Reforming Native education

Posted: Sunday, July 18, 2004

Recently I decided I had to leave Juneau. For years I tried to convince a variety of people in positions of power that radical change was needed in the way we educate Native children, in the way we look at educational issues, and more broadly, in the locus of control over and responsibility for the education of Native children. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I was perceived either as a threat or as too negative. Then it occurred to me that the people in power might believe my message if they heard it from others less agitated and perhaps more diplomatic than myself.

Well, sure enough, having removed myself from the role of doomsayer with impractical if not impossible solutions, I am now viewed as the used-to-be-in-but-now-outside-consultant with difficult but maybe not impossible solutions. So what am I to make of this shift? Well, for one thing it points out some harsh but interesting realities of leadership and change.

In his classic, "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," Paulo Freire made the observation that "... almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors." Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of Harvard's Department of African and African American Studies, has included in several of his recent speeches a description of an ongoing regression from the civil rights advances of black Americans that he attributes to the tendency of newly middle class blacks to forget the hard-fought struggles of their forebears. Like Freire, he places most of the blame for this on academics and other "leaders" who have not forgotten anything, and who are now firmly entrenched in a system they consider both functional and progressive.

And more to the point of indigenous peoples in the 21st century, Maori educator Graham Smith has shared his view of the social, political and cultural revolution of the Maori in New Zealand, all of which was carried out by grass-roots organizers, through newly created educational institutions, and often over the protests of high-placed Maori "leaders" who would rather they worked within the system.

Of course now I'll get e-mail from the offended few who don't consider themselves oppressors; who will claim not to have forgotten the real meaning of ANCSA, which was to join our newfound economic might with a longstanding moral right to take control of our lives. What I believe they have forgotten along the way, though, is that education was always and is still the means to that end; not dividends, not fighting against tribal sovereignty, and certainly not proxy rules that keep the same people in power for 20 to 30 years or more.

How do I know that they have forgotten? The proof is in the product, the output of our years of frenetic activity, endless meetings, grant applications, and boom/bust earnings on behalf of those we serve. In 33 years, how much of the educational process, what portion of the educational system, do we control? We Natives? How many of our young people stay in high school, remain in-state and attend college, live in Southeast Alaska and raise their families?

Sure we're working on it. There are plenty who have devoted their lives to these causes, to education, and to building programs that help people learn and grow and succeed. And yet, the output, the end result of all that we do, is far from enough to ensure that our children graduate, advance with marketable credentials, speak their language, understand their traditions, and find themselves on the top of the school performance rankings and hiring lists.

The good news is that a new generation is emerging and they will bring the old guard along with them. Many of them have attended one or more of the meetings that are part of a summer series sponsored by the Sealaska Heritage Institute, local ANB/ANS camps, and the Tlingit & Haida Indians of the City & Borough of Juneau.

These emerging leaders talk about charter schools, language immersion programs, racism, achievement tests, tribal colleges and more. At the very least they show up ready to work, which is more than can be said for too many of the old guard of Native leaders.

I would respectfully ask all who say they are concerned about Native education to set aside a few hours and come to the final summer forum Aug. 6. The new generation of leaders needs to see that those in positions of power support their efforts. In return, those in power will be inspired by the commitment and resolve shown by the many Natives and non-Natives who have stepped forward the past two months. Together, we can and will transform education for Native students in Juneau and Southeast Alaska.

• Ted Wright is an assistant professor of education at Antioch University in Seattle and a former Juneau teacher.

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