METLAKATLA, Alaska - Alaska's only Indian reserve and the only reservation designated by the U.S. Congress, Annette Island and the town of Metlakatla, founded in 1887, have a rich history, especially Native. However, it was only this past semester that the students at the local high school could learn in depth about their past.
Now part of the curriculum is Tsimshian studies, a course designed and taught by Mique'l Askren, who returned to Metlakatla High School five years after graduating from her alma mater. When she was a student, the course offered then sparked an interest but still she found the material simplistic.
"Growing up in the cultural resurgence of the 1980s, I was unfulfilled with what I got in high school so I took independent studies," Askren, 22, said. She has since completed her bachelor's degree in Art History from the University of Washington.
Already acknowledged as an expert in both the civic and Native history of Annette Island, Askren has teamed with her business partner and long-time boyfriend David Robert Boxley to direct a children's cultural camp for the past three summers. This hands-on experience with kids in a learning environment resulted in the local Board of Indian Education commissioning her to design a course curriculum although there weren't any guarantees this material would see a classroom.
She later found herself in front of the school board trying to get this adopted into the high school. Successful in her efforts, even without a formal background in education, Askren was hired after being granted a limited teaching certificate, permissible on the grounds this was a course in Indian studies.
That didn't mean everybody was in favor of this alteration as Askren referred to the MHS's now-departed superintendent, who tried to sabotage her efforts.
"Culture is taught in all of the classrooms," Askren said, paraphrasing the superintendent's response before Tsimshian Studies was adopted. "That's when I replied 'Whose culture?'"
The course lasted for a semester of 18 weeks divided into three components: subsistence and technology; Tsimshian Society; and European Contact and Metlakatla Culture.
"For the first week it was mind-boggling for them (students) to think there were no modern conveniences," Askren said about how previous generations constructed boats and conducted business without machinery and electricity. "That's when they started to realize how complex our technology was."
Metlakatla was founded in 1887 when 823 settlers arrived from British Columbia under the guidance of William Duncan, an unordained minister, who escaped the eye of England's Anglican Church while providing additional religious freedom for his parish.
Now there are eight churches in town and as time passed, there's been a mixed reaction about the teaching methods used by Duncan with criticism by some of the residents toward this course.
"No matter what our personal beliefs are about the missionary, it's part of our history," said Askren about how she defended what was taught in the course.
Askren realizes the unusual position she finds herself in Metlakatla but doesn't blame the town's seniors for some of their lack of information. Many of whom, she notes, were taught in government schools and so weren't exposed to their own culture and history. But in order to keep the class lively, she frequently invited others in the town to relate their stories.
"I'm too young to think about the culture and it should only be the elders," Askren mentioned about what's been said about her. "But the elders are holding me up saying 'Keep doing what you're doing'."
One of the students who performed well in Tsimshian Studies was junior Kandi McGilton. She appreciated the opportunity to find out what her people are about.
"This stuff should be taught when we're little because you're not born with cultural knowledge," the A-student said, who pointed out how the entire class acknowledged the significance of cultural preservation. "We helped them (the struggling students) get through it because they realized how important it is to them."
After a successful initial year, it's with a tremendous reluctance Askren will be taking a leave of absence from her teaching position. In order to pursue her larger goal of establishing a museum on Annette Island portraying the Tsimshian, she will be returning to Seattle to pursue a master's degree in Art History on a full scholarship offered by the Graduate Opportunity Program Research Assistantship at the U of W.
The course is expected to last three years, although she wants to complete the degree in two. Leaning towards museumology, her ambition is to spend an internship at the Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec because of its significant collection of Northwest artifacts.
"I love my community and teaching and the kids. It's hard to leave because I think of the kids I can't have in my class," she said.
However as Tsimshian Studies has become mandatory within the social studies department of the MHS curriculum, the course has been left behind in capable hands. The natural transition has been handed to Boxley, 21, who will resume the teaching responsibilities with two courses this fall.
An artist and carver by trade, Boxley is proficient in the Tsimshian language and while raised in Seattle, he was heavily influenced by his father, David, who had earlier introduced Metlakatla to its first potlatch and totem pole raising in 1982.
"I'm learning so much from her in the last six months and finding out all the new or detailed aspects of history, I'm proud of what I know because of what she knows," Boxley said. "It's so vital that the culture is passed on because it was almost dead with my father's generation."