Native leader explains why Tlingit education is good for all

Photo/Jonathan Grass/Juneau Empire

David Katzeek, leader of the Shangukeidi Clan of Klukwan, gives a talk on the traditional Tlingit education system during an event in honor of Native American Heritage Month sponsored by the Sealaska Heritage Institute.
Photo/Jonathan Grass/Juneau Empire

Tlingit educational values have kept its clans alive since before European contact in Alaska, and Tlingit leaders recognize how the pillars of that education are important to Native and non-Native students alike, a speaker discussing Native education said.

David Katzeek, who goes by Kingeisti, is a leader of the Eagle Thunderbird Clan of Klukwan. He’s spent years discussing education with students across Alaska for years, and shared the insights of that journey as part of Sealaska Heritage Institute’s lecture series.

Kingeisti detailed how the spirit of encouragement and intelligence has kept Tlingit prosperous generation after generation. What’s more, he said this spirit isn’t for Tlingits only. It should be something encouraged in all children to help them reach their full potential.

Through anecdotes and lecture, Kingeisti explained how Tlingit clans are studied more for culture and not education, but this is inadequate because that "culture includes education."

He said even ancient clans survived with a strong utilization of math, science and history. Even today, Tlingits become lawyers, teachers, ministers and business people, all drawing from the midst of how they were taught and their ancestors were taught.

"We have had an impact on society from the beginning and the hard part is people don’t want to accept that instead of just acknowledging our culture," he said.

He discussed traditions of the Tlingit educational system that have built that impact. The system focuses as much on the students’ selves as much as reading and writing.

One of these main points is human beings have a unique ability to learn to listen for a purpose. He said this ability to learn to listen requires students to really focus, to not just hear what someone is saying but really comprehend it and to think about it if not immediately understood.

"When students are taught as respected human beings instead of being talked at, and these are two different things, students will respect you and want to work and understand more," said Kingeisti.

This respect is another pillar. Kingeisti explained respect is needed to practice and utilize intelligence because every human possess it.

"Every human that has that power to listen will find its not hard to learn," he said.

This notion of intelligence in every child measured through encouragement rather than judged by a single test score is another foundation of Tlingit education.

"Intelligence is probably one of the most traditional things any human being has," he told the audience.

He said Tlingit students are recognized as being precious and intelligent, and this can be lacking some other educational systems. He said when young people realize how precious they are, they really start to focus and control their minds, bodies and spirits.

"Basically to accept that if a man learns to listen he’ll learn and gain knowledge, and accepts that he is intelligent and he’ll gain more intelligence," he said.

Another pillar he discussed was the concept of "woocheen," which means "working together."

"The most important thing for me is that these particular truths are timeless. Truth never gets old. It’s just as right now as it ever was. Truth is truth," he said.

Kingeisti has also worked in management and Tlingit cultural consulting since 1971 and served as president of Sealaska Heritage Institute for 12 years.

12/16/2010 - 8:00pm