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Native Pathways to Education
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Cross-Cultural Issues in

Alaskan Education Vol. I



Steve Grubis
Cross-cultural Education Development Program
University of Alaska, Dillingham

The right of men to participate in those institutions which affect their lives is a legal reality in Alaskan education. This is especially true now with legislation that enables rural regions of the vast state to control their local schools. Unfortunately the aisle separating legislative intent from the reality of rural Alaskan villages is a wide one. The reasons for this separation are numerous, including life styles, environments and cultural differences. There are, in addition, other factors which impede legislative intent and sow confusion on new roles for Alaskan natives in their educational institutions. People are naturally hesitant about any radical innovation which will affect their lives. Hence, change needs to be seen in a non-disruptive manner, a manner which represents the change as an extension of the target group’s past affairs rather than an abrupt sprint in a new direction. One cannot expect enthusiastic attitudes to suddenly blossom among villagers who have traditionally been on the outside of change looking in.

Programs or change projects, whether they are water systems or school boards “need to be interpreted in terms of the particular population involved and of the problem it faces,” (Biddle and Biddle, 1965, p. 31). One author attributes the foundering of many of these change programs to the fact that “They have been based on the needs of groups as perceived not by them but by persons in the dominant society,” (Niemi, 1973, p. 6).

The difficulty here is that many of these problems are defined by groups other than the target group. In the past in Alaska, decisions affecting curriculum, teacher hiring and educational policy have traditionally been made outside the village. Alaskan native residents have for years had minimal control over the forces affecting their lives. Decisions made at the local level dealt with insignificant items that outside groups had little interest in, such as which days the local school would celebrate holidays.

Rural Alaskan native advisory school boards have never had any actual legal basis in the past. Villagers were accustomed to local advisory school boards being somewhat powerless, depending on what type of teacher resided in the teacherage. Often, superintendents visiting a village would not even meet with the school board.

Bureaucracies develop routines, systems and channels through which they dispense information and strive toward their tabulated objectives. Problems arise when a bureaucracy attempts to deal in another cultural milieu, such as an Alaskan village; an atmosphere in which its organizational apparatus is not sensitive. One cannot expect a once powerless group to suddenly take the reins of control because of a directive from the central office of a bureaucratic organization. A redistribution of power from a central urban office to a rural region which uses informal organizational networks cannot be achieved through policy recommendations emanating from this office. The informational networks of village culture must be included in any systematic relocation of the power process, and a shift in political power is precisely what is occurring in rural Alaskan education.

Alaskan natives are now entering an episode in their history in which they are assuming responsibility for their economic and educational future. This has been brought about through the implementation of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and state legislation concerning regional control of education. Control of formal education is a new role; transference phases in a culturally diverse group such as Alaskan Natives cannot be expected to occur with uniformity. The purpose of this paper is to examine approaches to this transference phase as it relates to communicating and integrating acceptable change in Alaskan villages.

Acceptable local change is that change which has evolved through the work of fathers, mothers, grandparents, brothers and sisters of native children. The probability of the emergence of acceptable change when parents and elders are involved within their community is far greater than when change is introduced from outside of the community. Communities must be free to identify problem areas, arrange priorities, and express ideas and concerns regarding needs. This implies that the community cannot be engaged solely as a client and advisor to programs, but rather as a decision maker (Fantini, 1970). I feel that in order for meaningful and locally acceptable change to occur in Alaskan native villages, the problems must not be defined by professionals, but rather by the community and within the cognitive framework of the community. Change, if it is to be accepted must be integrated with the cultural system itself.

Let us look at one method of inducing change in the educational realm at the village level through the Advisory School Board. Advisory school boards legally and in practice have minimum authority. However, as has been mentioned, this is rapidly changing due to the creation of legal regional school boards. In the example village, with the fictional name of Barren Bay, the Advisory School Board members themselves were also active in the village council. They were respected figures in the community with extended kinship ties through the village. They were all members of the informal informational network, which in bush communities is more persuasive than the formal school board entity itself. A characteristic I observed in dealing with different rural native school boards is, that although there may be differences of opinion expressed at meetings, formal decisions are usually unanimous. This is probably influenced by such factors as kinship, informal informational networks and the necessity in villages to work together and resolve differences.

