Surviving in the big city takes a lot of street smarts. There are the general rules that most parents tell their children from day one: don’t talk to strangers; don’t take candy from strangers; don’t ever get in a stranger’s car. Okay, so those are obvious. But, what would you do if you got really lost in the “urban jungle?” What if you weren’t carrying a cell phone or any money? You’d have to talk to somebody, and most likely they would be a stranger. How would you choose the right person to approach? Would you know the right questions to ask?
I’m from Alaska, where kids need a different kind of smarts. Even if they live in a city or a town, most likely the wilderness is not very far away and it is important for people to know how to survive outdoors. Although most of my job as a scientist was working with fisherman, I also taught outdoor survival skills to both children and adults. Basic survival training teaches people several invaluable skills: first to recognize and accept your lost or in an emergency; how to build a shelter to stave off dying of hypothermia; how to signal for help so rescuers can find you; and finally how to identify and collect safe sources of water and food. The final step is remembering to keep a positive attitude as you await rescue.
A lot of the survival skills I taught were things I grew up knowing, especially what to eat. I was raised in a large, Native Alaskan, fun, happy, always together family. We lived in Ketchikan, a small town right on the water and our house was across from the beach. We only got to watch two hours of TV a week, and all the other times we were basically kicked out of the house and played all day. When the six of us siblings (three girls and three boys) and all of our cousins would go to the beach, we would take it over! We spent most of our time outside exploring, turning over rocks, and hunting for edible seaweed and shellfish, or swimming in the cold ocean.
Although I grew up harvesting seaweed and beach plants, as a child I didn’t realize that there was science involved. But to gather food on the beach, you are a botanist, a biologist, and a climatologist all in one because you have to be able to correctly identify the plants and animals you are collecting, you need to know how to read the tides, understand the seasons, and study the clouds to learn about the weather conditions. This “traditional ecological knowledge,” is science that has been passed down through generations of Alaska Natives.
In addition to teaching these science based survival skills, it is very important to teach children, especially Native Alaskans, about their heritage and their environment. In school, a lot of Native kids feel like they are the “dumb ones” by the time they are in second grade. They see that they were sent to the white school to have the white education, so obviously a white education must be better than what they or their families know. Spending time with me on the beach and being taught the knowledge of their parents and grandparents showed both Native and non-Native kids that education can happen both in and out of the classroom and that all types of knowledge is important. Helping young students to appreciate both Native and school education is an important step to keeping students involved in school, and proud of who they are.
In my own career, I learned early on that white education and traditional Native knowledge are both very valuable and that they can work together to improve the lives of Native Alaskans. It was the combination of my Ph.D. in marine policy from the University of Delaware and the environmental knowledge of my people that enabled me to best represent the needs and concerns of Alaska Native fisherman and teach community members about how to be safe in marine and wilderness environments.