Teacher, explorer, cartographer, and cultural anthropologist Prentice Downes



Many fine educators have distinguished themselves in areas outside the field of education. One such individual was high school teacher Prentice G. Downes, known to his friends by the nickname “Spike.” In addition to his career as an educator, Prentice made a name for himself as an explorer, cartographer, cultural anthropologist, and writer.

Prentice was born 1909 in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of an Episcopal clergyman. After his 1928 graduation from Kent School in Kent, Connecticut, Prentice enrolled at Harvard University. Once he was ready to begin his career as a teacher, he accepted a position at Belmont Hill School, a prestigious New England prep school for boys located in Belmont, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston.

Prentice was well-known for hurrying back to class in unkempt condition each fall. Between 1936 and 1947, the native of Concord, Massachusetts, made several summer-long expeditions into the sprawling uncharted wilderness of subarctic Canada. Working on a shoestring budget, Prentice would round up a canoe, gear, food, and a local traveling associate. Then he would set out for the great unknown. He was notorious for cutting trips close to the wire, rushing back to Boston bearded, tanned, and garbed in threadbare bush clothes just in time for the beginning of school.

This intrepid teacher traveled by canoe to explore subarctic areas in the Great Barren Lands and learn about the lifestyles of the Native American tribes. During his travels, Prentice kept extensive journals recording a disappearing people and a landscape unknown to all but the Canadian natives at that time. He recorded not only daily events, but also the stories and traditions of the peoples he encountered, particularly people of the Cree and Dene tribes.

In 1939, Prentice traveled from the Brabant Lake area to the Cochrane River, starting at the town of Brochet on Reindeer Lake. Without the aid of maps, the intrepid teacher relied completely on local legend to find his way to the Thlewiaza River and his final destination, the Hudson Bay outpost on Nueltin Lake. Based on this trip, Prentice wrote the travelogue Sleeping Island: The Story of One Man’s Travels in the Great Barren Lands of the Canadian North. First published in 1943, this classic adventure story received a stellar review from the New York Times for its engaging descriptions of the expedition across a rugged landscape of lakes and rivers in northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and present-day Nunavut. Besides the polished and captivating writing style, Sleeping Island stands out because it documented ways of life that no longer exist.

In his later years, Prentice delivered lectures about his travels for Harvard’s Institute of Geographical Exploration. Additionally, he was commissioned by the US government to map portions of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. He also became a member of the prestigious Royal Geographical society.

This chalkboard champion passed away in 1959 at the young age of 50.

Zitkala Sa: Music Teacher and Native American Rights Activist

portrait[1]One of the most amazing chalkboard champions and political activists in American history is Native American Zitkala Sa, whose Indian name translated means Red Bird.

This remarkable educator was born on February 22, 1876, on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Her father, an American of European descent, abandoned his family, leaving his young daughter to be raised alone by her Native American mother. Despite her father’s absence, Zitkala Sa described her childhood on the reservation as a time of freedom and joy spent in the loving care of her tribe.

In 1884, when she was just eight years old, missionaries visited the reservation and removed several of the Native American children, including Zitkala Sa, to Wabash, Indiana. There she was enrolled in White’s Manual Labor Institute, a school founded by Quaker Josiah White for the purpose of educating “poor children, white, colored, and Indian.” She attended the school for three years until 1887, later describing her life there in detail in her autobiography The School Days of an Indian Girl. In the book she described her despair over having been separated from her family, and having her heritage stripped from her as she was forced to give up her native language, clothing, and religious practices, and to cut her long hair, a symbolic act of shame among Native Americans. Her deep emotional pain, however, was somewhat brightened by the joy and exhilaration she felt in learning to read, write, and play the violin. Zitkala Sa became an accomplished musician.

After completing her secondary education in 1895, the young graduate enrolled at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, on a scholarship. The move was an unusual one, because at that time higher education for women was not common. In 1899, Zitkala Sa accepted a position as a music teacher at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Here she became an important role model for Native American children who, like herself, had been separated from their families and relocated far from their home reservations to attend an Indian boarding school. In 1900, the young teacher escorted some of her students to the Paris Exposition in France, where she played her violin in public performances by the school band. After she returned to the Carlisle School, Zitkala Sa became embroiled in a conflict with the Carlisle’s founder, Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, when she expressed resentment over the rigid program of assimilation into the dominant white culture that Pratt advocated, and the fact that the school’s curriculum did not encourage Native American children to aspire to anything beyond lives spent as manual laborers.