A community problem-solving facilitator is one who attempts to work with community members in helping to organize and focus attention on locally defined problems. Any community problem solving facilitator entering a community such as Barren Bay should be aware of the informal informational networks. Dealings with formal village organizational structures such as the village council and the advisory school board need not be extensive. Informally, however, involvement with members of these groups should be extensive. A community problem solving facilitator who deals extensively with only formal structural entities could very well impede his purpose in some communities. Advisory school boards are not formal structural entities in all native bush communities. Informal networks peculiar to bush communities need to be taken into account in the authorization and developmental phases of change programs. Within the informal social interaction and communication networks in bush communities there exists a protocol for dispensing and receiving information. Entering a home and discussing business immediately is not the way the informal organizational structure operates. Business cannot be rushed. If an occasion doesn’t arrive for business discussion on the first visit there will always be other visits. Violations of these informal networks alienate one from the community and decrease the effectiveness of the facilitator. Adaptation to and maximizing the use of the informal organizational mechanisms within the community requires patience and familiarity with life styles. More informational substance can emerge over a pot of caribou than in a school gymnasium amidst professionals. For those interested in further details on native and non-native communication, see Vaudrin (1973).

My entry into the village of Barren Bay was established by invitation, from the village primarily, and then from the structures which at that time were controlling education in the village.

Correspondence was maintained one year prior to implementation of the change program with the bureaucratic organization responsible for education in the community. The correspondence consisted of a mutual exchange of ideas concerning the community control of education in rural Alaska. Current legislative proposals, memos pertinent to community control and cultural-educational objectives were items included within the communication. The exchange furnished me with current materials in the proposed area of concern and provided guidelines within the educational philosophies of the State-Operated School System and the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Communication was officially established with Barren Bay’s school board three months prior to the first visit to the village. Informal communication with power figures in the community had been going on for a few years. The formal communication consisted of a letter and a brief explanation of the proposal, asking whether the community would be interested in a change program. The letter was followed up by a personal meeting in Anchorage with the recently resigned school board chairman. The ex-chairman, who was currently president of the village council, assured the facilitator that the advisory school board was interested. A copy of the program was presented to the council president and an invitation was extended to the community problem solving facilitator. Arrangements were made for the facilitator’s accommodations and a date was set for the first visit.

Upon arrival in Barren Bay, the facilitator met immediately with the advisory school board chairman. In an informal setting in the chairman’s home, the program was explained and the chairman suggested a school board meeting be called the following day. The school board meeting would allow for a formal presentation and a decision on the board’s involvement. It is strongly suspected that a decision had already been made through the informal decision making network of the village.

After the consultation with the advisory school board chairman, the facilitator met with the principal teacher. The program was explained to the principal teacher with a request for suggestions.

Prior to the school board meeting, an informal meeting was held with the president of the village council. The president, who was also the former advisory school board chairman, expressed confidence in the new chairman and offered to support the proposed community involvement in any way he could.

The first advisory school board meeting was held as is customary in the teacher’s quarters with the teacher present. The facilitator requested to be absent for a period of time so that discussions and decisions could occur without the pressure of an outsider present. The request for a segregated caucus was denied. The board felt that there was no need for a segregated caucus and that a depision could be reached without being pressured by an outsider. The board accepted the proposal to begin examining and determining their own educational needs and to begin devisng strategies to meet those needs.

In my opinion, the professional educator’s commitment to formal learning experiences can limit his recognition of alternative types of experiences. The educator is accustomed to operating within his own culture-bound concepts of what is acceptable educational programming. Culture-boundness can act as a deterrent to the discovery of unique educational opportunities (Wolcott, 1967), which I firmly believe can best evolve from within the community itself.

