Native teacher learns her history

Posted: Tuesday, March 25, 2003

FAIRBANKS - Karen Dullen will soon embark on a journey that will take her back to a pivotal point in the history of both her own family and many other Alaska Natives.

Dullen, an Inupiat Eskimo and seventh-grade teacher at Ryan Middle School, will spend next school year on sabbatical studying the contact between Natives along the Koyukuk River and missionaries from the Episcopal Church.

The impetus for this project came when Dullen, 44, participated in an elder's academy in Arctic Village last summer. There, she and other educators spent 10 days at a camp with elders learning traditional ways.

"Once I was there I just kept thinking about my mom and my grandma and all their people," she said. "And I am really interested in it because I was so separated from it. It just made me think of the people who went before us."

Dullen said she's particularly interested in how the church and the missions went into different areas and what kind of influence they had.

Her journey is one with ties to Dullen's experiences growing up in Fairbanks.

Dullen was born in Fairbanks, the third of six children of Karl and Bonnie Thumma, and the first one to be born in a hospital. She was the only girl.

"I was tough," she said. "My girls, they are nothing like me in the sense that I was so righteous and I was so vigilant about certain things and I was willing to be physical for a cause."

When Dullen was nine, her mother died of an autoimmune disease. Prior to that, the family would often charter an airplane and fly to Bonnie's home village of Alatna.

"We were able to go out there and be with my grandma and just be there and be part of the community," Dullen said. "That is what has sustained me to this point were the trips I was able to make with my family prior to her death. She knew she was dying so they were preparing us without really saying anything."

Still, her death was tough on the family, and left her father a widower and single parent of six.

Dullen, who has lived her entire life in Fairbanks, attending schools in the city.

People in Fairbanks schools in the 1960s had many preconceived notions about Native people, she said, and the curriculum at school did nothing to teach students about Native people or their history.

"The well-meaning teachers I remember would show these videos of Eskimos eating walrus or seal with the blood running down their face and people would just be looking at you like 'that's you,'" Dullen said. "The only thing that I had at school that connected me ... was that humiliation."

In the fifth grade, she said she was put into a class with most of the rest of the minority students at Denali. This class was experimental, she said, and was supposed to be a "bilingual classroom."

"They were teaching us Spanish," Dullen said. "We were Alaska Native majority and they were teaching us Spanish and we were cooking tortillas and I remembered that all my life."

Dullen said she resented being in the class, both because it wasn't relevant and because it wasn't challenging.

Her future was clinched when her first daughter was born.

"She changed my life," Dullen said. "I remember holding her one day and all the sudden I was washed with this feeling that, you know, they are not going to do to you what they did to me. That is how I ended up in education."

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