Photograph by Nick Sanyal, Used with Permission
How did I get to be here? My story starts in northern Minnesota where I grew up next to a lake – more accurately I was in the lake most of the summer – living the life of a fish – swimming as much as possible and dunking under the water to escape the mosquitoes. In the winter I was on the lake – skating with my brothers and neighbors and ice fishing with my dad. We had a deep sense of connection to the water, as a natural element that changed forms so that we could
- drink it
- immerse ourselves in it
- smell the fish and other small creatures that lived in it
- propel ourselves forward in and on it
- stand on it
- build forts so that we could crawl through it
- feel it freeze us right to the bone
- feel its hardness when we fell on it
- watch it
Ah, watching it! Now that brings back memories. Sitting on “the rock” with my friend taking in the soothing rhythm of the waves, feeling the warmth of the sun on our faces, listening to the repeating splash of the waves against “our” rock and the shoreline, understanding that we were part of something bigger – a place that we could appreciate with all of our senses. A place-based multiliteracies framework is grounded in my early experiences as a child.
My parents were of solid Norwegian American background. They had three children, including me, and instilled in us all a great sense of pride in our heritage. Although several generations removed from Norway, my mother still grew up in a Norwegian-speaking home. She cooked lutefisk to please my dad and lefse to please the younger members of the family. My first name is derived from a long line of “Ella”s linking back to Norway. My last name is associated with a particular place in Norway. Early on, my dream was to get back to Norway to experience the “place” that my ancestors had come from. Little did I know that my husband, Nick, who grew up in India and England, would take me there.
I had the opportunity to connect with my Norwegian roots just before the Olympics were held there in 1994. Norway was gearing up for the onslaught of visitors so, yes, my two small children did get to meet “trolls”, as promised by our Norwegian friend, Ronny. In between swooshing down the sledding hills and hiking through historic places, my children allowed me time to search the archives for records of my parents’ families. We discovered that one of my husband’s research partners had recently bought a farm where my mother’s family had lived over a century earlier. Then we visited another farm where other ancestors had lived. It would be more accurate to say that we looked up at the mountain where the farm was located as it was still only accessible by a steep footpath – not easy trekking in the winter.
Over time I have worked at learning Norwegian as I represent the first generation in our family not to speak the language. It is a challenge to find communication partners but we have had Norwegian students come to our house to teach our family. One result – our children learned to act out the story of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” in its original language before visiting Norway.
So how does this relate to my work on this curriculum? I have an enduring passion to understand my cultural background and to hang on to my language roots. I have had the privilege of immersing myself in the setting from which my ancestors came and in appreciating the rhythm of the water that is reflected in the flow of the Norwegian language. Shouldn’t everyone have the opportunity to hear the language of their heritage, recognize its connection to a “place,” and feel that the life and contributions of their ancestors is valued?
Back in the 1980’s I worked with children and families from the Nez Perce Tribe. It became quite evident to me that my background as a speech-language pathologist who valued high verbal behavior was incongruent with what I was experiencing through Nez Perce children and families. Being a good listener was greatly valued. Subtle nonverbal head nods, eye movements, and gestures could convey as much information as I could through lengthy sentences. The oral tradition was revered. My discomfort in the idea of pushing my ways of communicating on to people who held different worldviews led me to question what I was doing.
How could our profession do a better job of serving Native peoples? One answer would be to prepare Native professionals who could teach the rest of us about appropriate ways to serve Native communities. Thus, began the next chapter of my life. I became the coordinator of a program designed to bring Natives into the profession of speech-language pathology. Through this work I formed relationships with tribal members from various nations in the Northwest. I learned so much from the students and other tribal members who I worked with, but at the same time realized how much I still did not know.
At that point CHiXapkaid entered my life. He told me I could be doing so much more. Now what did that mean? Wasn’t I working hard enough? He was a true fisherman – throwing out his line (I had the choice of whether or not to grasp it) and reeling me in inch-by-inch until I made the decision to pursue a PhD under his mentorship. I know what it means to have someone deeply believe in your potential when you don’t see it in yourself – a lesson I continually apply in my work with students.
Over the past 20 years, CHiXapkaid has opened many more doors to possibilities for me to grow and learn – one of the latest is the Honoring Tribal Legacies curriculum design project. Of course, I brought many questions to this project. Should I, as a non-Native woman, be involved in curriculum design that represents Native values and worldviews? Would I get it “right”? Would I say something that would come across as offensive or inaccurate? I have learned that building relationships and partnerships with tribal members holds the key to moving us all forward. Open communication over time leads to trust. I am confident that the Native educators involved in this process have guided me toward a deeper understanding of the multiple ways in which a story can be told and interpreted. At the same time I recognize my limitations and feel a deep need to keep learning. Did I get it “right”? I have come to see the “right” way as being able to walk around a particular story—seeing and experiencing it through multiple senses and from different perspectives.