Ishmael Hope (Kaagwáask’ of the Kiks.ádi clan, of the Point House in Sitka), a Tlingit writer, actor and storyteller has put forth an idea for a School of Tlingit Customs and Traditions. The basic idea is to connect students and teachers of the Tlingit language, arts, storytelling, oratory, Tlingit law and history in a formal or informal setting that “will not be less disciplined or less ‘intellectual’ than any academic institution.”
We’re going to get students together to share and to learn, and we’re going to find teachers who can help us. That’s the basis. We’re starting out with a budget of zero. As Tlingit linguist James Crippen said at the Sharing Our Knowledge Clan Conference in 2009– a conference in which my father founded– ‘You don’t need money to learn the Tlingit language.’ It’s true. You don’t need grants. You just need a dedicated group of people.
The concept will not leave out the importance of making a living. This could serve as a foundation for a new (or old?) Tlingit economic model. One that will engage our people directly in making a living for themselves, rather than leaving them behind as the western economy and ANCSA has done.
Secondary focus will be on using Tlingit tradtions as a tool to get along in the modern world, to make a living. If someone’s focus is the arts, we’ll develop a marketing and business plan. If you have a scholarly focus, we’ll develop connections with the academic world. We’ll write grants together. In this way, we’ll be learning but also making a living, allowing a roughly equal balance between learning and producing. We will work together to support ourselves and our families, using Tlingit ingenuity like our ancestors did, and like many still do today.
We already have culture camps in the summer for our youth. A Tribal College is an excellent compliment. Of importance, I think, is the informal, decentralized nature of this proposal. On average, US students leave college with over $25,000 in student loan debt. With today’s economy, this is an unsustainable trend. The apprenticeship program that Ishmael puts forward excludes the expensive overhead that is often found in America’s universities and colleges. No high level administrators making six figure incomes. No manicured landscapes or expensive sports programs. No tenured professors who are paid to produce research papers rather than actually teach. Just good old fashioned learning and enrichment.
How do we accomplish this? Its easy, actually. As Ishmael says, it only takes a group of dedicated people, willing students and teachers, and a budget of zero. Still, we can take this one or two steps further. Kickstarter offers a unique funding model for artistic and creative projects of all kinds. Even if Tlingit Tribal College doesn’t formally use Kickstarter, the idea of funding finite projects one at a time allows for a low overhead education system that is scalable. That is, a single project at a time can be funded rather than raising millions to finance an entire university. Do a group of students want to learn how to carve a totem pole from beginning to end? Then raise the funds in the community (and outside of it) and hire a master carver to teach, and buy the materials needed. The success or failure of funding this one project won’t threaten the existence of the college, because the college isn’t an entity whose success or failure depends on money. It depends on commitment from Tlingit community. The money is secondary, and will come when it comes.
Taking this project to the next level, we can apply this same model to a Tlingit economy. The Tlingit tradition of gift giving can be revived to help fund the building of homes in the same way that the Tribal College funds its projects. What prestige there is in helping someone to build their very house! We can create a network of builders, artisans and producers across the Tlingit clans to undertake public works projects, build clan houses, build clan property, produce machinery, and educate our people. It could serve as the foundation for a new golden age of the Tlingit; our culture and nation revived by the traditions of old, adapted to a modern age!