Local perspective on Chickaloon
[lightbox link=”http://ciri.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Albert-Harrison.jpg” thumb=”http://ciri.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Albert-Harrison-195×195.jpg” width=”195″ align=”right” title=”Albert Harrison. (Courtesy of Lisa Wade.)” frame=”true” icon=”image” caption=”Albert Harrison. (Courtesy of Lisa Wade.)”]Every Thursday, between 20 and 75 people gather for the weekly Elders’ Lunch in Chickaloon—an opportunity for folks in the community to catch up, connect and share stories. One Thursday in March, the lunch was also an opportunity to recognize a milestone: Chickaloon Village Traditional Council member and CIRI shareholder Albert “Sunshine” Harrison celebrated his 80th birthday.
“Uncle” Albert, as most folks in Chickaloon know him, has always been an inspiration in the community. In fact, he was the catalyst for Elders Lunch program, which the Tribe initiated in 2007.
When Health, Education and Social Services Director Lisa Wade sought to implement a new health and wellness program in the community, she turned to Uncle Albert for advice. “We just need to come together again,” he told her.
But how? While she looked for the answer, Albert continued to pop by her office, sitting and chatting over coffee. In time, Wade realized that Albert was providing her mentorship and offering an example of something important that had been diminishing over the years: visiting.
Visiting has always been an important part of Chickaloon’s culture. When she was a child, Wade recalls, “There was always someone stopping in.” More recently, though, many of Chickaloon’s Elders had become geographically isolated. Many were no longer able to drive. They needed transportation, Wade realized, and a venue where they could come together.
Done, she thought. There was already a space—a meeting hall located in the Ne’iine Hwnax (“Chickadee House”) Government Building in Sutton—and she knew several great cooks who would be willing to volunteer. Before long, Wade and her staff were hosting the first Elders’ Lunch.
And it was a flop.
“We probably brought in ten Elders, and they came and sat, and it was almost dead silence,” Wade recollects. “Everyone was kind of hunkered over their food. I had told my staff, we’re going to create this space, then we’ll step back and let them visit.”
The next week, Wade tried again. But this time, she sat with the Elders and began asking for stories. Soon, the room was filled with conversation. Uncle Albert, who is known for his sense of humor, laughter and music, had brought his guitar, inspiring an impromptu sing-along.
Today, singing has become a highlight of the Elders’ Lunch, which is now attended not just by local Elders but by other Alaska Native people who have moved to the area, community Peace Officers, volunteers, other community members and, most importantly, children. Every other Thursday, students from the Ya Ne Dah Ah School join the Elders for lunch.
The visits offer a special opportunity for Elders like Uncle Albert. He showers them with the kind of love, affection and care that Chickaloon Native Village is founded upon. In turn, Wade’s daughter, Ayla, and the other students have claimed him as their favorite.
“It means quite a lot,” Uncle Albert says of the lunch. “I get to see relatives and make sure they’re okay. We can relax. It brings people closer, to have something to do and get acquainted.”
Watching the children and the Elders interact, it’s easy to imagine the children growing up to continue the atmosphere of inclusiveness created by the Elders’ Lunch.
“I’ve had people come here and tell me this place is like magic,” Wade says. “People call me and ask, ‘How do I get this to happen in my community?’ It just takes the inspiration of Elders like Uncle Albert.”