In communicating and integrating locally acceptable educational change in cross-cultural situations, the objectivity of the facilitator is obviated by his traditional cultural background. The following excerpt from the report by the Governor’s Commission on Cross-Cultural Education most succinctly illustrates the necessity for meaningful community involvement:

The Native community must have the opportunity to determine the type of education which their children are to receive. Decisions which will result in drastic upheavals in the lives of culturally diverse children should not be made solely by educators, psychologists, or anthropologists, regardless of their noble intentions and motives. Involvement by members of the Native community must not be at a superficial level nor serve as a device simply to better acquaint parents with the previously determined aims and objectives established by the schools. Rather, major educational directions must be determined by community members themselves-drawing, of course, upon the specialized knowledge of experts in relevant disciplines (Ray, 1969, p. 73).

It was an awareness of the above report that the community problem solving facilitator entered into Barren Bay.

Obviously, a community problem solving facilitator needs to know the community in which he will be working. This requires that he communicate with the residents. Communication is more than just verbalization. Communication is the sharing of experiences which develops shared frames of reference. The situation is much more difficult when working with clients whose culture is entirely different from that of the facilitator, as Goodenough points out (1967). Language and culture form barriers which the community facilitator needs to overcome if he’s to increase his probability of successful focusing on the problem within the community.

I learned and used a few phrases in the local native dialect in my daily activities. Another factor which assisted me was the use of the village’s English dialect. This speech form indicates to villagers that the outsider has shared certain village values. This speech form, as Schafer (1976) elaborates, is recognizable throughout village Alaska. The form does not indicate residence in a particular village, but rather as having lived in villages for lengthy periods. The use of the dialect conveys a wide range of shared activities that would be denied outsiders. As Schafer observed, “the use of village dialect contains overt signals with attributes which allowed for interaction in value spheres that would otherwise have been denied” (Schafer, 1976, p.11).

In the village of Barren Bay I became effective by becoming a vital part of the process of change and influencing the situation. My role became one of seeking a balance between my own initiative and that of the local participants. This balance would, as Biddle and Biddle (1965) indicate, allow for maximum encouragement of local initiative towards the attainment of identified goals.

In Barren Bay my community involvement evolved in numerous ways. These included attendance at church functions, birthday parties, innumerable teas and coffees, steam baths, movies, cesspool digging, supply unloading, rambling discussions on the beach, and village meetings. These contacts with community members provided an opportunity for warm and personal relationships to develop. Foster’s observation in this regard is that “people, however well qualified technically, usually are much less successful in developmental work than are those who can establish friendships marked by mutual respect with the people who are receiving the aid” (Foster, 1969, p.116).

I feel that a community problem solving facilitator can increase his affectiveness by attempting physically and emotionally to adapt to the village. Physical adaptation to a different culture is a relatively easy accomplishment. By living in similar housing and eating the same foods, the facilitator can physically adapt. He can hunt, travel, and build with his clients. These activities, although not part of the facilitator’s normal cultural activities, can be learned. The learning and participation in these experiences involves the facilitator with the community and establishes some shared frames of reference with his clients.

Emotional adaptation requires extensive and lengthy involvement within the culture. Emotional adaptation leads to the ability to perceive events in the manner that they are perceived by the studied culture. Words and actions convey different meanings to those who share the emotional climate of the culture under study than those who do not.

For example, the Baffin Island Eskimo word “ionamat” is used frequently to convey any degree of physical or emotional pain. It is translated to roughly “it can’t be helped” and is said when one accidentally cuts one’s finger or on similar occasions. The expression is also used in referring to the death of a loved one. To the individual who is not emotionally adapted to the Baffin Island culture, it would seem inhuman to be so unfeeling and casual about a loved one’s death; however, the word “ionamat” conveys deep meaning. The word reflects a philosophical state of mind based on the conditioning of the culture. This philosophical position may not be in keeping with the emotional framework on an outside facilitator-and may lead to faulty conclusions on his interpretation.

Physical and emotional adaptation are essential ingredients when assisting groups that have an entirely different background from the community problem solving facilitator. Even when the language spoken is the same, the meanings attached to various phrases and behavior are often different and incomprehensible to the outsider. Physical and emotional adaptation open the facilitator to communication techniques and meanings employed within the target group.

Physical and emotional adaptation lead to the development of mutual understandings. Without mutual understandings or shared frames of reference, the depth of insight established by the facilitator can only be minimal. Even when the community problem solving facilitator develops shared frames of reference, he is a vast distance from a true insider’s view when he has not been raised among the people he is working with. The childhood games, the relationships with village adults and the “feel” of the environment are beyond reach, and the absence of an insider’s view creates gaps of profound significance.

