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"Teaching Our Many Grandchildren"




Wilson Justin
©Bill Hess

It is not about in a sacred manner we walk:

It is about in a sacred manner we talk!

-Wilson Justin

In a Sacred Manner 

By Wilson Justin, NabiNeh (Nabesna) Althset-any


Time is not a concept that a westerner can grasp easily. Separation and compartmentalization seem to be so ingrained in the minds of the descendants of the Europeans that only slices of time seem to make sense. Athabascans, on the other hand, grasp time well. In our mind time is or was what the Creator brought to us for the purpose of honoring others and ourselves in the pursuit of eternity.

Our language easily encapsulates this concept, forming a continuum in which our everyday lives could easily be directed, whether it be teaching, laughing, singing or even observing silence. The struggle to translate from Indian to English is enormous, but it is dwarfed by the struggle to re-translate back, from English to Indian. For instance, how would you explain in ordinary English, the following statement: Silence is for the purpose of establishing boundaries and used in a personal way to allow another to be a part of the web that enfolds the moment. Here words fail in your it often fails us when we try to use the language in context to our spoken word.

A little of this failure and frustration is evident in the MSTC EPA tape during which Katie John expresses the wish and need for secrecy and she quotes, "When I want to tell secrets, no one understands what I mean...they don't listen, they just sit around and look at me!" Here, the word 'secrecy' also means the sacred. Katie punctuates the obvious to those who don't know the obvious and we are left with an unexplainable gap which is both awkward to the intended audience and devoid of meaning to the unintended.

Obviously Katie isn't talking about secrets. Instead, she is talking about customs. For instance, the traditions related to Potlatches are somewhat well known, but the custom of preparing for an impending death is not known and is usually reserved to a select few who would be directing the event. If Katie wishes to speak on the subject, it would be very easy for me, for instance, or my mother, or my Aunt Lena, or Ruby to note this and take the appropriate action. This kind of discussion is time driven, as in, "We will now honor our name and start the talk for our beloved's journey on to the next life." In our Native language this is done with just a nod or a sigh. Then the kids are removed (it is "engii" for kids to participate in death talk).

The discussion arena gets an invisible seal around it and the custom of talking about eternity and the emptying out the soul to mark the solemnity begins. The conclusion both enriches the participants and cushions the impending blow to the expected survivors.

So what makes some customs legible and readable and others shrouded in mystery? Well, it's all about how time is used to deal with eternity and also who is the selected person who opens the dialogue. The Custom to which Katie alluded to is enacted relatively rarely, used almost exclusively with concepts that involve death or rebirth, or extensions of time. This discussion is very, very private and very, very serious, sometimes with a touch of mirth but mostly sad, in an eternal way.

Well, what's this got to do with an introduction to a curriculum for an Alaskan State school district? Basically, I wanted to show the impossibility of the task we undertook when it was decided to develop this curriculum. Cruelly put, it can't be done since our language is time derived, (or eternity driven), whereas the English language derives its use strictly as a function of egos and the id.

Our actions further were tempered by the fact that if we did nothing our language was sure to die. So we were left obviously with the choice of accepting and keeping a flawed language or aim for purity and watching it slip away forever. The choice was obvious and I do hope that all can accept our choice in the flavor in which it was mixed and then produced. I owe my teachers a heartfelt thank you for their courage and firm beliefs that we would not let them down. The honor roll, in no particular order, is:

Courtesy of Joan Herrmann
Courtesy of Joan Herrmann

Late Grandpa

Grandma Katie and the late Grandpa Fred John, Sr

Houston Sanford

Gene Henry

Uncle Johnny Nicolai

The late Adam and Kate Sanford

Late Uncle Paul Sinyon

Late Ralph Sanford

Aunt Lena Charley

Bill and the late Maggie Joe

Aunt Ruby Sinyon

Late Frank Charley

The fact that by western standards I failed in every sense learning my duties and responsibilities is of no particular importance here. It is only important to remember that my teachers never failed me. They carried out their duties and responsibilities to me with unflagging faith and supreme courage in the face of the impossible. Many have left us and some remain.

To all, "Tsin'aen."


MSTC Mission Statement



In A Sacred Manner, by Wilson Justin

Learn & Serve Focus Groups

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Interview of Elders

Clans of Chistochina & Mentasta

Why Are We Here?

Who We Are

Land icon


Our Way of Life

Mapping the Village

What A Waste

Raw Materials

Our Natural Resources


Water icon


Water, Water

Our Watershed

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Where Does Our Food Come From?

Gathering, Traditions and Nutrition of our Food

Keeping Ourselves Healthy

A Student Led Health Fair

Assessment & Performance Evaluation


Learn & Serve Program

Sources, Resources

Thank You


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Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
Questions or comments?
Last modified August 17, 2006