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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Cross-Cultural Issues in

Alaskan Education Vol. I



Jan Gibson
Kuskokwim Community College, Bethel


It is probably safe to say that most teachers and administrators in schools serving Alaskan Eskimos and Indians have at least entertained the idea of incorporating local history and cultural heritage into the school curriculum. The demand for minority rights nationally, the issues raised as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and the availability of federal grants for cultural heritage projects have inspired numerous attempts at teaching Native students about their own traditions. Unfortunately, many of these programs have been planned without adequate research, have had questionable results, and have not continued as a regular part of the curriculum upon the termination of the initial project.

Many advocates of cultural heritage programs do not seem to realize that a good program or project requires careful planning and thoughtful consideration of the issues involved. There are major questions which must be answered as part of the planning process. One of these questions is, “What is the local cultural heritage and how does one find out about it?” Most educators have no background in the subject and little in the way of the texts, audio-visual aids, and expertise which are available to them in curriculum areas such as math and reading. Although there are books which offer information about Alaskan Eskimos and Indians in general, there is often little written about the background of any one locality.

The purposes of any particular program should be given careful consideration. Enhancement of the student’s identity as an Indian or an Eskimo is often given as the rationale for cultural heritage programs. Is it likely to be true that an Eskimo fifth grader will feel more confidently Eskimo if he learns how to carve an ivory seal? Or is it important that he learn how to make some of the traditional crafts so that he can sell them and supplement his income? There are other questions. What is the feeling within the community about cultural heritage studies? Do local people really want these things taught? If so, why? In what way do they value them? How can information about the students’ historical past best be presented and who should do the teaching?

In an effort to deal with some of these questions as they apply to one Eskimo community, I took photographs and examples of traditional craft work to Nunivak Island in the summer of 1972 and conducted interviews with 62 Nunivakers between the ages of 6 and 72. The purpose of the study was to clarify the relationship of present day Nunivak Islanders to their art heritage and to make some recommendations for curriculum development. The interviews included questions about the traditional crafts of Nunivak Island and related stories, dances, and songs.

Due to the relative isolation of Nunivak Island, the traditional Nunivak way of life was not seriously threatened by outside influences until after 1940. As a result, there is more written information about Nunivak arts than about most others in the Southwest Alaskan area. A review of the literature showed that this particular part of the world was a center for excellent ivory carving, wooden dish, utensil, and mask making in the nineteenth century and, to some extent, in the early years of this century. The women’s crafts of basket making and skin sewing have persisted into the present. Little is known of prehistoric art in this region and there are no comprehensive studies of any craft of the area other than mask making. All of these crafts are represented in publications and in museums throughout the world.

Results of the Interviews

The results of the interviews with Nunivakers can be summarized as follows:

1. The older the interviewee the more likely he was to recognize traditional art work and to understand its original purpose. The old people were the only acknowledged authorities in these matters. It was clear that traditional craft skills were not being passed on to the younger generations. Although most of the interviewees did some type of craft work, only the older ones were inclined toward the traditional crafts included in this study. More girls and women than boys and men did some type of craft work.

2. Masks which were close in appearance to recent Nunivak masks were recognized by more people than other styles, and, in fact, response to older area-wide styles was slight.

3. Masks were not in use in the village at the time of the study and had not been so for many years. Only the oldest interviewees had actually seen masks used in dances and ceremonies. Wooden dishes were apparently not in use at all at the time of the study and carved ivory objects were no longer produced primarily for local use. Grass baskets were still made partly for use and the other women’s craft, skin sewing, was the most functional of all the traditional crafts at the time of the study.

4. When asked which crafts are most important today, members of each sex tended to emphasize the crafts made primarily by members of that sex. Over all, crafts were rated the most important to the least important as follows: mask making, skin sewing, grass work, ivory carving, and wooden dish and utensil making. The crafts made primarily by men, (masks, ivory, and wooden ware) were termed important mainly for their sale value whereas the crafts made by women, grass work and skin sewing, were made both for sale and for use. Nearly everyone interviewed wanted Nunivak children to learn about the crafts, stories, songs, and dances, which were discussed during the interviews. Interviewees indicated very little belief that the children would ever sell or use the craft items and placed more emphasis on group identity values.

