seeds of the Inupiaq cultural lens, the C3 teachers traveled to Buckland and Kiana to deepen their understanding through hands-on camp experiences. The Kiana Tribal Council and Buckland IRA Council coordinated these camps with activities based around traditional river (Kiana) and coastal (Buckland) activities. Teachers participated in the camp, which represented the geographic nature of the village they would be teaching in. Traditional subsistence and craft activities and daily interactions with local Elders, youth and other community members deepened each teacher's immersion experience.

Once the seal was brought ashore, Buckland Camp Director Raymond Lee and assistants Vincent and Mary Thomas guided new teachers in how to harvest the meat, blubber and internal organs, which were later shared with community Elders along with the fireweed jelly prepared from flowers gathered on a previous day. Sharing. Cooperation. Hard Work. Respect for Elders. Respect for Nature. Domestic Skills. Hunter Success. Responsibility to Tribe. Inupiat Ilitqusiat (Inupiaq Values).

Back in Kotzebue, the final days of C3 were filled with debrief activities such as sharing stories, reflecting on learning and looking forward to ways of incorporating the immersion experience into the classrooms and community life that lay ahead.

"The C3 was absolutely incredible," said Carl Boley, new teacher in Shungnak. "I learned so much about the culture in which I'll be finding myself, and how to use that in my classroom. One worry I had coming to Alaska was cultural considerations in my classroom. This experience has given me confidence and excitement for the coming school year."

The Creating Cultural Competence model's goal is to increase teacher retention in rural Alaska through this immersion process. By deepening the C3 teachers' understanding and connection to a place and its people, teachers are better prepared for teaching, living and learning in their new communities.

Kirstie Lorelei Willean is education programs coordinator at the Alaska Humanities Forum.


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