A speech from 1995 by Dr. Walter Soboleff stresses the importance of education, and the foundation of that education in Tlingit society: family and clan. The opening lines remind us that American public education has no place in a society that holds family and clan first:
In the Atlantic Monthly, Karl Sinsmeister had an article entitled Growing Up Scared, such an atmosphere in a school system is bound to produce a student whose life will be anything but happiness and success.This is not the whole picture of the American school effort however, enough to alarm us to be on guard and be a part of the answer … we have often seen that when a pupil comes home after a day in school, the home is empty. There may be good reasons for this void because of illness, death, family separation, work, other. An empty home is almost like a place without a heart. In the Native world we did not let this happen. When there were no parents, there was an automatic adoption by either, aunt, uncle, grandparents, other. A sense of security was quickly established and Native learning process was kept warm and alive.
I cannot stress enough that we reclaim the education of our Tlingit youth. Public education demands conformity and destroys local culture. By its very nature it is hostile to Native values, and breaks the link between our youth and their elders and thus the link between our youth and their people. John Taylor Gatto, himself a teacher, has developed a critique of public education that I need not repeat here. A good place to start is with his article The Six-Lesson School Teacher. Dr. Soboleff goes on to discuss the clan and daily life as the backbone of Tlingit education; what today would be called “home schooling.”
In the SE Alaskan Tlingit world, the clan system was the school system made up of family, focusing upon the pupils. In that world the society was matriarchal. Women were the controlling element, an uncle became nephew teacher, with mother, aunts and grandparents girl teachers. The Tlingit campus was not co-educational. The father was not left without teaching as he had nephews as students. To begin with, the parents were role models who walked their talk. Daily living was the classroom, the trail, beach, fireside, river, low tide, berry field, mountain climbing, cleaning fish., hunting, fishing, gathering herbs, carning wood, gathering roots for baskets, cutting meat, and fish for the drying rack, cooking seal, herring, the olichan oil, preparing to ferment salmon heads and salmon roe, other.
Certainly the day to day tasks of modern life may be different than those described above. Even so, many of our people continue a subsitence based lifestyle at least part of the year. However, the lesson to learn here is that we teach our children. We spend time with our children. This is the foundation of a people’s culture. Past is linked to present, and our children learn who they are and know that they have a place among their people. More important, they learn how to fill that place and be a productive member of their family, clan and tribe. Public education is that other way, which sees our children separated from their family most of the day. Which demands they conform with a bland, centrally planned mono culture that does service to no child, Tlingit, Native, or white. This way is hostile to the concept of family and has no room for our culture. It should come as no surprise that so many Native youth drift away from the ways of their tribe. They are marginalized, feeling that they belong neither in the Native world or the white one. In this state our youth drift toward drugs, alcohol, and lately, toward gangs. The answer here is to take on the responsibility of raising and educating our own. Dr. Soboleff includes a true gem in his speech, something that must not be forgotten. Something that is often misinterpreted. It is the concept of clan property; property owned in common by members of the clan:
The tribe and clan ownership of land was, a great source of security and peace. These areas supported material needs and for that reason that source was never abused.
The Native concept of property is complex only when viewed through the lens of American culture. In Tlingit culture, property was owned by tribe and clan. From the perspective of the individual in a clan, the property was owned in common by him and the other members of his clan. The familiar mantra among Natives is to not abuse natural resources. Hence the American interperation of Native Americans as some kind of culture of ultimate altruists and environmentalists. This is a misinterpertation. The Tlingit individual only takes as much as he needs, and leaves resources unexploited because to do otherwise would undermine the security and prosperity of his family and clan. However, an outsider dips into another’s clan resources at his own risk. From the perspective of clan to clan relationships, or clan to any outsider, the form of property ownerships changes from a common resource to a private one. Under the old system of clan ownership, intrusion by outsiders infringing on clan property and resources was grounds for war, and rightly so. A clan’s resources were carefully maintained in order to sustain the clan. Theft of these resources by another, or over exploitation by an individual, threatened the prosperity and very life of the clan.
So the view of Natives as great conservationists is only half the story. The other half is that clan and family ownership and management of resources has a kind of environmentalism and conservationism at its heart. It is the long term, multi-generational vision of clan stewardship that fosters this care for land and resources. This does not translate well into the current system of resource management, where management and ownership of the entirety of our resources is centralized in either the federal or state government. Under such a system access to the resource is controlled by the government. This is the concept of public ownership. And it is under this system of control that our salmon runs have been exploited and parceled out from under us.
In contrast, it was our system of private/common property ownership that saw sustained yields of salmon from the rivers of Alaska. It was the foundation of the Tlingit’s complex society and economy, the reason for our wealth, the driving force behind our art, and what allowed us to be a people.
Today, with our clan system broken in all but name, our resources have been grossly mismanaged by the state of Alaska and the United States Government. Our salmon is threatened with over fishing. Our local economy is destroyed. Our system of resource ownership has been reorganized as purely private under ANCSA corporations. Our children have been marginalized by a school system that is destroying our very soul. And our people exhibit extreme poverty rates, severe social problems, alcoholism and drug addiction.
The way back to prosperity is clear. We have the frame work to rebuild our clan system. Most of our people know their clan and can identify their elders and leaders. It is time to take this one step further and look to our clan as the primary social organization in our lives. It is time to reclaim our Tlingit heritage.