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The future of Alaska Native education

Posted: March 14, 2012 - 11:11pm

The Sami, the indigenous people of Norway, are a Caucasian race, shorter and stockier than their Nordic neighbors. Historically, the Norwegian government followed a policy of enforced acculturation towards Norway’s indigenous people. The Sami language was prohibited in schools and the Sami were prevented from owning land. Until the 1960s, Sami children attended boarding schools whose sole purpose was to properly assimilate the children into the dominant culture. Sami 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 1960s, Norwegian attitudes towards the Sami began to change. By the 1980s, 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. Parents in Sami areas could choose to have their children educated in “Sami-medium rather than in Norwegian-medium classes” (Corson 1995). 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 — the right of the Sami to maintain their language, culture, and way of life.

The original inhabitants of New Zealand, the Maori, are a Polynesian people who make up 15 percent of the population of the nation. 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 1980s, New Zealand led the world with the highest incarceration rate for indigenous males. In the early 1990s, 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.

These are but two examples of societies which have struggled with issues similar to those facing Alaska. Both these societies have made a clear break with the policies of enforced acculturation. In contrast, Alaska continues to be wedded to the practices of the past. Although Alaska has restructured the rural education system, the philosophy of the education system appears to be a continuation of 19th century Social Darwinism — the doctrine of the superiority of Anglo/Western culture. The goal of rural education remains to acculturate the Native student to the dominant culture.

A quarter century ago, Dr. Robert Alberts worked as a trans-cultural psychiatrist in Bethel. According to Alberts, the social service and educational policies in 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 loss of local autonomy and the greater the dependency. Building on Alberts’ work, Father Michael Oleksa observed that growing dependency leads to loss of initiative, growing frustration and anger, and eventually results in self-destructive behavior (Oleksa, KTUU TV Cross-Cultural Communications, Program 3). And I would add to these observations with one of my own — Alaska Natives have become an industry of the middle class. There is big money to be made by thousands of non-Native professionals providing services in rural Alaska.

As I have traveled and worked in the villages of rural Alaska for more than 35 years, I have observed the effects of the increased dependency and the growth of the education/social service industry. The education industry is dominated by outsiders. Typically, the non-Native teachers have the highest paid jobs and the best housing in the community. In far too many situations, the Native people clean the rooms, empty the trash, and do minor paperwork in the offices. They are disempowered in their own land. This lesson is not lost on the young people.

Alternatives to this cycle of dependency and disempowerment exist. Last year, the elders in a village I have worked in proposed a perpetual healing and wellness journey for their community. The elders told me 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.

This vision proposes a basic change in relationships between the Native community and majority culture. It involves members of the majority culture backing off from the traditional roles of “expert” and “fixer.” These changes are difficult for members of the dominant culture to accept for two reasons. First, it is counter-intuitive to the Western mind. Where there is a problem, we want to create a new program and send in credentialed experts. With the best of intentions, we want to help. To back off doesn’t connect with our experience or frame of reference to reality.

The second challenge for the Western mind is that a healing and wellness journey as proposed by the elders involves a shift in the existing power structure. People resist giving up authority. Thousands of jobs and huge amounts of money are made by middle-class non-Natives who provide services in rural Alaska. This industry will resist changes which involve giving Alaska Native people direct control over their own destiny.

Native elders throughout the state 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; uses cultural wisdom, parables, legends, elders, and ritual; and provides a positive vision and hope for the future. And the voices are becoming louder. There is growing dissatisfaction, growing anger. And the Native community is not alone. Many non-Native educators, politicians, and community members are among the ranks of those demanding a fundamental reassessment of the role of Native education.

The pressure for educational change 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. And 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 the Moore case, a complex court case between the state of Alaska and 12 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.

All these are small, but significant steps in a new direction. A new day is dawning in Alaska. And we in the non-Native community need to reject the archaic theories of cultural superiority, step into the 21st century, and recognize the importance of preserving Alaska’s rich Native heritage. Let us embrace the conviction that Alaska Native cultures have the right to exist, the right to perpetuate themselves, and the right to control their own educational destiny.

• This essay is the fifth and final piece in a series by Paul Berg, a Juneau educator with a long background in teaching and learning in Alaska’s Native communities. Visit juneauempire.com to read his previous commentaries.

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