Telling Stories of Place, Change, and Culture in Alaska

May 09, 2017
By Kathleen Costanza

The Sitka Story Lab, which helps students explore and express their stories while building writing and media skills, extends its work into rural Alaskan native communities with support from our LRNG Innovators Challenge grant.

Mary Haakanson has seen a lot of change in her lifetime. Sitting at her kitchen table in Old Harbor, Alaska, she tells her great-granddaughter Alisandra Lake about life without electronics, speaking Aleut with her mother, and the terrifying day a tidal wave destroyed her village.

“I hope it will continue one day, even when I’m gone,” Haakanson says of Aleut, an indigenous language of the Aleutian Islands. “You can’t forget your culture.”

Lake spent last summer across the table from her great-grandma Mary, listening to her rich stories and filming their interviews as part of a documentary film project called “Our Alaskan Stories.” She and other high school students learned film and audio skills during the school year, and took video equipment home over the summer to document language, culture, and change in remote villages in southeast Alaska.

“I hope that we can build an environment where students’ ideas–inspired by living in this place–can be validated, because if they look at mass media they may not see themselves reflected in that mirror,” said Peter Bradley, executive director of the Island Institute, a nonprofit organization in Sitka, Alaska. The team at the Island Institute created the project as part of its efforts to encourage the community to explore social, environmental, and cultural questions. It also runs a wide array of youth programs to develop writing and storytelling skills.

The documentary project along with several other new undertakings are supported in part by an LRNG Innovation Challenge grant. The grants stem from a partnership between the National Writing Project and John Legend’s Show Me Campaign to help educators extend time and space for connected learning. The connected learning theory posits that learning happens in school, as well as at home, work, and among friends, and is driven by students’ own interests and unique life experiences.

Year of Experiments
Since 2013, the Island Institute has been offering the “Sitka Story Lab,” a free creative writing program in classrooms and afterschool spaces. Since launching, the Story Lab has worked with more than 500 students across seven schools.

As one of the largest, most culturally vibrant cities in southeastern Alaska, Sitka has numerous arts programs for young people, including Story Lab. During the last year, however, Bradley and his team embarked on a “year of experiments” to extend the writing and storytelling opportunities to more remote areas, some of which are only accessible by boat or plane.

“One question we’ve been asking ourselves is, ‘Could this work happen anywhere else?’” Bradley said of how they select which projects to develop. “This is a place that has a lot to teach, and a lot to learn from. We’re interested in work that celebrates that.”

The documentary project was one of those ventures. The first set of young filmmakers all attended Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, a boarding school for students from very small towns that lack a full-sized high school, almost all of whom are Alaska native.

During the school year, the students worked with a local filmmaker to craft their stories about home and identity. In the summer, they returned home and filmed everything from rivers to bald eagles to nostalgic scenes of village streets. Filmmaker Haley Shervey’s documented her summer internship with the Klawock Cooperative Association, where she studied the impact of the dwindling sockeye salmon population in the Klawock watershed. In the fall, they premiered their films at the local theatre in downtown Sitka. This year, a larger group of students is working with a local filmmaker to craft new stories about living on the front-lines of climate change.

Writing Through Ferry Channels
The LRNG grant also helped broaden the scope of the Island Institute’s youth programs to other communities beyond Sitka. In the summer of 2016, the Island Institute team made their maiden Tidelines Journey, a ferry trip through several communities using the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system. Traveling with a team of artists, the group spent several days in Ketchikan, Juneau, Hoonah, Gustavus, and Sitka, and hosted community conversations and performances focused on the link between climate and culture. For example, one artist, Michelle Kuen Suet Fung, created a series of illustrations that painted a dystopian future where people and animals refuse to eat anything but plastic.

This year, Bradley said, the ferry tour will engage students around the idea of “Signal to Noise,” an audio term that refers to the strength of audio signal against interfering background noise.

Of course, a ferry cannot reach all parts of Alaska. For those far-flung sites, the Island Institute will create an anthology of the projects to share with educators, students, and writers across Alaska and beyond.