Aotearoa (Land of the Long White Cloud- New Zealand)

By Shak’shaani éesh, Community Engagement Educator

When I got to college I began to hear this phrase. “We live in two worlds.” It’s not a phrase I ever heard growing up and I never really knew what it meant. Yes I heard the definition, but I didn’t really begin to understand the concept until I had to find more balance between my college academics and my family’s ways of life, such as getting time away to go home and help my family get sockeye. On top of that, I was still uncomfortable in a new setting going into my 4th year, away from family, learning concepts I felt I wasn’t prepared for.

Fortunately, I met this gifted leader Kolene James who runs the Native and Rural Student Center. She created a space that felt as close to home as I felt being away from Angoon. She encouraged me to apply my life experiences to my studies that eventually lead me to my college degree.

It had me thinking about how we can apply this kind of comfort. This kind of safe space in all our communities where we can thrive as a people, while walking in unfamiliar and scary new worlds. How do we support our youth who may have grew up knowing one community and a language which isn’t English? Is there a place that models my experiences in college within the larger education infrastructure?

With the help and support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a group from 3 school districts, were able to travel to Aotearoa(New Zealand) and work with Maori educators who we’ve been building relationships with over the years to learn more about their successful immersion programs. With Watson and Bentham Ohia’s help and support, we were able to visit different Kura’s(immersion schools) and see the possibilities. There’s so much similarity between our histories and our cultures, it was inspiring to hear their stories and how we work to support little ones to those who wanted higher education within Maori culture. The Maori community recognized the needs of their students and began taking ownership of their education.

Each visit started with a welcoming ceremony held in Te Ao Maori (language). It’s a beautiful process for visitors, incoming staff or for those they want to include as family. Before we went into the Kuras, we were notified that there is no English spoken. We could use our indigenous languages, but no English. To be brought in by the culture, their chants and their songs all in Te Ao Maori felt welcoming and like home. Even though I had no knowledge of what they were saying it immediately established this space as ours, the community’s and this schools. The message was clear, this is our culture. We invite you to be a part of it.

From almost losing their language to now crowds of people speaking Te ao Maori. They even have their own TV Channel that broadcasts programs just in the Maori language! To be surrounded by a language that I don’t understand felt so grounding.

The experience in Aotearoa has shown me what could be. What I believe will be in Alaska. It highlights a way of life that is fluid and consistent from community to school.  The Maori community and Aotearoa schools are reaching their academic standards and the Kura (immersion schools) are some of the top performing schools in their country. It truly confirms that when education is relevant to place and in the language of their people, students are successful both in their culture, academics, and are prepared for life. With local community knowledge and the educational institution having seamless transitions, students show more pride, confidence and curiosity in who they are and what they can continue to learn. These schools model that a community’s way of life can include the institution and not be two separate means of education. I’m truly honored and grateful to our Maori Whanau for taking good care of our Alaskan family and sharing the ways they are helping their kids and families succeed.