Petersburg School’s Aleut Principal Knows the Ropes of Rural Alaska Teaching and Learning | Alaska Native Quarterly
Heather Conn enters her second year as Principal of Rae C. Stedman Elementary School in Petersburg with the quiet intensity she brings to every project. As educators and administrators across the state appear to be battling an ever-expanding scope of learning in the event of a pandemic, Conn remains stable behind the wheel in familiar waters. A longtime resident whose grandparents pioneered the Worker Island a hundred years ago, she strives to meet the individual needs of families first, many of whom have been known for generations.
The awareness of its heritage (Aleut, Russian and Norwegian) is tacit and harmonious, compared to the more turbulent times from which it descends. Conn remembers vivid descriptions of his own mother being rejected as a playmate, along with her four siblings.
Young cousin Mika Hasbrouck describes Conn as a âfinisher,â with examples of their contrasting styles synchronizing to carry out personal projects and local political efforts.
âI love being there for the creative spark, but Heather will take it to resolution, not broadcasting her progress,â Conn said.
Conn credits her determination to 30 years of commercial fishing, spent in the Inside Passage under the tutelage of her father, a sturdy and imposing blonde and former Navy SEAL whose organization and precision were legendary among her fellow fishermen.
Her mother, Teresa, is the ubiquitous heartbeat of their family, from building businesses and homes over the years, to shuttling children’s teams and throwing endless parties, a version different from perseverance came. Raised with only a fleeting awareness of the hardships her mother had witnessed, Conn now recognizes the surge of tenacity and humility her mother deeply sought to find during times of fear. One of those ordeals was the physical search for her mother, who was suffering on the streets of Anchorage. As a child, Heather only knew that her maternal grandmother had been brought back from Anchorage. She now knows more specifically that her mother and uncle Ted traveled to look for her, eventually finding her on Third Avenue.
Born to 14 children in Coffee Creek, near Naknek, and receiving only a third grade education, Conn spent much of his youth working hard for the necessities. The subsistence way of life did not translate into the city, especially during the boom and bust years of the Wild West of the 1980s. Petersburg was truly the home of the Hasbrouck children and their parents.
According to Karin McCullough, who arrived in the nearby town of Kupreanof in the 1970s and then hired Conn as a HeadStart teacher in the mid-1990s, the dynamic fiber that crosses the three cultures can serve as a geographic link.
âThese are all strong cultures, work cultures,â said McCullough.
McCullough’s observations are offered with the same patience and presence that she has given so freely as a mentor to Conn and others for nearly 50 years in Petersburg. McCullough’s petite figure and unpretentious affect are disarming, even though she remembers being an outsider to the place, now home to three generations of her own family.
Reached by phone, she spoke about anthropological and historical tapestries while taking care of the little ones having lunch. Arriving in Southeast Alaska after East Coast University and a globally cosmopolitan childhood, McCullough’s natural ease with ethnic diversity made her well suited to bring a formal education from early childhood in Petersburg. Initially, she was unaware that there was an indigenous, Filipino or Japanese population in the predominantly Norwegian city.
In a tight-knit community, one ethnic bond can replace another, but more generally people are often dismissed as not fully belonging to a culture and therefore may feel adrift. McCullough cites Conn’s aptly named “place culture” as encouraging those who may not find personal connections as resilient or welcoming as the land itself. One comes together, is healed by, nurtured by, the very land that supported their ancestors – meaning they belong, regardless of changing social winds. The depth of these anchors is immutable and testifies to a stoicism shared between the Aleut, Russian and Nordic lineages. McCullough describes Conn as having an innate moral compass and a willingness to ask questions, along with a genuine ear. Both women are adopted into local Tlingit families, a unique honor that is bestowed privately and rarely.
As for his professional development, Conn mentions his maternal aunt as being the first to enlighten the idea of ââworking in education. Living in Juneau and traveling to rural schools, his aunt brought to light some indigenous traditions in the mid-1980s, which were essential in encouraging him. Family love aside, cousin Mika is less charmed by the memory. It vivisects the models of efficiency employed by the federal government (allocation of US territories to churches), the ensuing fragmentation of regions and the idealization of indigenous lifestyles to the detriment of their individual human dignity. Rather than being bitter, however, Hasbrouck is energized by her generation’s willingness to have real conversations. Naming traumas and getting rid of the power of silence entirely is one of her priorities.
âI was hissed – because of my Aleut lineage; hissed for not being Tlingit, during a ceremony in which I was invited to participate, âsaid Hasbrouck. “To these women of a certain generation, it’s understandable, but I’m not about to perpetuate it.”
Hasbrouck’s clarity goes both ways: she will name the lustful great uncles that no one wanted to spend the night with, and she insists on thanking her local Indian association for paving the way for inclusive services for seniors and children. townspeople of all ethnicities. She is committed to fairness in law at the federal and local levels. Seeking support from congregation members in Petersburg, she appreciated her cousin Heather’s smaller approach to networking.
A distance student since before it was all the rage, Conn knows the ropes of PNW rural learning. Although his graduate degrees were obtained through the University of Southeast Alaska, Conn cites his initial love for higher education as having started at Northwest Indian College in the State of Washington. It was also there that she was first influenced by the violence of the reserves with the unexpected death of a popular teacher and where her school scrambled to make sense of the loss, psychologically, of its students. She remembers a nostalgic email and a generous note like the abrupt end of a semester that had started so vigorously.
A total immersion in mourning took place two years later in the form of a two-week mission trip to Wales, Alaska. Heavily burdened with suicide and chronic addiction, the isolated village of just sixty people has faltered logistically and spiritually. Conn was part of a Lutheran organization, offering a holiday Bible school and improving their water supply system. His thoughts now take on a progressive tone: âWho were we? Three white women – and I am seen as white in this setting, even though I am indigenous? Conn asks. “To present the so-called solutions, to people who would have just as much to offer us?”
Conn’s current office is two blocks from the tidy Petersburg Lutheran Church, where she was baptized, confirmed, and married. Located on the other side of the swampy muskeg is the Lighthouse Assembly, which she now attends. It is run by the grandson of the only Indigenous teacher we remember from our childhood. His wife shares his ministry, and Conn cherishes basketball training by his side.
With the restrictions of the Coronavirus and the implosion of municipal sports, there are still young people eager to play and learn. Sports activities have animated Conn’s motherhood for two decades, as have her entrepreneurial spirit and the fishing seasons she thrives on dreading.
âI have to go out again this summer! she exclaims.
Conn and her husband recently walked away from a downtown food cart they operated for almost eight years, selling the business to a local woman.
For a woman who grew up with a totem pole in her living room and Swedish pancakes at the breakfast bar, she has remained steadfast in carrying on the traditions of her parents and grandparents: training, fishing and feeding. Her doctoral studies are on hold as she reassesses the ingredients of a good life. Conn’s family was devastated by the illness and death of his father in April 2019. Eldest son Stewart returned to Southeast Alaska to fish, younger son Hunter started high school. For a longtime student like Heather, nothing sounds better than planning college visits with her seventeen-year-old daughter Kennedy.
Conn describes his maternal grandmother’s abridged childhood with all the circumspection of 2021: What if that’s what it was?
Degrees and credentials aside, the verve and technical skill to harvest, nurture, and produce from nature’s raw bounty alongside those she loves are perhaps the prevalent traits after all.