Alaska Native artist and teacher Patience Faulkner, who is of Chugach Sugpiaq heritage, was honored Oct. 14 in Cordova as Chugach Alaska Corp.’s 2017 Elder of the Year.
Faulkner, who celebrated her 70th birthday just a day earlier, said she felt very honored.
“As an elder, I’m supposed to have words of wisdom,” she said.
“As elders, we share our talents and wisdom with our youth, but at the same time, the youth need to find an elder and give them their own time and enthusiasm,” she said. “It’s a reciprocal gift.”
Born in Cordova, she has spent the last 41 years back in her hometown, sharing her traditional knowledge with others.
“I have fun playing with everyone, teaching crafts, sharing my history as an Alaska Native, and getting people enthused about positive things every day,” she said.
Sheri Buretta, chairman of the board of the regional Alaska Native corporation, announced Faulkner as Elder of the Year during the corporation’s annual meeting. Faulkner received a plaque and $500 to commemorate the event.
Faulkner spends two weeks every summer teaching at Chugach’s Nuuciq Spirit and Culture Camp on Nuchek Island, about 20 minutes by air from Cordova.
The camp, which usually takes place each July, is designed for Chugach elders and children to spend time together to relive their heritage and learn from one another, as well as heighten awareness of Native history and culture.
Faulkner said as soon as she arrives at camp, she hits the ground running.
“I have kids meeting me, people are coming in all day long, and at first, they’re kind of lost, learning the ropes,” she said. “I break out raffia and needles to make coiled baskets. The baskets are something they can work on anywhere, all 120 campers of all ages. They can work on the baskets on the beach, while watching whales, or waiting to ride in the bidarkas. It’s a project that can go anywhere – a portable project.”
“My goal is a basket with a cover – technical, but they can get it,” she said. “They can make a coaster for their coffee cup, or fire starter for their first picnic of the year. There is no failure. Most get the baskets done. I teach everything at camp, and I take the mystery out of whatever crafts they want to do.”
At spirit camp, Faulkner’s “Patience’s Class” is usually filled every day for two weeks.
Faulkner tells a story of a nine-year-old girl who attended camp one year with her parents and had had the option to join Faulkner’s class, but didn’t.
“As she was packing up to go home the next day, one of the little girl’s parents came to talk to me and told me the girl was feeling badly about not signing up for my class, but that she’d thought Patience’s Class was about sitting still and learning to be patient,” Faulkner said, laughing.
What she does teach are numerous skills in addition to basket weaving, including gathering medicinal plants and learning to make herbal ointments.
“We make about 300 bottles of herbal ointment when we’re at camp,” she said. “The kids get a chance to learn about plants, to share and bring some home. I have a lot of fun and I learn from my students. The kids are like playmates for me, we have fun every day. We do everything. I try to build up skill and success.”
“I learned from my grandmother at a very young age,” she said. “She would do all kinds of odds and ends things.”
“When I came back to Alaska 41 years ago, there were no teachers. I started asking around and I started ferreting them out, by spending time with the elders over tea and fry bread.”
Faulkner said she’s concerned that there’s a huge gap in the demographics of what Native peoples have learned, that traditional Native ways have skipped a generation or more.
“We have people who never learned how to do Native art and crafts, they were never encouraged,” she said. “It’s very difficult for the kids to go home from camp with an unfinished project because their parents never learned how to do traditional arts and crafts. If their parents are out there, I teach them, too. I teach everyone who wants to learn. If we work on crafts, languages and culture, we have more success preserving and respecting our heritage. We take one little step at a time.”
Wherever she goes, she shares her knowledge.
“Anywhere I have traveled in the world, and it’s been somewhat extensively, I make sure I bring as many crafting supplies as my luggage can handle,” she said. “If there are youth where I’m going, then I suggest we make a pair of earrings, or something that takes a short amount of time and teaches them Native crafts. If someone I know travels overseas, I send along a few small things, earrings, amulet bags, keychains – something that is an extra special gift to give someone while traveling away from home.”