Indigenizing Public History: Engaging Teachers in Podcasting & Digital Storytelling
13 September 2022 – Marie Acemah and Alice Qannik Glenn
Editors’ Note: This post is part of a series of reflections from winners of NCPH awards in 2022. Marie Acemah and Alice Qannik Glenn were part of the See Stories’ team that won an honorable mention in the small institution category for Outstanding Public History Project Award for their short film The Forgotten Slavery of Our Ancestors. This essay is about another teacher professional development project they collaborated on. Subscribe to the See Stories’ newsletter on their website to follow future work on Indigenous representation in education and also an upcoming teacher professional development project supporting educators and communities to document stories of the enslavement of Indigenous peoples in what is now known as the United States.
Mirroring other secondary school student bodies in the United States, Alaskan students are diverse, but their teachers tend to be white women. Likewise, public history, in Alaska as elsewhere, has preserved and presented white people’s history from a white people’s perspective. Alice, an Iñupiaq podcaster, and Marie, a white educator, worked with a team to lead a virtual teacher training after COVID-19 took us all by surprise, and our intention was to support Alaskan teachers in learning podcasting & digital storytelling to document local histories.
Our inspiration for this project was rooted in Alice’s decision several years back to share Alaska Native stories from Alaska Native perspectives on her podcast in response to growing up seeing the stories of Indigenous Alaskans told through a non-Native lens. Her core belief that representation matters has transformed the way Indigenous and non-Indigenous Alaskans see Alaska Native communities. In our teacher training project we wanted to equip teachers to bring this “share-your-own-story” model to their students. Marie’s background in engaging youth to share stories through film has led to a variety of collaborations with Alice due to their shared desire to support Alaskans in sharing the true Alaska they know. You can watch this two-minute film about Marie’s work through the nonprofit she helped found that features Alice and others. Our premise was that using new media can tap into Indigenous ways of knowing and being simply because we are in the realm of storytelling and oral traditions. Just as Alice is Indigenizing the podcast with Coffee & Quaq, and just as Marie works to build inclusive communities through See Stories, together we Indigenized the classroom and the ways that teachers engage their students in the creation of history. We believe this is a service to all teachers and students.
More than 20 educators from across Alaska joined the class, all of them hungry for connection as they hunkered down. From Shishmaref to Akiak, and from Kodiak to St. Michael, they documented local histories—from the first Yu’pik orthography to the suppression and reemergence of Alaska Native dancing, and from the Matanuska colony to the impact of COVID-19 on village life. They learned how to conduct interviews, connect with primary sources, and edit a podcast and a digital story. The class had an unexpected synergy, partly a symptom of forced solitude and largely thanks to the Alaska Native educators in the class, who ended up being the true leaders of the course.
To honor the awesome presence of several Indigenous educators in this course, let us first take note that the school system was, and in many ways still is, designed to alienate Indigeneity. As our nation bears witness to the Boarding School atrocities, including through the personal testimony of one of See Stories’ own directors, Jim Labelle Sr., one can only marvel at the fact that Alaska Native educators choose to walk the path of working to support the next generation of Indigenous youth (and youth in general) within the school system. Mandated curriculum explores Indigenous histories and identities in a cursory way, and teachers are often left alone to navigate how to teach Alaska Native histories and cultures. This context only deepened our gratitude to have Indigenous educators join our class.
Flora, an Iñupiaq woman and certified secondary teacher in Koyuk, a village of less than 300 people in the Northwest Arctic, relentlessly worked on her podcast to document the impact of COVID-19 in her community. She interviewed a student, her mom, and a friend, and recorded the sounds of the village where she lived and worked: small plane buzzing in, the bells at the local church, the sounds of children playing basketball. During one class session, a guest speaker, Dr. Daren Graves, spoke about how teachers can engage students in public history with an eye to making a positive difference in their community. He asked for stories from the group of something they would like to take action on. Flora volunteered the fact that many people don’t believe she’s a teacher, and she has even been asked to show her papers to prove that she is a “real” teacher and not a paraprofessional. Her voice trembled with pain as she shared that part of her experience. The group grew quiet as they let her words sink in, and someone thanked her for her courage to share her story. Later she wrote us a message over Zoom, saying, “I’ve never felt so seen in a class before.” We quietly celebrated that Flora had space to be her authentic self and that she created such a beautiful podcast about her community and their experience during COVID-19. Like Alice’s podcast, Coffee & Quaq, Flora’s podcast shares a community story from the inside out, inviting her audience to join her around her kitchen table in conversation, a gift to public history that she’s now passing on to her students.
Another Iñupiaq educator Roben, who teaches in Shishmaref, a village of less than 600 people on the frontlines of climate change due to rapidly rising sea levels, dived deeply into the primary sources and archives about her community and was disturbed by their colonial tone. She created a film that juxtaposed the demeaning language of an ethologist with the language of an Elder, Ticasuk, whose words inspired her. Roben shared her story about Initaq, a meat drying rack where stories are passed down and one can connect with the Ancestors. You can watch her film here, which she made in only two weeks, and you can join the entire class in learning from her voice and approach to public history and Indigenizing archives and her classroom.
As course instructors, we (Marie and Alice) explored the true meaning of decolonizing and Indigenizing the classroom, both our own and the classrooms of the teachers we trained. We equipped educators, whether Indigenous or not, with media skills that they can use on household equipment so that they can share vital oral stories from the inside out and teach their students to do the same. We strive to create spaces where individuals and communities can narrate their stories and histories. We explore what it means to Indigenize public history, whether that means emphasizing oral rather than written traditions, focusing on visual/non-verbal storytelling through film, empowering teachers and students with skills and inspiration to value and share their own stories in the ways that feel good to them, or appreciating the fact that Elders’ stories are public history even if they aren’t written or documented in a Western sense. As one participant wrote in the post-course survey, “[E]veryone has a story and a counter-story, a history, something they are successful at that cannot be measured in academic standards.” We look forward to watching the ripple effects of this course as teachers implement podcasting and digital storytelling in their classrooms and share student and community stories with us.
~Alice Qannik Glenn is an Iñupiaq born and raised in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. She hosts and produces her own podcast called Coffee & Quaq to celebrate and explore contemporary Native life in urban Alaska.
~Marie Acemah is founder / Director of nonprofit See Stories that works to build inclusive communities with film and story. She is a mama of two, an educator, and an advocate for using primary sources through film in classrooms throughout Alaska.