Education in Alaska's Native villages

Part 4 of a 5-part series

In 1970, educator, linguist, researcher, and Jesuit priest Dr. John Bryde, documented an educational phenomenon among Sioux children on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He noted that the Sioux children began school primed to learn. They exhibited an aggressive curiosity about the world and strong confidence in their own abilities. During the first three to four years of school, the Oglala Sioux children tested out equal to or even slightly above their non-Indian counterparts. Then, something began to happen. It started in the fifth-grade and accelerated in the upper elementary grades. By the time the children reached high school, the average Sioux child was two years behind grade level. Teachers of Native American students have long observed that their students’ academic achievement dropped off dramatically after the first few years of school, but Dr. Bryde was the first to formally research the phenomenon. Bryde called this decline in educational achievement among Native American students the “Cross-over Effect.”


According to Bryde, the conventions, assumptions, and practices of Western education conflicted with the world view of the Sioux. The education system, instead of reinforcing the cultural identity and self-confidence of the children, systematically destroyed their world view. Dr. Bryde maintained that Western education was having a toxic effect on many Sioux children.

Subsequent events appear to confirm Bryde’s conclusions. In 1990 President George H. W. Bush established the Indian Nations at Risk task force and gave it the tasks of identifying problems in Native American education, surveying the literature and contacting experts in an attempt to identify solutions, and to draft a set of Guiding Principles for Native American education. President Bush selected Alaska’s first Native Commissioner of Education, Bill Demmert, to co-chair the Task Force.

The two-year effort culminated in the 1991 White House conference and the publication of the findings. The Task Force reported that there is a direct relationship between students’ understanding of their culture and their ability to achieve academic success. The Task Force also recommended the following as the number one Guiding Principle for Native American education: The United States has a responsibility to help Native governments and communities preserve and protect the Native cultures, which are not found in other parts of the world.

Despite a promising new start in rural education, the state of Alaska chose to move in other directions. In 1977 my wife and I arrived in an Alaska, which seemed like a new beginning, a fresh new world. Flush with oil money, the state disbanded the old State Operated School System and organized rural school districts. Alaska ended the boarding school program and built hundreds of small rural high schools. The era abounded with a widespread feeling of optimism. We would do things differently up here. A bumper sticker popular at the time read, “We Don’t Care How They Do It Outside.” Huge amounts of money flowed into Alaska education. People came to Alaska from all over the nation for high paying jobs in the education system. The education system gradually bureaucratized and developed a complex management system. We began to lose our optimism and our vision. Then in 2001 No Child Left Behind arrived on the scene, accompanied with massive a mounts of federal dollars. Alaskan education followed the money. The outcomes of public education were defined as a set of scores on multiple choice tests. And the mantra, Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), guides Alaska education to this day.

But not all are pleased by this development. Representative Alan Dick, chairman of the House Education Committee describes the statewide reliance on multiple choice tests as follows: “Our metric is multiple choice tests, and the methodology is to prepare students for those tests. Our whole system is designed around the easiest way to measure compliance with our addiction to data.”

For the Native students, especially those living in the hundreds of small isolated villages along the coasts and river systems, the focus on multiple choice testing has caused serious problems. One of these problems is illustrated by an experience I had several years ago in a small village located on the banks of the Yukon River. The school building included a large home economics kitchen that remained idle. When I enquired as to why this resource remained unused, one of the school staff informed me that food processing and preservation were not included on the standardized tests, so the home economics classes were cancelled. The school’s curriculum had been narrowed to focus on the skills measured by the tests required by the state. The basic subsistence skills of this village along the Yukon River were not being taught in the school! This pattern is repeated in many rural schools. The focus on testing has narrowed the curriculum, eliminating classes such as food processing, small engine repair, Native language, and local history.

Another problem created by the focus on testing is that the tests reflect the knowledge base, values, and world view of the dominant culture. For education in Alaska Native villages to be successful, children must be taught from a course of study which represents the world they know. They must be taught skills which they can use in the social and physical environment in which they live. When the education of Native children consists of the history, skills, and models of success from another culture and another place; when the skills of the parents and grandparents are removed from the curriculum; when all things Native are de-emphasized — clouds of inferiority form in their mental sky. They begin to see themselves as “the wrong type of person.” Their world view crashes. Resentment and self-loathing take hold.

A group of Yupik Elders in a village that had suffered a high number of youth suicide expressed this very clearly to me last summer. I listened carefully as the Elders tried to explain to me the source of the deep disorder affecting their youth: “They don’t know their history. They are not learning the skills they need to know to live here. They are not being taught their language. They don’t know who they are. Our time is getting short. We have few years left and we are angry.” In this particular village, one family had lost four sons to suicide. As I listened to the sadness in the Elders’ voices, I was reminded of the words of Pastor Walter Soboleff, “When people know who they are, they don’t kill themselves.”

Native Elders are saying loud and clear that in order for their youth to master the complexities of life, in order to deal with the weight of historical events, in order heal — they must know their history, their culture and their identity. They must confront the past and have the self-knowledge and confidence to move into the future. And this must be the core of their education. And we, the non-Native educators and policy makers, must listen and heed their message.

A basic concept which is difficult for many of us non-Natives to understand is that Alaska Natives are not immigrants. They are living in their homeland. Yet we have historically approached Alaska Native education with the attitude that we must remake the Native student in our own image. William Hensley described his educational experience during a presentation in Juneau: “We were expected to change, as immigrants are expected to change, despite the fact that this is our homeland.”

Hensley added that he learned nothing of Inupiaq history in school. “It might as well have been as if our own people didn’t have a history.”

As I have shared this concern with educators and policy makers, I often hear this reply, “But Paul, we have to teach them to live in the real world. We have to give them this opportunity.”

And my response is, “No we don’t.” The operant word is “we.” It is not “we,” the non-Natives, who should make these judgments. Native people must make the decisions over content and balance for themselves.

I submit that our current village schooling system is broken. The evidence that the system is not working is overwhelming. The real measure of the success or failure of the rural education system is not a score on a multiple choice test, but rather the health and prosperity of the young people coming out of the village schools. According to the records we have from the first generation of rural teachers, alcohol and drug abuse, teen pregnancy, suicide, and sexual abuse were unknown in Alaska. Something has gone terribly wrong, and whatever else the causes, the schools have played a central role. The financial cost of maintaining the rural education system is staggering, up to $40,000 per-year per-child. One would think that this level of commitment would yield fantastic results. Yet, the health data suggests that we are doing something fundamentally wrong. One thing is certain — we can do better.

What can be done to reverse the situation? Fortunately, there are indigenous groups around the world, in the United States, and in Alaska that are developing effective strategies for surviving the attentions, however well meaning, of an aggressive, dominant culture. Here in Alaska, Native groups including the Tlingit, Inupiaq, and Yupik are developing culturally rich, place-based curricula. House Bill No. 256(EDC), currently before the 27nth Legislature, requires appropriate cultural standards to be incorporated into any state intervention plan for schools not meeting state performance standards — a small but significant step in the right direction.

• The fifth and last essay of this series next week will explore positive alternatives from a variety of well-documented sources.


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