5. Most people approved of the idea of sharing of Nunivak traditional arts and activities with other Eskimo villages, and, to a lesser extent, with White children. Nunivakers stated very strongly that they wanted Nunivak children to be taught about Nunivak things by Nunivak people.


Taken together, the interviews and the review of the literature indicated a pattern of changing values which have been associated with the crafts over the last one hundred years. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the crafts were made for use within Eskimo culture. They can be said to have had utilitarian value as opposed to sale/trade value.

When local materials, religion, and social practices were replaced with materials and ideas from the “outside,” and Nunivakers became involved in the souvenir trade in this century, many crafts lost much of their utilitarian value. At the same time that manufactured items became available, a market for craft items opened and the crafts were then traded for goods or sold for money. At that time, probably beginning in the 1920’s, the reasons for making many of the crafts objects became less for personal or family use than for sale or trade to outsiders. The crafts can be said to have gained an economic value which they did not have before.

Now, indications are that this value, too, many be disappearing as the older people who know how to produce these things pass from the scene and other ways to obtain cash become available. For example, most of the interviewees had no real expectations that the village children would ever make crafts either for their own use of for sale, and yet, they nearly all wanted the children to know about them. These things seemed to be gaining a new importance, not because they were to be used or sold, but solely because they were identified as Nunivak Eskimo things. The emerging value was cultural identity value. It cannot be said that this type of value was not previously attached to the crafts; that is, that they were not valued for their “Nunivakness,” or their “Eskimoness,” but in traditional times there was no pressure to make an issue of it. In precontact and early contact times, the local value system was not jeopardized by outside forces. The issue of ethnocultural “identity” had no meaning when nearly everyone, regardless of whether Mainlander or Islander, subscribed to essentially the same cultural patterns and system of values.

The reasons for the new valuing of Nunivak Eskimo things by Nunivak Eskimos may be speculated upon. Perhaps publicity concerning minority rights from the “outside” or the political climate involving the Native Land claims issues has affected local opinion. It may be that changed attitudes of some personnel in agencies and institutions toward Native cultural heritage and accompanying grants for studies and programs have had their influence. Or, perhaps increased sophistication on the part of residents in regard to the effects of “acculturation” on the local value system has occurred. Most likely, a combination of events and circumstances has stimulated thinking which has led to the new valuing of Nunivak arts.

Whatever the causes, certainly a question is raised in regard to the relationship of cultural heritage studies and the concept of identity. If an interviewee knew nothing about the crafts, if he had never used them, and therefore had no basis of association with his cultural group until the interviewer appeared on the scene, and told him that these were Nunivak or Eskimo things, how could these things be a part of his identity, a concept which Erik Erikson spoke of as being an “irreversible historical fact” (1 968:11) or the basis of the feeling, “I am,” or “I exist?” (Cohen and Brawer, 1972:10) The answer may be that it he had already established the category of “Eskimo things” or “Nunivak things” as valuable, and as a part of himself, then he needed only to learn that a piece of craft work belonged to the valued category in order to value and accept it. Certainly the older people, who had known these objects as parts of their lives, could be said to identify more closely and automatically with some of the arts and crafts, but the desire of the younger people not to lose these things, even when it is obvious that the crafts mean little to them in terms of their practical, everyday lives, is not to be discounted.

