Photo collection recalls another day, another attitude

Exhibit focuses on rural schools in the days before statehood

Posted: Friday, January 26, 2007

The principal of White Mountain School buys a seal for his Inupiaq students' lunch. Three Aleut girls work on a clothing project in their 1938 home economics class. A little girl yawns, pencil in mouth, while focusing on a lesson at the Fishhook school in 1942.

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Two decades before Alaska was a state, and light-years before multimillion dollar state education budgets, schools in the state's remote villages relied on community support and tradition. That's obvious in "Schools in Rural Alaska," an exhibition of 20 photographs hanging at the Friends of Alaska State Museum store, at 124 Seward St.

"We're talking about a time when everybody was pitching in to make these schools happen," said Sean Lanksbury, assistant curator of collections with the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

"You see Quonset huts and people thatching the roofs. These are schools built and run by the people in these places. These are people from the community helping these schools prosper."

"Schools in Rural Alaska," a collaboration of Alaska State Library Historical Collections and the Friends of the Alaska State Museum, runs through March 23. The store is open from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Many of the images are also in Alaska's Digital's Archives -

The exhibit combines two collections - the vast work of George Dale and Evelyn Butler, and "Records of Alaska Schools," a survey of rural Alaska schools between 1931 and 1951.

Butler and Dale, husband and wife, moved to Alaska in 1934. Educational supervisors with the Alaska Native Service, they roamed through remote Alaska to observe and document schools, teachers, curriculum and children's activities. Most of their work was in the Arctic, the Aleutian Islands and the Yukon River area.

Although they worked in Alaska from 1934 to 1950, most of the photos in the Alaska State Library's collection - 2,900 photographs, 41 film reels and an assortment of manuscripts - cover 1939 to 1942.

"Butler-Dale is an enormous collection," said Jim Simard, curator of collections with the Alaska State Library Historical Collections. "There's been talk around here for decades about making a major exhibit out of it. This was our chance to put a few of them out there."

The "Records of Alaska Schools" collection includes more material from Southcentral and Southeast Alaska.

The one Southeast photograph in the show is a shot of kids playing ring-around-the-rosie near the old territorial school in Tee Harbor. It appears to be a class picture from the 1939-40 school year.

The school was opened in 1939 in a wanigan (a storage house, sometimes built on water). A new three-room building was established in 1941.

The complete collection also includes photos of schools near the Alaska-Gastineau Mine and Fish Creek, but those shots are not in the exhibition. Parts of the collection include photos from the students.

"We're part of the Department of Education," Lanksbury said. "And we wanted to show that we're part of the department's vision and talk about kids and schools in the state."

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