Wisdom Keepers share culture and stories at UAF

Posted: Sunday, May 06, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- More than a dozen Alaska Native honorary degree recipients gathered from around the state at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to share their wisdom, culture and education.

UA President Mark Hamilton welcomed these ''Wisdom Keepers'' for Friday's daylong presentation at the Fairbanks campus, a historical gathering place for Interior Natives. Wisdom keepers are lifelong wisdom seekers, Hamilton said of the Alaskans who have been awarded honorary UA doctorate degrees since 1968.

''Without wisdom of the past there is nothing to hold onto,'' Hamilton said. ''Without wisdom of the future there is no place to go. Without wisdom seekers we would be all lost and frightened.''

Among those attending was Sidney Huntington, who addressed the gathering from a chair.

Education has always been important to the elder. His formal schooling was cut at the fourth-grade level, but the Galena resident has spent his adult life supporting education throughout the Interior and personally supporting a number of students so they could gain higher education.

He served 25 years on the Galena School Board and 16 years on the Alaska Board of Game.

''If I'd had more than a fourth-grade education I would have been president,'' joked Huntington, author of ''Shadows on the Koyukuk: An Alaskan Native's Life Along the River.''

Saying he has seen dramatic changes in his lifetime, ''some good, some not so good,'' Huntington condemned government handouts such as housing as counterproductive to independence and hard work, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

''All my kids own their own homes,'' he said. ''I paid for my own heart bypass in 1992 with cash.''

The first Native leader to receive an honorary degree was Walter Soboleff Sr. in 1968. Of Tlingit and Russian/German ancestry, Soboleff was the first director of the Alaska Native Studies program, from 1970-74.

He earned an undergraduate degree and a divinity degree from the University of Dubuque in Iowa before being ordained a Presbyterian minister. He served a Juneau congregation for 22 years.

At 92, Soboleff remains an eloquent speaker for his culture.

''Respect, honor, share, love your neighbor, have humor, respect the land, respect religion,'' he said. ''That's the wisdom. There is no substitute for family values.''

Speaking of Native peoples of old, Soboleff said, ''They observed the natural world around them, the weather, the plants, the rivers, the mountains, the earth on which they walked, the sun, moon and the stars. They didn't worship the world of nature but had a profound respect for it.''

Willie Hensley, an Alaska Native leader, introduced Tlingit woodcarver Nathan Paul Jackson as a national living treasure who ''stands alongside B.B. King.''

Jackson spoke of hard times as a youth growing up in a boarding school.

''What helped me along was being able to draw and work with my hands,'' he explained to the roomful of elders and students.

Jackson's passion for art eventually won out and he went on to the Institute of Native American Art in Santa Fe, N.M.

''Working with my hands, stirs my interest and maintains our culture, helping us to not only know where we're from, but who we are,'' Jackson said.

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