Lessons in Basket Weaving and Traditional Wisdom: Partnering with Elders in Alaska Aleutian Communities Enhance Success of WIC

By Smith, Janell; Wiedman, Dennis | Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Lessons in Basket Weaving and Traditional Wisdom: Partnering with Elders in Alaska Aleutian Communities Enhance Success of WIC


Smith, Janell, Wiedman, Dennis, Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences


In the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, 5,000 individuals live in 13 villages located in a 600,000-square-mile area off the coast of southwest Alaska. Village populations range from 28 to 2,000 people, with the majority of the villages with fewer than 100. The Unangan people, more commonly known as Aleuts, have inhabited these lands for more than 14,000 years (Laughlin and Aigner 1974; Knecht 1985). Knowledge is shared with succeeding generations through story telling, examples, and oral communication.

From 1994 to 1996, I served as the regional coordinator for the Women Infant Child Supplemental Food Program (WIC) for this area This article describes the successful incorporation of traditional beliefs and practices into a government nutrition program. It provides a positive example of how participant-observation can enhance the success of a nutrition program by building upon the existing culture and social systems. In this community, as among most Native communities, Elders hold strong leadership and authority roles (Schweitzer 1999). Partnering with Elders in the transmission of information is consistent with the theory of diffusion of innovation and assists in empowering families to make changes in their lives.

ELDERS AS TEACHERS OF SKILLS AND LIFE'S LESSONS

Soon after I arrived, word spread that classes would be held in Aleut basket weaving at the Qawalanqin Tribal culture night. The Aleut technique is a highly prized art due to the small nature of the weave. Everyone was to bring a project and, having no basket experience, I took my potholder loom. After several weeks, the night arrived when I was given materials to start my own basket. As I made clumsy attempts, the older instructor would take the basket out of my hands, fix a few stitches, patiently show me again how to make them correctly, and hand it back. This process was repeated many times. There was never a critical word concerning my lack of skill or ability, nor that I wasn't trying hard enough. Only gentle suggestions like "twist the spiders using these fingers; it's easier" were given to me. I thought about the thousands of women who had learned basket weaving with this teaching technique over the years.

Listening to the conversations, it was apparent that while we were working on handiwork, community issues or family problems and solutions were being discussed. In small groups and communities, where the survival of one is dependent on the survival of the group, such shared activities are important to all. Basket weaving classes weren't just about learning the skills; they were also about learning the process of working together. For the WIC program, basket weaving also taught the importance of working within family structure and with traditional community leadership.

As I started clinic rounds, traveling to remote villages by small plane was a challenge. Arrivals and departures were at the mercy of frequent high winds, weather and frozen unpaved runways. Such delays often had benefits. On such an occasion, an Elder at Nelson Lagoon invited me to tea. I discovered that visiting with the older women was seen as part of my duties when working with young families in their village. Through these important ritual meetings, the Elders kept me informed of new pregnancies, illness among the children, and of the arrival of visiting babies from other villages. As I learned from and about the Elders, lessons were immediately applied to the WIC program. Outreach to the "Kukas" (Grandmothers) and "Acha" (Aunts) became essential in the growth of the program.

ELDERS AS SUPPORTERS OF FAMILIES

In the Aleut culture, "Rukas" are community leaders and prime caregivers. This original poem, "Ach, Acha," written by June McGlashan-Dirks, a talented young Aleut poet, describes the relationship between a young man, "Ach," and his Aunt or "Acha." While entertaining, the poem is also instructional, reinforcing the expected traditional roles.

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