Also, it would appear that an element of choice is possible in identification with a group of people or the things that one associates with that group. Erikson seemed to agree that the inclusion of things in one’s identity or the things one identifies with can come from conscious choice although this will often be done in response to pressures that threaten one’s basic value system (1964:93). Fitzgerald discussed a related phenomenon in his inquiry into the complexity of acculturation processes and the Maori of New Zealand. He implied that although one may never have experienced aspects of a given cultural heritage, he may make them a part of his ethnic identity, even to having the identity without the culture (1970:14). And, indeed, this would seem to be so. If, in the early thirties, as one Christian missionary claims, Nunivakers “threw their idols into the sea,” (Almquist, 1962:52) and in 1972 they told me that they wanted their children to be taught about the traditional Nunivak things, then choice seems possible, however it might be influenced by historical pressure.

A critic of this change in viewpoint might point out that people always cling sentimentally to a way of life that is passing before they give it up for good. Erikson might, judging from some of his comments on similar subjects, be inclined to say that the Nunivak people, threatened with the rush of acculturative influences now hope to bolster a tentative sense of centrality or ethno-cultural self with things that are no longer relevant to their everyday lives. He might even wonder whether they are attempting to maintain a “synthetic” identity. What seems important to this writer is that the individual accepts himself and his own background, ethno-cultural, or otherwise, and successfully integrates it into his personal whole. A sense of belonging to a shared past and a shared future with the group with which one associates himself would most likely facilitate this integration.

The problem is that Nunivakers have grown to adulthood in a culture which had traditionally passed on its values, history, and religion by means of observation and the oral tradition. With the observable traditional activities partially gone and the oral tradition interrupted by Western schooling, it is very difficult for Nunivak young people and children, under present circumstances to learn much about their own history which could be integrated into a personal whole. To complicate the situation, Nunivakers who complete eighth grade usually go on to a boarding school away from home for their high school years. In the case of the Nunivakers, the mechanism for transmitting the Eskimo past has been displaced by a mechanism which transmits other content. The content is the heritage and value system of their cultural “in-laws,” the members of the dominant national culture.

However, as shown in the interview results, there now exists a conviction among the Nunivakers that there is an Eskimo cultural heritage, although what that heritage is does not seem to be entirely clear, either to many of the Nunivakers or to those who have written about them. Most interviewees felt that whatever it is tied in some way to the old people in the village and embodied in their memories and skills. Along with this is a strong desire to have those things which are identified as being “Eskimo” valued and respected and taught to the younger Nunivakers, regardless of the antiquity or lack of it of the objects or traditions.

Recommendations for School Programs

The strongest implication of this study is that the younger people should learn about traditional Nunivak arts. It is a temptation to recommend that the village school immediately begin to teach Eskimo history, arts, and crafts, and other aspects of Eskimo cultural heritage. However, it would be wise to think of what the interviewees said in response to the question, “Who do you think knows the most about these thing?” The old people in the village were cited as the authorities and were the ones whom a substantial proportion of the interviewees wanted to teach the children. Because feelings about the Nunivak past appear to be tied closely to feelings about the oldest people in the village, the desire to have them act as teachers should be respected.

Also, while some teachers have read and studied Eskimo history, the teacher’s access to knowledge of such matters is likely to be largely that which is available in the literature, and the available literature seems to be both limited in detail and written from the interested and often sympathetic, but nevertheless ethnocentric viewpoint of people who were not a part of the culture about which they are writing. Their records may be of value in explaining Nunivak arts to outsiders or in organizing materials, but should not be used as the sole source of information when knowledgeable older people who grew to adulthood within the traditional culture are available. An exception to that might be the presentation of such traditional arts as nineteenth century masks, which no longer exist in the village.

It is this writer’s recommendation that the following guidelines be utilized for the teaching of Eskimo arts on Nunivak Island and other places in similar cultural circumstances.

1. In the formal school situation, Eskimo arts should be given their own place in the curriculum. A cultural heritage program need not be limited to the items discussed in the study. They were intended to be only representative of traditional arts. Nunivak Islanders and other Eskimo groups have produced a wide variety of items which were part of the material culture as well as stories, dances, games, and songs which were not specifically mentioned in the literature, but which are still known to at least some villagers.