This whole question of communicating and integrating acceptable change becomes markedly different when the facilitator is a member of the target group. In these situations the approaches used by the indigenous facilitators often differ sharply from the approaches of the outside facilitators. Much can be learned in assisting the change process in native communities by observing how resident native community problem solving facilitators use informal information networks.

The following incident will illustrate some of the differences between approaches of facilitators who reside in a community and those who do not by looking at a group of eight university students participating in a village study program. Two of the eight students were native residents of the village. As the study progressed it became apparent that the community had a number of alternatives for their local schools. It was decided by the group to present these options to the community so that they could be fully aware of the range of alternatives. A chart illustrating various courses of action and implications of those actions was prepared for the community along with an outline. The two native residents in the study group had wholeheartedly participated in the collection and analysis of the various alternatives. However, there came an abrupt break which upset some of the non-native group members when the two native students decided that they would like to communicate the educational alternatives to the village and that they had no intention of using the prepared materials. Obviously the two native students were the most suited for the dissemination of the information in their community; however, the problem within the student group revolved around the rejection of the carefully prepared materials. The two students explained that although the outline and table depicting the alternatives were most beneficial for them in clarifying their own thoughts on the subject, the organization of the material and the chart itself were completely out of harmony with communication patterns within their village. It was explained that things are not elaborated upon with charts and outlines at village meetings. The two native students felt that the researched educational alternatives were important and should therefore be presented to the village. The two argued that the proposed method of presentation with prepared materials at a village council meeting would impede understanding of the alternatives and lessen the likelihood of subsequent action. The two native students suggested that they could more effectively disseminate the information through traditional informal information patterns.

The latter example indicates the vast cultural chasm in methodology that lies between those concerned individuals from outside the community who wish to assist in the change process and those who are most affected by the change. Meaningful change doesn’t occur easily from sources alien to a cultural system, with the notable and deplorable exception of armed intervention. Meaningful and durable change is that which evolves from within the cultural system itself.

Alaskan natives are rapidly assuming control over their educational systems. The communication and integration of this responsibility into the varied cultural systems that exist among the natives of Alaska is an awesome task. Those involved in the transference of this responsibility need to live in villages and in close association with community members. Community problem solving facilitators should be primarily responsible to the village. Because of cultural differences, indigenous community facilitators have a greater probability of success than do those less familiar with the life styles of villagers. Change, to be effective, must become an internalized conviction of the people involved. Through the internalizing of convictions, change and the longevity of subsequent programs can be sustained without the presence of external facilitators.

Locally acceptable change can occur only when it is time for it to occur and that season is best determined by the community itself. Programs to induce change may be forceably transplanted to communities by expert horticulturists; however, the climate of the greenhouse is often inappropriate for the field. Meaningful and durable change nurtures itself from the community’s own perceptions of its needs. The communicating and integrating of these changes within a community can most readily arise when the community itself sees the need to cultivate.


Biddle, W.W. & Biddle, L.J. The Community Development Process. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966.
Fantini, M. Community Control and the Urban School. New York: Praeger, 1 970.
Foster, G.M. Applied Anthropology. Boston: Little Brown & Company, 1969.
Goodenough, W.H. Cooperative in Change. New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 1963.
Niemi, J. A. “Communicating with the so-called disadvantaged: Can we find a common ground?” BTSD Review, March, 1973.
Ray, Charles K.; Arnold, Robert; Darnell, Frank; et al. Time for Change in the Education of Alaska Natives. Juneau, Alaska: Governor’s Commission on Cross-Cultural Education, Alaska Department of Education, 1969.
Schafer, Larry. “Speech as stigma: The functions of speech forms in rural Alaska.” Unpublished paper, 1976.
Vaudrin, W. Native/non-Native Communication: Creating a Two-way Flow. Anchorage, Alaska: State-Operated School System, 1973.
Wolcott, H.F. A Kwakiutl Village and School. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967.




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Last modified October 6, 2008