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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Cultural Heritage
Elder Interview with Walter Austin

Leslie Hsu Oh, Interviewer
Anchorage, Alaska

(Walter Austin died in May 2008 at the age of 89.) 

Walter Austin is a Wisdomkeeper, an international cultural ambassador who has traveled to South America, Central America, Australia, Canada, and Europe on behalf of Alaska Natives. He speaks on mental and human health as the underlying causes of the world's problems.

Mr. Austin continues to pass his knowledge and wisdom to students in numerous schools and universities, and to participants at national and international conferences.

He is a member of the Yup'ik Miracle Singers, Drummers, and Dancers and the Yup'ik dance group known as "Our Anchor." He is a revered Tlingit Elder originally from Southeast Alaska now residing in Anchorage.

Where were you born?
Juneau. October 5, 1918. It was during super flu epidemic. Half of the Native population was decimated, especially children and Elders.

Who are your parents?
My dad, George Howard, had three uncles. They were my great uncles. My mom, Clara Katlian, was raised by a chief in Sitka. This chief found my mother's mother, took her as his wife. Grandma had seven kids. He raised them all by himself. So he was a really good man, but he had one problem. He was very angry. At that time, there was a foreign power that moved into Sitka. That was the Russians. They used extreme brutality to control the Natives. Alongside of them were fur traders_Spanish, Greek, German, as well as Russian fur traders. My step-grandpa had every reason to be angry; what was being done to his people. So mom withstood his anger. She listened to him at night. He conveyed all his anger through his spirit to my mom's spirit. She was born with his anger, like my anger comes from her. So I was born with my step-grandfather's anger. So I was the angriest child you could ever see. I would get beaten up at school, broke my nose several times, until I began to grow older and I pushed back. They couldn't pick on me anymore. I went after them, full of anger. Sometimes they ran when they saw me coming. My dad is Tlingit, Japanese, Hawaiian. He fell in love with my mother and that's how I was born. He must have been Samurai. In 1989, I was inducted into Blackfoot Nation. My brother who inducted me said you were inducted according to your countless skills and knowledge.

Tell me about your family. How many kids? Grandchildren?
I have six boys and five girls.

What's a favorite memory from your childhood?
I was always sickly, a real sickly child. I couldn't play outside like other kids. Instead, I watch other kids play. I think the most memorable time was my dad plays guitar and mom plays mandolin. They always hire them for public dances. They used to put me under a bench. I would fall asleep where they put me. When I finally began to have memories, I think that's why I began to play the violin. I played all the songs they used to play. Then, I switched over to guitar and became a jazz guitarist. I was working at dances, radio stations, studios.

What was the most interesting job you held?
On a fishing boat. I spent half my life at sea, fishing. Every year, we have different crew. Five men crew. We took turns cooking. That's how I learned all the different dishes. When I got married second time, I thought I was going to have someone cook for me this time. No way. I had to cook because I was so hungry. I cooked everyday, three times a day. My kids were going to school; I make them lunches. The kids watched how I cooked, especially Junior. So all my sons are chiefs. They can work in any kitchen. They have all these skills.

How were you called to be a Wisdomkeeper?
It was my great uncles. They were my babysitters. Mom and dad was going out everyday, bringing in food. Whatever they bring, they share with everyone. They are always getting money for gas for their boat. It was the uncles, when I was asleep, they talk really quietly in their own language. There's a part of me that does not sleep; stories in my consciousness. Nowadays the Elders say that the true part of a man or woman is their consciousness, that's where all the skills and knowledge are stored. So, it was in front of my nose all this time. I was too blind to see it. All I have to do is control the 9 negations, the 9 viruses: anger, obsessive passion, greed, ignorance, prejudice, envy, suspicion, covetousness, jealousy.

I was 32 when I became a Wisdomkeeper.

What are some of the problems you deal with?
Human race needs to overcome anger. Men beat up their wives. They saw their fathers beat up their mothers. They get adrenaline. This adrenaline is very addictive. They blow up. I help guys like this. Where did your father get this? He got it from his father? It goes like this. Some are alcoholics at an early age. It's inherited. The sins of the father shall visit the children.

Sometimes, there is more than one or two that need help. We say bring them here, as many as you can. We form a talking circle. Sometimes, a guy doesn't want to talk. We tell them to go into the woods, find a safe place. Your voice will not carry. You can either talk or cry or rant or rave, screaming, use a stick hit the rocks. Some women go into a soundproof room. One man scream in his car, turn radio full volume. Try to get them to talk. If he or she starts to talk, give back what he said verbatim, then insert the word "and" to keep them talking. That's our technique.

Elders share what they saw in their community. Salmon with worms that long. Parasites. The lakes are drying up, climate changes, global warming. Every scientist is talking about it. Thousands of ships dump their ballast water into Alaska water. Brings parasites.

What do you like most about your job?
When I see people who are really interested. They sit and sit and listen. Some of their questions are answered. They are better informed then before. You can see the pleased look on their faces. It keeps me going.

What do you like least about your job?

I don't enjoy telling them what the problem is.

How do you become a Wisdomkeeper?
The answer comes to you. I didn't know where it came from. I didn't know it was there. My own uncle said this was put there by our ancestors. You have all the life skills, survival skills, all the solutions you need to survive. So that became my life's work. How can I bring out these skills in other people? One by one I found the answer. Many times, I give up. It's no use. When I said that, the answer came. I got out of the way. Before I said those things, I was in the way. When I say, "I quit or give up," the answer came. I no longer say those things, like I "quit." The answers and solutions just come to me, sometimes in a dream.

How do you know what you are called to do?
By how I solve my own problems. After my problem disappeared, I ask myself how did this problem disappear. One by one I began to find the answers. The answer was in me all the time.

Do you have any advice you'd like to offer?
What each community needs is an example, a role model. The way they talk, the way they behave, speaks to them. So when I come to a community, I don't dress like Park Avenue. I dress in jeans or sweatshirts. The men and women of the world do not know how powerful they are and are all still living in the dark. Humans have all the life and survivals skills, answers, and solutions but do not know it is there. They have to know the positive and negative of self. Once self is understood, especially anger, things will begin to be positive.

Listen to Elder. When you going to talk to Elder, don't stand and talk down to Elder. You have to put yourself to their level. Eye level contact. Like what you are doing now. Sitting down. That's Native protocol. It gives the Elder power. You really open things up to them.

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Related Articles
»
How to Interview an Elder
»
Elder Interview with Alberta Stephan


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