Harriet Brouillette’s family history is wrought with identity struggles. In a StoryCorps interview from the Haines and Juneau Public Libraries, Brouillette told her son, Ted Hart, about her and her family’s experiences growing up Tlingit.
Brouillette says her mother attended boarding school at The Wrangell Institute. There, she was punished for speaking her language.
“She had experiences like being locked in a closet for speaking her language. She was hit with a ruler and had her mouth washed out. But she was pretty stubborn and determined to learn and hold onto Tlingit,” Brouillette said. “You had to be pretty determined to hold onto your language, because the educational system was pretty determined to scrub it out of you.”
But when Brouillette was growing up, her mother and father didn’t want their children to learn the language. Brouillette says she doesn’t know why her mother strived to hold on to the language herself, but didn’t pass it on to her children.
“I know that she learned a lot of shame in her language and her culture. And she told me one time when we were born, she hoped we didn’t look Native.”
Brouillette says she didn’t understand at the time. Why would she not want her children to look Native, when that’s what they are? That caused Brouillette to feel the opposite.
“So when you were born, I was very happy you were brown and had dark hair,” Brouillette recounted to Hart. “And I made a point of telling her, ‘Look at my child, I want him to look like this. I want him to be brown, I want him to have dark hair. I want him to know who he is. I want him to know he’s a Raven Frog.’ If that’s the only thing I taught you, it was gonna be to be proud of who you were.”
Brouillette says she has ‘large aspirations’ for Hart and his brother. She says she’s proud of Hart’s kindness, honesty and pride in his culture.
“You’re proud of who you are. You’re proud of the color of your skin, you’re proud of your history and your ancestry. What more could I ask for? So my aspiration for you is that as you grow older, you continue to share the love of your culture with not only your children, but everyone else’s children…Culture-bearer is what I hope for your future.”
Hart adds that people should research the Tlingit culture to discover its wisdom for themselves.
“There’s just ancient, ancient knowledge in there about nature and the way things work. And I think that’s really important in this day and age, with the way things are going with the climate and things of that nature.”
This StoryCorps interview was recorded by the Haines and Juneau Public Libraries and produced by KHNS’s Emily Files. StoryCorps is a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives. More information at storycorps.org.
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