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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



Vera Kaneshiro
Alaska Native Language Center
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

Education is something that a person acquires that nobody takes away from him. What is education? Is learning education? If learning is education, then learning in any language and culture must be education. Some Native Alaskans used to think that education was only being able to speak the English language. They did not realize that what they had learned to do in their language and culture was education. The children are taught how to carve, to sew, to hunt, to determine the weather, to learn the respectful ways of life and many, many more things. A lot of these things are learned in the classroom by city children. We all happen to have come from some sort of racial background. Our first education in essential living was learned through our immediate language and culture. We do not notice this until we see it in another culture. Language and culture goes very closely together.

Many of us had narrowed our education on English education only. Unfortunately focusing our education on only English has made some of us drift away from our original background.

We are not overlooking English education. It is a must for us, especially living in this widely English-speaking country. It opens many doors to deeper knowledge, but it should not let us stray away from our original culture. We can develop from where we are, without changing our image.

Bilingual education has been misinterpreted and misunderstood by many people. As soon as the word “Bilingual” is heard, it is thought of as teaching in a Native tongue only. We forget the real meaning of it, which is really using two different languages. I personally hope that most of us interpret bilingual education as studies in two cultures and their respective languages.

Bilingual programs vary in Alaskan communities. For those who speak their Native tongue, the Native tongue is used as a first language in instructing children in the classrooms when they first start school, because many of these children know very little or no English at all. For the communities whose language is English or both English and Native, the Native language is taught as a second language. The concept of bilingual education for those who are. from Native speaking communities is teaching that in a Native tongue is to teach them in the language they know and understand. But that is not all. It is also to carry on the language and culture that is important and original to them, to show them that they can be educated and still continue to live their own culture. For those who are mixed Native and English communities-Native language is taught as a second language so the younger generation can learn their original background and appreciate it. I have already seen the appreciation of learning and knowing the Native Alaskan culture by many children and the younger generation.

Since education has been based on only English, we have drifted away from using our own Native language, and using English language has made us slowly drift away from our own culture. We had been too busy to realize all this. We should be grateful that reviving our language and reviving our culture are included in our educational system now before it completely fades away. For those of us who have a deep feeling about our language and culture, it means so much to us. It is not borrowed, it is something that is there, passed on from generation to generation. Do we want to get careless and let it all fade away? I would hate to see something that is meaningful and original fade away.

It is sad that some people do not realize the importance of our language and culture. Recently I was told that it did not matter whether the Native language and culture is preserved or not, and that the only importance of using Native language is a tool for the Native children to learn to speak better English. That was like telling me that it did not matter whether an Alaskan Native race survived or not. I did not forget that. It encouraged me to work harder toward studying and upgrading our own Native Alaskan teachings. Yes, it is helping children to understand and speak better English, but teaching in Alaskan Native is also to teach them to learn in their own respective Native language and culture.

The bilingual programs have helped in many ways. It is giving good results in teaching children in classrooms, especially in Native-speaking communities.

How is the bilingual education helping in the village schools? I come from a strictly Native-speaking community. When I go home, many things change for me-the language, the culture, food, behavior, and I feel good about it, because it is the original me. When I attended grade school, it was very difficult to understand what was being taught by English speaking instructors. We guessed a lot. When we were asked questions, we were afraid to respond in English for fear that our English was poor. We held back a lot, knowing our expressions were different than the white teacher. We were labeled retarded for not being responsive. Some of us were fortunate to have parents who cared about our education. I had a lot of help from my father who taught and explained school work and studies to me in Yupik. I did not understand half of the lessons in school. When my father explained in Eskimo what I did not understand, then I began to learn. I remember this and it made me feel good to learn.

When teaching an Alaskan Native language it has to be prepared and taught in the Native culture, or else it loses its taste when it is taught from an English teaching point of view. These are two different cultures. One has to have lived and experienced a culture in order to fully understand it. Speaking techniques differ when switching from one culture to another. The manner of speech has to be entirely from the particular view point of the culture and language that is being used. That is why the technique in Native language teachings need to be prepared by the Native instructor instead of being prepared from only the English point of view. When teaching in the Alaskan Native culture, the curriculum should be prepared to meet the needs of the children. The teaching should begin with the immediate surroundings. It is important that children begin to learn from their immediate environment and to gradually expand to wider areas as they become aware of distant events in life.

Today with bilingual program included in our schools, I have seen a tremendous change in the children’s attitude toward school and towards their white teachers. I can speak for St. Lawrence Island schools because I am more familiar with the schools there. First of all when the children first go to school their teachers are Eskimo teachers who teach them in Yupik the concept of English learning. They are responsive to what is being taught because they are being taught in the language and manner they know. They feel accepted and appreciated as students and because they are not criticized for what they are and how they expressed themselves. They are not afraid to express themselves to their English teacher because they readily feel accepted from their Native teacher. Good motivation to learn has shown itself in these students because they are understanding what is being taught to them and the way in which they express themselves in their own culture are accepted. School is fun for them now. This is showing them a greater understanding in their own culture as well as white culture.

Do we have to change our image to be accepted by larger societies? Sometimes we feel we have to, because we feel out of place and not belonging to the accepted culture. I have heard Native people saying they hesitate to express themselves in larger communities because they feel they are not accepted the way they are. Then they try to change their identity in order to be accepted. They feel bad for not being able to meet the culture of a city. We are only hurting ourselves when we try to change our identity and if we feel we don’t meet the standards. We must help our children to appreciate their heritage and feel comfortable about expressing it. I have often heard the expression by some village people asking why all of a sudden we are trying to set them back to the old way of living. We are not trying to set them back. The idea for many of us who are concerned is, that Native Alaskans don’t have to change their identity to be educated in the whiteman’s world. You can stay just what you are and still become a professional in any field. I would like to mention that it should be emphasized, especially to the village children that they should act just the way they are. The feeling of being unable to measure up to a white culture in cities is really a set-back to the education of students from rural areas. They do not have to meet the standards of city life to be educated.

Teaching in the Native language in Native speaking villages is working because the children feel comfortable being taught in the manner they know. It is also expressed that it is hoped that Native instructions would no longer be needed in Native-speaking communities because teaching in English only is anticipated in the future. This kind of problem arises from misunderstanding of what we Natives want in our schools. Although we do not have any authority, we are concerned about our children’s education and future. We have a right to express our feelings. I am encouraged to see more and more Alaskan Natives getting interested in Native language teaching as well as English teaching. Not everybody speaks two languages.

Bilingual education is important to us because it will give us a broader knowledge and understanding of one another. It is a troubled world already, we must work together and prepare a better future for our children so that they may feel comfortable just the way they are and accept each other. God made us what we are-why should we change to something we are not. We have an origin-we have a given talent, let us put that talent to work and progress from there-as a Native.

I feel sad with the Alaskan Native high school and college students who come to our University language office and express that they have no knowledge of their language and background. They are beginning to be aware of the importance of their culture and want to learn about it. It is a slow movement and we will have some more differences about the program but I don’t feel discouraged. To see these young people becoming interested in learning their language and culture is the beginning of reviving the original Alaskan culture. Because if we don’t do anything about it, another culture will take over and our Alaskan Native language and culture will only be history.




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Last modified October 7, 2008