It has been over 10 years (March 28, 2001) since I left my hometown of Blackduck, Minnesota to come to Alaska to pursue my dream of teaching in Bush Alaska; but some of the most powerful lessons come to my quite early in my “Alaskan Teaching Odyssey.
After my first year of teaching in rural Alaska in 2001, I knew I had to add some things to my repertoire if I was going to stay. A friend recommended a class with Professor Ray Barnhardt in cross-cultural studies. I soon learned what a great teacher he was and how much he wanted to empower teachers in rural Alaska.
One of the highlights of his class was to travel out to old Minto (down the Tanana River from Nenana) to spend some time with a group of Athabaskan Elders. We spent the better part of 10 days out there, living in tents and doing subsistence activities, in an effort to gain insight into the mystery of rural teaching.
It was a cultural immersion as well as an awakening to the possibility of doing things different, of doing things in a culturally relevant way. While there, we were the students and often times we were asked to leave our comfort zones into the realm of our students lives and experiences.
We listened to Elders speak in their language, we learned to dance, and we heard experiences from a long time ago. We heard of loss, love, hardship, and redemption. We saw a local community recognizing that much had been lost, but that if it was to be re-gained, then they must play a part.
We cut wood and took steam baths, we checked net and cut fish, we snared beaver and prepared them for cooking, we cut moose and made stew, we built a fish rack and hung freshly caught King salmon. All the while we watched and listened to the Elders. One time Chief Peter John visited the camp, just for the day, as he was close to a 100 years old. It was amazing to see this traditional chief talk about the old days, not in a negative or bitter sense, but in a way that brings out the lessons of the past and offers clues to how we can use them.
On the final day of our stay at the Old Minto Culture Camp, we hosted a Potlatch and close to 200 people came to eat, dance, share, and in the words of Mr. Charlie “to come to a place where people used to live, in order to learn what it means to be human, to be Athabaskan”...it was a very powerful statement when I heard and is equally powerful as I reflect upon it.
I have had the privilege of taking other courses with Ray Barnhart and others up at UAF as well as courses with UAA and the Alaska Humanities Forum that have allowed me to add pieces to my thinking about being an effective teacher in rural Alaska. One of the pieces of wisdom that sums it up for me is: “we can teach through culture, rather than just about culture”.
I think these experiences have also made me a more effective teacher of American history. But, for me, it starts with the student and their experience, their geography, their culture, and together we finds ways to connect to the larger themes of “our history” and the larger American narrative, which included the rich cultural history of Alaska’s First People.
Mark Biberg taught is 3 different rural villages from 2001-2009 : Mountain Village and Kotlik on the Lower Yukon and Tuluksak on the Kuskokwim. He is currently with the Delta Cyber School. Mr Biberg is a proponent if place-based learning as well as integrating technology and social media into the learning process. He is originally from Blackduck, Minnesota. He has two sons, Rafael 6, Sean, 4.