If you work with elders you work with individuals who hold within themselves a historical record of the world at large. In some cases these historians are the last living witnesses to the most noteworthy events of the past one hundred years. Too, here in Alaska, native elders remember a life not often recorded in textbooks, but instead shared within their own villages or communities. This is the same for most indigenous people around the world.
A volunteer from the Alzheimer's Association comes to the Bridge to lead an art activity with the seniors twice a month. The activity she prepared for today was centered around the theme of "Our Childhood Homes." After each of the participating seniors were seated, she invited them to think about their place of birth and to began sketching that place on the sheets of paper that had been handed out to them.
I entered the room halfway through the activity and noticed one of the Tlingit seniors drawing a small house on her paper. Then she wrote across the paper where this and that was. It was a fascinating image that had map-like qualities. I knew from a previous drawing of her's that she was born inside a smoke house. The piece she was working on now was her "childhood home" and the place where she entered the world. Close-up of her picture below:
I sat down next to her and began asking her a few questions about her drawing. Slowly but willingly, she told me stories of thirteen families living in this small house at the same time, of fishing for salmon, of netting and drying seaweed. She also told me a story about running-away from home, from the smoke house, when she was a child. Here is all that she told me:
"I am thinking of them poor days in the 1950's. We all slept inside around the bonfire in the middle of the smoke house. There were thirteen families living there together. I am proud of my family. We learned a lot from them. They told us how to can the fish. We did a lot of fishing ourselves. We pulled the fish in with nets and we cut them up.
For the seaweed we had to go far out into the ocean to get it. They told us not to take any seaweed where dead people were or near where people went to the bathroom. That's why we had to go real far out into the ocean to get the seaweed. Then we dried the seaweed in the smoke house on one side and then we turned it the next day onto the other side. The next day we turned it again and then we left it there for a week until it gets real dry and then we canned it or we ate that. Person got to learn to go way out to get beyond the dead people to get the seaweed.
I was away from home for a whole week when I was a kid. I left a stick in a tree pointing to the smoke house so I would know how to get back. Someone told me how to do that. I ran away from home and I slept out in the woods. I woke up in the morning and did feel scared the first day, but then I told myself I don't need nobody, so I just kept moving. All I heard were the deer and the deer told me they were watching over me. I came back after a week. I found my stick and it showed me where to go. It's a real good past I got."
Here is a final close-up of the drawing she did today:
The above three paragraphs are part of this woman's autobiography, the narrative of the self. The questions stirring within me are how to assist her in adding more details, to create a timeline, to start a list of family names, on and on. She has drawn this map of a smoke house, a vegetable garden and the beach. She has noted at the bottom of the page - 13 familys home (Klawock). She has outlined much and she is right, she has a real good past.
Documenting oral histories told by elders attending or residing in senior facilities is on-going work around the world. Much has been unrecorded, and that is lost testimony to the collective history at large. What Montessori lessons are there to assist in this documentation? My initial answer came to me via a visual memory of children in Elementary II doing timelines in their classroom. That is a starting point. I have much reading to do this weekend on that work.
Tonight, though, I just want to close my eyes and imagine a deer talking to me; telling me that it's watching over me. I want to breathe in the smell of salmon and seaweed hanging inside the smoke house. Finally, I want to bend down onto my knees and pull weeds in the vegetable garden alongside all those whose hands planted what grew there. This is what good stories do. They make history come alive. Can you hear the deer talking to you?