As a political activist, Zitkala Sa devoted her energy and talent towards the improvement of the lives of her fellow Native Americans. She founded the National Council of American Indians in 1926 and served as its president until her death in 1938. She traveled around the country delivering speeches on controversial issues such as Native American enfranchisement, their full citizenship, Indian military service in World War I, corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the apportionment of tribal lands. In 1997 she was selected as a Women’s History Month Honoree by the National Women’s History Project.

Zitkala Sa: a national treasure and a genuine chalkboard champion.

You can read more about the Carlisle Indian School in my book, Chalkboard Champions, available from amazon.

Ticasuk Brown: Alaska’s Inupiaq Chalkboard Champion

BrownThere are many examples of talented educators who have advanced the cause of multicultural understanding and racial equality. This is certainly the case with Emily Ticasuk Brown, an Alaska Native who was also an elementary school teacher, poet, and writer.

Emily Ticasuk Brown was born in 1904 in Unlakleet, Alaska. Her Inupiaq name, Ticasuk, translated into English means “where the four winds gather their treasures from all parts of the world…the greatest of which is knowledge.” Ticasuk came into the world an Alaska Native with blended heritage. Her grandfather, Sergei Ivanoff, was Russian, and her grandmother, Chikuk, was Yupik Native. Ticasuk’s parents were Stephen Ivanoff and Malquay.

As a young girl, Ticasuk attended elementary school in Shaktoolik, Alaska, a village co-founded by her father. After her graduation from high school, she earned her teaching credential in Oregon, and then she returned to Alaska where she accepted her first teaching position at an elementary school in Kotzebue. The course of her life quickly changed, however, after she witnessed the numerous health hazards in her village. To address this concern, she moved to Washington to study nursing. There she met her husband and married. Later Ticasuk and her husband returned to Alaska, where she taught for two years, until his early death. She returned to college in 1959, earning two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Alaska, and then her master’s degree in 1974. Her master’s thesis, Grandfather of Unalakleet, was republished as The Roots of Ticasuk: An Eskimo Woman’s Family Story in 1981.

As an Inpiaq educator and supporter of bi-lingual education, Ticasuk created a curriculum based on her native tongue. She also worked extensively on the creation of an encyclopedia of the Inupiaq language. She is widely recognized by Alaska Native people as a writer of articles that further understanding about Eskimo cultures and education. In addition, this talented teacher organized the Alaska Heritage Writers Association.

For her efforts, Ticasuk was given a Presidential Commission by President Richard Nixon, and she was in line to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Alaska. Unfortunately, in 1982 Ticasuk passed away before the honor could be conferred. She was 78 years old. In 2009, this talented educator and writer was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame.

Ticasuk Brown: a true chalkboard champion.

Special Education Teacher and Native American Politician Sharon Clahchischilliage

HCLAHMany talented educators distinguish themselves in the political arena. This is certainly true of Native American Sharon E. Clahchischilliage, a Navajo elected to the New Mexico House of Representatives.

Sharon was born in Farmington, New Mexico, in 1949. She was raised in Gad’iiahi, just west of Shiprock, New Mexico. Her parents, Eleanor and Herbert Clah, worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the Shiprock Boarding School. She is the granddaughter of two former Navajo Nation Chairmen, Deshna Clahchischilliage (1928-1932) and Sam Ahkeah (1946-1954).

As a teenager, Sharon attended high school at Navajo Methodist Mission in Farmington, where she graduated in 1968. After her high school graduation, she enrolled at Bacone Junior College at Muskogee, Oklahoma, and then transferred to Eastern New Mexico University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in education in 1976. She earned her master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania in 1991. Since then, Sharon has acquired additional training in special education, guidance counseling, and administrative education from the University of New Mexico.

