Culture may be explained as if it were a ball game being played. One people only know a game like football, another people only know a game like basketball. Then they are brought together and told, "Play ball! Have fun!" If they've never experienced each other's way of playing ball, they think something is WRONG with those other people...they don't know how to play ball!
Father Oleksa is a dynamic, inspiring and very funny speaker. He's a Russian Orthodox priest from Pennsylvania who came to Alaska 40 or more years ago, married a Yup'ik woman, learned her language, raised four children with her, and became adopted and beloved by many in Alaska, Native and non-Native alike. He is a storyteller most of all. He weaves a tale that draws us in, makes us laugh, helps us see our common experiences, and gives us ways to connect with one another. His final definition of culture is "the story into which you were born." He suggests that it's hard to know our culture unless we know the story of our grandparents--where they were born, what words like "school" meant to them, what they did for a living, where they lived and how they lived. Most cultures pass those stories down for generations, parent to child, grandparent to child, aunts and uncles and cousins and siblings sharing a common history, one generation after another. Unfortunately, the dominant Anglo culture seems to be the one whose members do not tell stories, talk about their family's history, pass down the culture. He suggests that we are Generation 3, with our parents being Generation 2 and our grandparents being Generation 1. This makes our kids Generation 4 and our grandchildren Generation 5. If my grandkids (Generation 5) are unaware of the stories of Generation 1 (my grandparents), our culture is disappearing. If we don't know where we come from, it is hard for us to understand where others are coming from, literally and figuratively, as we try to meld our cultures together in this extremely multicultural place.
Rich and I both thought that Father Oleksa was one of the best speakers we've ever had the pleasure to hear. We continued the discussion on the way home, thinking about our grandparents and how much we don't know, wondering what our grandchildren will know about us, knowing that, sadly, in a few generations, most of our story will be gone. We don't belong to a culture where grandparents and parents and children sat around on dark, cold nights and told stories of ancestors. We didn't even live near our grandparents. We didn't all huddle in a big bed under a soft quilt and talk about our traditions. We didn't sing age-old songs or perform dances that told of our history and our rituals. We didn't walk from house to house visiting our relatives and establishing strong bonds. We didn't know the importance of asking questions and preserving our history till it was too late and many of our older generation were gone.
Father also made an important point that Alaska is the place where the Native Alaskan cultures will live and die. Italian Americans can still look to Italy for preservation of their original culture. Filipino Americans still have family and friends in the Philippines continuing the traditions of their culture, even if some of the traditions get lost in the US. Most people who now live in the US can look to the "old country" (or countries) of their family's origins if they want to delve more deeply into their backgrounds. For Native Alaskans, that "old country" is here. There is nowhere else to look and not another place where the culture is lived and preserved. If the traditions and language and skills and ideals of Native Alaskan cultures are lost here, they are lost forever. It is our responsibility to help our neighbors and friends to keep their culture alive and well for all of those Generation 5s coming long after we are no longer here.
I wish I could just post a transcript of Father's talk because I know I can't do it justice in this brief summary. He has many publications, has taught at several universities and has traveled the world educating people about diversity and culture. His website is www.fatheroleksa.org and you will find many more references to him and his work on the web. Take a look!
At our celebration of diversity in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. last night, we enjoyed the Filipino-American dancers, the Unangan dancers and drummers, and a multicultural brass band from the high school. We honored students who'd written essays and created posters showcasing their perspective on the topic of diversity. We met and mingled and talked and laughed and ate. I think maybe we all looked at each other a little bit differently than we had in the past.
Do you know your story? What are you preserving for Generation 5?
PS Sorry for no photos. We took our small camera, but with the lighting in the gym, the distance from the stage and the limitations of the camera itself, the pictures were not the best.