My Turn: Teach Alaska's history

Posted: Wednesday, December 01, 2004

What did Alexander Baranov, Gen. Billy Mitchell, Bennie Benson, Elizabeth Peratrovich and Libby Riddles contribute to Alaska? If you don't know, perhaps you too could benefit from the teaching of Alaska history.

Alaska's competitive edge depends on informed residents who know and appreciate our culture and history. And while our universities and some of our secondary and elementary schools are teaching this, too few students are being exposed to this rich knowledge. We must do a better job teaching how our Great Land came to be what it is today.

In Ninilchik, where I was raised, I was fortunate to have as a teacher Emma McCune, who did her own research and taught us about our heritage. We learned about the indigenous populations long resident in Alaska and their first contact with Russian and European explorers; the partitioning of Alaska by mission organizations and the influence of this, especially in rural communities, more than 100 years later; the Japanese occupation of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians during World War II and the bold move to connect Alaska to the Lower 48 by highway to reinforce our military presence; and the battle for Alaska statehood.

Those history lessons sparked my interest in other stories our state had to tell. I was even inspired to research my own Alaska heritage, with help from a cousin who is a Russian Orthodox priest and my older brother, a linguist. We found that we descend from a marriage in Kodiak more than 200 years ago between a Russian shipwright and an Alutiiq woman from Afognak. Since then gold miners, Alaska Natives, fishermen and missionaries have figured prominently in my family's ancestry.

Other Alaskans have a history just as fascinating. I have met many of them and want to learn about their contributions. Our students need to understand how Alaska is knit together geographically, socially, politically and economically to understand today's challenges.

I have long supported the teaching of Alaska history and am pleased to see more schools doing this now. In 2001, the Anchorage School District took a bold step by making this a requirement for graduation. It started developing a curriculum. While I have generally resisted new mandates on school districts, and prefer that they see the benefit and add this to their curriculum on their own, this is an effort that needs encouragement.

Last year the Alaska Humanities Forum received a federal grant for $394,000 to develop a State history curriculum. It soon launched an Alaska History and Cultural Studies Curriculum Project. I enjoyed participating in this project, with former Gov. Jay Hammond, retired Judge Tom Stewart and other contributors. Currently 25 teachers are pilot testing the curriculum and additional teachers are being trained. A Web site ( ) is available to teachers, students and others. A CD of the entire course will be available to every Alaska history teacher and student at the start of the 2005 school year.

The State Board of Education and Early Development has proposed making Alaska history a statewide requirement for high school students. On Dec. 6, the board will hear public comment and vote on the adoption of this proposed regulation. I support the proposal and plan to express my views at the hearing. Just recently the Alaska Historical Commission, which I chair, voted to renew its support.

We can all appreciate the effort by teachers like Miss McCune. But it is not realistic to expect them to do their own research and develop a curriculum in Alaska history. They can instead build on existing resources.

Alaska's history is as long as our land is large. From Teller to Tenakee Springs, Saint George to Skagway, and Jakalof Bay to Juneau, we have a lot to learn about each other. There are many tales to tell, and I believe Alaska's students are ready to listen.

• Loren Leman is lieutenant governor of Alaska and chairs the Alaska Historical Commission.

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