Alaska faces many challenges in the 21st century. The most pressing of these challenges continues to be the relationship between the dominant culture and the Alaska Native community, and the operation of the rural education system. As we consider our present policies, current strategies, and potential alternatives for the future, we would do well to consider the experiences societies in other parts of the world with similar challenges.
For decades, the official policy of the Territory of Hawaii was to discourage native Hawaiian language and culture. By 1896 the Hawaiian language was essentially outlawed. In the 1960, native Hawaiian cultural resurgence encouraged the revitalization of Hawaiian language. In 1978 a constitutional convention in Hawaii designated Hawaiian as one of the two official languages of the state. After several years of political struggle which included Native Hawaiians boycotting public schools, the state of Hawaii began sponsoring Hawaiian language preschools. Hawaii now offers K-12 Hawaiian language immersion schools and doctoral level programs in Hawaiian. Predictions by opponents that Hawaiian language immersion would lead to lower academic performance have proven to be inaccurate.
The original inhabitants of New Zealand, the Maori, are a Polynesian people who make up 15 percent of the population of the nation. During the 19th and most of the 20th century, New Zealand followed a policy of enforced acculturation towards the Maori. In 1905 the speaking of Maori was banned in New Zealand schools. By the mid 1980’s, New Zealand Maori males were being imprisoned at an unprecedented rate. In the early 1990’s a New Zealand university professor spoke at the Alaskan Bilingual/Multicultural Conference. “Don’t do what we did,” he advised the Alaskans attending his presentation. “Young Maori males who lose their language and culture do not morph into dark skinned Anglos.” The professor said these young men became “acultural,” tended to migrate to the cities, and form gangs. In response to the cultural breakdown, growing criminality, and increased Maori political pressure, the New Zealand government reversed its policy. Maori Elders developed the Te Kohanga Reo, language nest preschools where nothing but Maori is spoken. The national government of New Zealand subsequently sponsored the establishment of 500 Te Kohanga Reo language nests.
The Sami, the indigenous people of Norway, are a Caucasian race, shorter and stockier than their Nordic neighbors. The Sami have a traditional lifestyle which includes nomadic reindeer herding and fishing. The Norwegian government followed a policy of enforced acculturation towards the Sami. Their language was prohibited in schools and the Sami were prevented from owning land. Sami children attended boarding schools whose sole purpose was to properly assimilate the children into the dominant culture. The children were systematically stripped of their culture and made to feel ashamed of their way of life, an experience similar to that of Alaska Native children from rural villages.
During the 1960’s, Norwegian attitudes towards the Sami began to change. By the 1980’s, Norway had reversed its policy. The Norwegian government recognized the value of Sami culture and began working to undo the damage. In 1988, the constitution of Norway was amended as follows: “It is the responsibility of the authorities of the State to create conditions enabling the Sami people to preserve and develop its language, culture, and way of life.” This gave the Sami language and culture the legal protection of law. Norway also established a Sami Parliament which has delegated legal authority from the Storting (Norwegian Parliament) over Sami matters. Norwegian law officially recognizes Sami cultural sovereignty .
These are but three examples of societies which have struggled with issues similar to those facing Alaska. In all three of these situations, the dominant culture has reconsidered the policy of enforced acculturation and changed direction.
In contrast, to the aforementioned examples, Alaska continues to be guided by the philosophy and practices of an earlier era. Although Alaska has restructured the rural education system, the philosophy underlying the system continues to be a modernized version of 19th century Social Darwinism—the belief that cultures evolve from primitive to more advanced, and that Anglo/Western culture stands at the apex of social evolution. The goal of rural education in Alaska remains to acculturate the Native student to the dominant culture.
The social evolution theory of cultures is as unscientific and dated at phrenology, the 19th century pseudo science of personality based on the bumps on the head. Each culture is a unique and special adaptation to a specific set of conditions. Cultures incorporate the skills, attitudes, values, cooperative ethos, and beliefs necessary for personal and group survival. Looked at from this perspective, Inupiaq culture is a unique adaptation to arctic conditions. Yupik culture includes the attitudes and skills necessary to prosper in the subarctic. The Tlingit culture includes a sense of place and traditional fishery tenure systems based on stock and population — a sophisticated adaptation to Southeast rainforest ecology. When education displaces traditional attitudes and ancient knowledge with the values and skills from a largely urban/Anglo culture, the schools risk producing generations which are maladapted to living in Alaska’s challenging environments.
A quarter century ago, Dr. Robert Alberts worked as a trans-cultural psychiatrist in Bethel, Alaska. According to Dr. Alberts, the social and educational services in rural Alaska were having an unintended impact on the Native population — the more outside experts who arrived to provide services, the more programs provided, the more attempts by non-Natives to solve problems—the greater the dependency and loss of local autonomy.
As I have traveled and worked in the villages of rural Alaska for more than 35 years, I have observed, along with the growth of the education/social service industry, the effects Dr. Alberts described. I see non-Natives with college degrees having the highest paying jobs and, in many cases, the best housing in the village. I observe the local Native people cleaning the classrooms, emptying the trash, and doing minor paperwork in the offices. And I see the effect this has on the younger generation.
Last year, the Elders in a village I have worked in proposed a perpetual Healing and Wellness Journey for their community. As part of their plan, they maintain that true healing must come from within the Native community and cannot be imposed by outsiders. They want their people to control their own lives, run their own schools, and take the responsibility for their own well being. They envision a time when their children and grandchildren will have the right to interact with the dominant culture in their own way, to be allowed to synthesize the two worlds into something new, and to have the independence to become their own experts.
By developing their Healing and Wellness Journey, the Elders are calling for a new vision for Alaska Native education, a shift to education which honestly confronts the past, gives guidance and purpose to life, and uses cultural wisdom, parables, legends, Elders, and ritual, and provides a positive vision and hope for the future. And the voices are becoming louder. The Native community is not alone. Many non-Native educators, politicians, and community members are among the ranks of those seeking a fundamental reassessment of rural Native education.
The pressure for educational change in rural Alaska is not confined to rhetoric. There is a growing movement across the state to develop place-based instruction, curriculum which teaches skills and content relevant to the place where the child lives. Place-based education is rooted in the Native ways of knowing and blends the Western and Native educational traditions. The Goldbelt Heritage Foundation has become a leader in developing place-based lessons. The Foundation has an extensive program of curriculum development based on the Tlingit traditional knowledge of Southeast Alaska. The Alaska Native Knowledge Network, operated out of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has been patiently gathering information related to Alaska Native knowledge systems and ways of knowing.
The North Slope School District recently adopted an Inupiaq Leaning Framework, a move which Jana Harcharek, the Director of Inupiaq Education, describes as “a historic turning point for our district.” Someday, according to Harcharek, the district will not need to purchase outside textbooks because they will create their own curriculum. The Alaska Humanities Forum recently received a large grant to develop a training program for new village educators. The Humanities Forum hopes to meet the challenge of high teacher turnover in the villages with an aggressive program of orientation and training. And on Jan. 26 of this year, the Moore case, a complex court case between the State of Alaska and twelve rural school districts, was finally settled. If the final settlement effectively addresses the cultural relevance of school curriculum and assessment testing, there is hope that this will be a positive step forward.
In order to bring about positive change in rural Alaska, we in the non-Native community need to recognize the importance of preserving Alaska’s rich Native heritage. Let us, with commitment and dedication, embrace the conviction that Alaska Native cultures have the right to coexist, the right to perpetuate themselves, and the right to control their own educational destiny in the 21st century.