Sharon has extensive experience in the public schools. She worked for more than ten years as a special education teacher at Albuquerque Public Schools, Bernalillo Schools, the Farmington School District, and as a guidance counselor at the Southwestern Polytechnic Institute.

In addition to her career in education, Sharon has devoted many years to public service. She was a Lieutenant Commissioned Corps Officer for the US Public Health Service for the Points of Light program of President George H. W. Bush. She also worked for the Family Center Program located at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, a program that helped patients with substance abuse recovery. While there, Sharon also worked at the Strecker Substance Abuse Unit at the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital.

As a Native American, Sharon has devoted much of her energy to tribal issues. She has devoted her energy to the Indian Health Service, Albuquerque Service Unit, and has also worked as a liaison between the Department of Children, Youth, and Families and New Mexico tribes under former State Cabinet Secretary Heather Wilson during the administration of New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. In 1999, this dedicated teacher served as the Executive Director of the National Council on Urban Indian Health in Washington, DC. Additionally, she has nine years of experience as the Executive Director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office (NNWO). The NNWO serves as the official link between the Navajo Nation and the United States government. The organization monitors and analyzes congressional legislation, disseminates Congressional and federal agency information, and develops strategies and decisions concerning national policies and budgets that affect the Navajo Nation.

When Sharon won her seat in the New Mexico House of Representatives in November, 2012, she became the first Republican Navajo woman to be elected to the New Mexico State Legislature for District 4.

Sharon Clahchischilliage: a true chalkboard champion.


John “Wolf Smeller” Fredson: Chalkboard Champion and Native Alaskan Rights Activist

24210_405689419765_7704338_n-350x640Many times dedicated teachers commit themselves to the important social causes of their day. This is true of John Fredson, an Alaskan Native American educator and hospital worker who labored tirelessly on behalf of the Neetsaii Gwich’in people of the Yukon.

John was born in 1896 near Table Mountain by the Sheenjek River watershed in the Yukon. He grew up speaking Gwich’in as his first language. His Gwich’in name is Zhoh Gwatson, which translated means “Wolf Smeller.” Orphaned at a young age, John attended a mission school operated by the Episcopal church.

As a youngster, John became exceptionally skilled in climbing, hunting, and following trails. At age 14, he became a member of a 1913 expedition that climbed Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America. For this expedition Johnny served as the base camp manager. While the older men climbed, John  remained at the base camp for 31 days by himself, feeding himself by hunting caribou and sheep. The young boy’s experiences are documented in the book Ascent of Denali by Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, another member of the expedition.

With the Archdeacon’s encouragement, John decided to continue his education beyond elementary school, becoming the first native of Athabascan descent to complete high school. He earned a scholarship to attend Sewanee, the University of the South, an Episcopal college located in Tennessee. He was the first Alaska native to graduate from a university. While there, John worked with renowned linguist Edward Sapir to classify Gwich’in as part of the Na-Dene language family. This work is documented in the book John Fredson Edward Sapir Ha’a Googwandak (1982).

After he graduated from college, John served his country in the US military. When he was discharged, he returned to Alaska, where he worked at a hospital in Fort Yukon. In his later years, he built a solarium for Native American tuberculosis patients. At that time, his facility was the only hospital in the far north, and was utilized by many native Alaskan patients, primarily from the Gwich’in tribe. Most of these patients suffered from communicable diseases introduced by Europeans and Asians to which the natives had no immunity.

John also taught school in the village of Venetie, teaching how to grow household gardens to a community who had previously supported themselves through hunting. In Venetie John became a tribal leader and worked to establish the Native Alaskan rights to traditional lands. He was the primary founder of the Venetie Indian Reserve, the largest reservation in Alaska, which earned federal recognition in 1941, before Alaska was admitted to the Union as a state. The reserve was approximately 1.4 million acres at the time of its establishment. There the John Fredson School of Yukon Flats has been named in his honor, and the school remains there to this day.

All his life, John “Wolf Smeller” Fredson was a Native American rights activist, writer, hunter, skilled debater, musician, artist, and more.  He is said to have lived his life with integrity, passion, and a great sense of humor.  He always exhibited a great love for the land and for his people, and he made many significant contributions to his tribe in his relatively short life. This chalkboard champion died of pneumonia on August 22, 1945.