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Matt Simon


Staying Close to His Roots

Terry Spencer doesn’t like to stray too far or too long from his native Seminole culture. His hometown of Mustang, Oklahoma, where he spent most of his career as a teacher and high school guidance counselor, is near both the town of Little, where he grew up, and Wewoka, the capital of the Seminole Nation.

In 1995, Spencer was persuaded to run for, and was elected to, the General Council of the Seminole Nation, his tribe’s highest governing body, and he now feels closer to his heritage than ever.

“I wanted to continue contributing something to the Seminole people,” says Spencer, “but I had no idea how much I would get in return. I’m once again learning new things about our history, and hearing and speaking the Seminole language, which I rarely had the chance to do in years past.”

His Seminole leadership position follows a career devoted to advancing Native American culture. In the early 1970s, working on a federal grant, Spencer started the Native American Program at the University of Central Oklahoma.

And throughout his 29 years at Mustang High School, he sponsored the Native American Club, through which he both introduced non-Native Americans to his culture and worked to help Native American students get into college.

Because of Spencer’s experience as an educator, the General Council tapped him last year to head a tribal committee to explore more effective ways to integrate Native American culture and history into school curricula.

“It’s a great way to spend retirement,” says Spencer. “Today, I’m not only close to my roots, but I have a son and daughter who’ve become active members of the Seminole Nation—and to top it all off, my son just started working as a school teacher. I’m very fortunate.”

Teaching through Songs of the Seas

The lessons Vern Olsen gives these days are quite different from those he gave for 30 years as an elementary school music teacher in Whidbey Island, Washington.

In retirement, Olsen embarked on a new adventure with the Shifty Sailors, a shanty singing group comprised of about 20 men of various ages and professions.

This is not mere entertainment: “Our aim is to educate the public on the history of navigation and the importance of boats and sailing in the U.S.,” said Olsen, who plays accordion in the group.

Since forming 15 years ago, the Shifty Sailors have released four albums and toured Europe three times. This past summer they went on a tour of New England seaports and released their fourth album, H is for aHoy, featuring 4th- and 5th- graders singing on several tracks.

Originally, the Sailors were only supposed to last a few days. Olsen had assembled the group for a short-term stint to help the local historical society promote a book about 18th-century sailing. Members enjoyed the experience so much, though, that no one wanted to stop.

They now have 100 songs in their repertoire and have traveled thousands of miles. “It’s a good way to stay alive,” said Olsen. “We have a lot of fun with it.”

—Svetlana Shkolnikova

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