Written by Clay Good, Renewable Energy Alaska Project and our Energy Security Catalyst

Auk Kwan village in late 1800’s

“Tide’s out. Table’s set.” 

Since time immemorial, Tlingit – literally “People of the Tides” – have lived by the rhythm of Earth’s ceaseless tides.  What better place for students indigenous to Southeast Alaska to learn about the gifts the tides provide than the beaches their culture have relied upon for generations?

The lowest tide reveals the path.

To honor and strengthen indigenous culture and help renew ties to their homeland, local tribal organizations and the Juneau School District partnered to create the Tlingit Culture Language and Literacy – TCLL program, hosted at Harborview Elementary.  Enrollment is open to all students.

In TCLL, each area of learning – from math to art – is viewed through a Tlingit cultural lens instead of from a western colonial perspective.  TCLL classrooms are rich in Tlingit Language and Imagery. Bilingual vocabulary posters abound –  Tlingit terms first, followed by English.  

The intensive program involves elders, culture bearers, teachers and language specialists, uncles, aunties and parents working daily with students to reinforce traditional cultural connections throughout their curriculum. 

Touching Time – TCLL students visit ancient petroglyphs at the beach.

Students of all ages gather before school and during lunch to sing and dance and celebrate their cultural identity. Each day they gather at the feet of elders in the gym for stories, wisdom and encouragement.  

Whenever possible, lessons are taken outside of the building and into the landscapes where their culture has thrived for millennia. 

TCLL students taking turns drumming at the beach.

Because TCLL students are learning in an environment where they feel respected and that reflects their culture, they take great pride in themselves and their work – Important developments for future success in and out of school.  Also, TCLL is an important step toward reconciling a past when colonial systems, including schools, did great harm to their culture and language.  

Culturally-relevant, place-based educational programs like TCLL provide a unique opportunity for Renewable Energy Alaska Project STEM educators to work closely with teachers and students to create engaging lessons that align more closely with their culture.  Because, as any teacher knows, students learn better when they make meaningful connections between new learning and their life experiences. 

Because energy is central to any culture and society, past present and future, REAP works to develop scientific energy literacy across all of Alaska. Investing in place-based energy literacy for Alaska’s indigenous students provides more tools and resources to add to the wisdom of their elders as a new generation faces changing energy horizons and a changing climate.

From Koyakuk to Kasaan, more Alaska Native communities are turning to local renewable resources and new technologies for their energy needs. Displacing imported fossil fuels with local renewable energy resources helps keep local dollars circulating longer in their communities, strengthening local economies while strengthening connections to traditional lands.

Whether it’s wind in Unalakleet or solar in Hughes or biomass in Kasaan, many of Alaska’s indigenous communities are practicing the wisdom of their elders in new and creative ways – as they create new jobs and a renewable, sustainable energy future.

by Clay Good for REAP and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership

The Sustainable Southeast Partnership (SSP) is a growing collaboration of organizations whose common goal is to empower Southeast Alaskan communities to develop cultural, ecological and economic prosperity, sustainability and resilience.