The Juneau Public Library system embarks on an oral history project this spring collecting Alaska Native stories on educational experiences. The capital city’s library is one of ten picked from more than 300 national applicants to bring StoryCorps to the community.
Freda Westman is a product of Juneau’s public school system, a 1974 graduate of Juneau-Douglas High School. Westman is Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood.
One of her strongest childhood memories is from when she was in middle school.
“I asked a teacher at the end of the year why my grade was a C and could we go and look at the grade book, and we did and averaged it out and my grade was really a B, and so it was changed. That took a lot of courage for me to do that,” Westman says.
At the time, she learned that teachers, who she greatly respected, could make mistakes and those mistakes could be fixed. She learned the value of standing up for herself.
Now, Westman looks back on that situation and realizes those types of errors were likely made on a regular basis.
“Expectations for Alaska Native students were low, so maybe that was the motivation,” she says.
Westman’s mother stopped going to school in the 8th grade to care for sick family members.
“She was not allowed to speak Tlingit in school and was not only not allowed to do that but was punished for doing that. She told us that that is why she didn’t want to teach us Tlingit. She didn’t want us to experience that,” Westman says.
These are just a couple of memories that exist in Juneau’s Alaska Native community, stories that the public library hopes to capture through StoryCorps interviews.
Juneau librarian Andrea Hirsh says the interviews aren’t formal. It’s a conversation between two people.
“A lot of people pick a family member, a grandparent, a child, a sibling, a neighbor and they tell their story,” Hirsh says.
The theme of Alaska Native educational experiences sprang from an issue that took place last year concerning the Juneau School District’s elementary language arts curriculum.
Community members raised concerns about school texts depicting Alaska Native and Native American tragedies, including the boarding school experience in Alaska. From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, the federal government split families and forced Native children into boarding schools to assimilate. The texts were called distorted, inaccurate and insensitive.
The district eventually decided to remove the controversial texts and replace them with locally developed materials. The superintendent invited Alaska Native community members into the classroom to tell their stories.
Library program coordinator Beth Weigel hopes the StoryCorps project can help fulfill this need and others.
“Oral history is a big part of the Alaska Native tradition so if we have it available then those are available to teachers if they want to use those as part of the resource materials in their classroom,” Weigel says. “And they’ll stories by Alaska Natives, their stories that they tell in their own words.”
Before applying for the project grant, Weigel and Hirsh sought advice and supportfrom members of the Alaska Native community in Juneau, like Sorrel Goodwin.
Goodwin is a librarian at the Alaska State Library. He says the project is an opportunity to get Alaska Native perspectives on the American educational system. In the mid-1990s, Goodwin interviewed Alaska Natives on that topic for a teaching course at the University of Alaska Southeast.
“Most of their perspectives were largely negative, dealing with such issues as racism and assimilation, and the degradation of Alaska Native cultures, languages, histories, going right on into flat out physical, mental and sexual abuse in many of the boarding school contexts,” Goodwin says.
He hopes the library’s project will include interviews of the younger generation, Alaska Natives who are currently going through the educational system.
“A lot of our parents’ and grandparents’ negative experiences in the American education system have been carried forward. It created a sort of intergenerational post-traumatic stress in the ways that many of our people are either able to engage or not engage with the dominant society’s system of educating people,” Goodwin says.
Sorrel says the more stories that are told, the more understanding will take place. He thinks the StoryCorps project can help the community work through issues that still remain.
One of the library’s goals is to capture a range of voices.
“We would love to talk to people who are still in school and this could be grade school, middle school, high school, college, technical school. It could be young adults, it could be older adults. We want to hear everyone’s story,” Hirsh says.
With permission of the participants, all of the StoryCorps interviews will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and locally at the Juneau Public Library and Sealaska Heritage Institute.