2. The stance of the school system, the university, or any other agencies or organizations working in the area of cultural heritage should be facilitating rather than directive. Educational organizations should provide the mechanism whereby the most likely environment for the teaching of knowledge and appreciation of the traditional arts would be fostered, but the choice of whether or not to pursue this or that approach should be left up to the people in the village and the local school boards. Some things cannot be decided at all by outsiders. For example, one factor which complicates any scheme for teaching Eskimo arts is the matter of current religious beliefs and resulting attitudes toward the pre-Christian use of the masks. The masks and dances had a central role in traditional Eskimo religious ceremony. Any person who deals with cultural heritage studies must be careful to take into consideration local sensitivity to the traditional symbolism and function of masks and dances.

3. Whenever possible, older village people should be employed to teach younger people about these things. Responses to the interviews indicated that an initial effort on the part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to do just this thing was well received at Mekoryuk. Since there seems to be an existing concensus as to which people in the village know the most about the various “old time things,” it should not be difficult for an advisory school board to identify appropriate teachers.

School teacher aides and other regularly employed paraprofessionals could be responsible for part of the presentation and organizing of the local Eskimo arts program because they often give a continuity to the school program by their year to year presence and they should be closely attuned to community feelings.

4. Curriculum materials should be developed which will be supportive of the teaching of cultural heritage. The schools can present some things which have been collected by early explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists and are beyond the memory of the old people. A danger of distortion lies in the translation from the oral to the written tradition in stories and history, and from the three dimensional craft with a decorated surface to the photograph or drawing on the flat page and from the use of Yup’ik to English. However, within the present circumstances, this is partially unavoidable and it is mentioned as a caution against a callous wholesale presentation of stories and art work in printed form under the belief that this is totally capturing anyone’s “cultural heritage.” In general, materials should be presented as directly and as close to their original forms as possible.

5. The attitude of the school personnel should be neither condescending toward Eskimo arts nor should teachers insist that students do or study only Eskimo art. One of the most helpful functions of the school in this regard is that it can help show students the rightful and unique place which Eskimo arts hold in world art. Teachers should encourage an integrated viewpoint rather than suggest that there is an either-or choice to be made.

Further Study

1. Evaluation components should be written into cultural heritage projects. The focus should be on an enhanced sense of identity and would probably best be done by field methods which involve participant observation procedures. Local school personnel, including paraprofessionals, could employ these procedures in an informal manner or community members might want to be trained and utilized. It should be fairly easy, through the use of simple questions, to find out whether or not students know anything about it, whether it has any place in their own lives beyond school, and whether or not they think of it as related to their own cultural background.

2. There is still a need for further research for materials development and for scope and sequence in developing a cultural heritage curriculum. Very little has been written, for example, about the women’s crafts of grass basketry and skin sewing. Also, further investigation might show that there is a culturally natural sequence for teaching craft skills so that certain kinds of things would be taught to some age groups and other kinds of things to other age groups.

3. Some comparative studies might be done concerning this particular group of Eskimo people and other groups whose traditional basis of identity has been threatened or obliterated. It may be that there are some unique things about the Alaskan situation including the rise of an interest in cultural heritage studies at a time when some of the traditional life style is still intact. Attitudes toward ethno-cultural identity in different groups might be compared. Another kind of comparison might also be made. If young Nunivakers have no sense of a Nunivak past beyond their parents, whose own information may be limited, how are their attitudes toward themselves as members of a group different from young people who have had their racial and cultural histories taught to them and reinforced by the total environment of home, school, religious institution, and popular culture?


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________ , ed. Ethnohistory in Southwestern Alaska and the Southern Yukon. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1970.
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Almquist, L. Arden. Covenant Mission in Alaska. Chicago: Covenant Press, 1962.
Cohen, Arthur M., and Florence B. Brawer. Confronting Identity: The Community College Instructor. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1972.
Erickson. Erik H. “Identity and Uprootedness in Our Time,” Insight and Responsibility. New York: VV.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1964.
________. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1968.
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Last modified October 7, 2008