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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
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Cross-Cultural Issues in

Alaskan Education Vol. I



Lary Schafer
Cross-cultural Education Development Program
University of Alaska, Ft. Yukon

Despite their homogeneous appearance to an outsider, Alaska Native communities often contain a variety of sub-groups which are delineated in both overt and subtle ways. When a particular speech form is used to delineate these group differences, the speech cannot be fully understood apart from the context in which it occurs. Often this context cannot readily be discovered or understood by those who do not share the same cultural or social experiences as the participants. But understanding the nature of the differences is secondary in a process in which one must first of all realize that differences do, in fact, exist. Often, by careful observation, teachers and others will be able to pick up cues that will help them order their experiences and responses in a linguistically appropriate manner, even though much of the implicit meaning underlying the relationship may never be fully understood. Speech forms may constitute many kinds of unspoken assumptions that an outsider may never know, but if he realizes that certain speech forms and social acts may represent specific problems and functions in group identification he may be able to increase effective interaction with the participants of these groups.

Barth (1969) argues that close attention to, and analysis of, boundary maintenance systems and the social organization of group differences may yield valuable information regarding the nature of groups which interact with each other. The forms of interaction that reveal group boundaries may tell us more about the internal structures of those groups than studies dealing with the cultural traits of a specific group. He suggests a focus of investigation that deals with boundaries of groups and the systems that maintain them, rather than with the cultural context of the separate group or groups.

The following observations and comments concerning some functions which speech forms may serve in rural Alaskan communities represent an initial attempt to address a particular set of concerns about language function which have been a neglected part of the training for new teachers going into Alaskan bush schools. Such information may also be useful for any other persons who live or work in a social environment which is different from that with which they have previously been familiar.

In this paper, I will discuss ways in which forms of speech function to delineate boundaries between sub-groups in some Alaskan communities. I will look, in part, at the cultural (speech) and organizational requirements for certain systems of boundary maintenance between groups and between specific value spheres.

Language is often cited as an indispensable component in the maintenance of group identity and boundaries; this implies that language variations are necessary for generating specific groups and for maintaining their identities. Such variations are viewed as being the primary factor in generating group solidarity and in making minifest group boundaries. Recent sociolinguistic findings, however, indicate that “significant differences in speed between various kinds of groups that are in frequent contact are not, in themselves, responsible for the establishment and maintenance of group boundaries. These differences rather reflect features of social organization through a process of social codification, and thus serve as idioms of identification with particular group values, whether santioned internally or forced upon the group by outsiders” (Blum 1969: 83).

In many situations, the relevant structure for communication of group boundaries is speech form rather than the language itself. DeVos (1 975: 16) suggests that group identity can even be maintained by minor differences in linguistic patterns and by style of gesture.

The processes of group identity can be illustrated on a continuum starting with interaction to establish personal identity and extending to people interacting to make manifest a national identity. I would like to deal with a smaller continuum representing what I feel are the major components in group identity processes people experience in Rural Alaska. At one end of this continuum is the situation in which people of the same group go through the mechanics of establishing rules of identity. This often takes place in an intra-ethnic or intra-group context. Further along the continuum, another point which represents perhaps the halfway mark, is the situation in which different groups interact with each other in defining their boundaries. This could be referred to as inter-group interaction and basically deals with social identity rather than ethnic identity. At the other end of the continuum, I would describe the situation as being where people and groups are seen by a broader group-Rural Alaskans affiliated in some sense, usually in the sharing at some level of values. These three situations or contexts are obviously not mutually exclusive and indeed overlap in many ways, but they are representative of points on the continuum and can be used as a heuristic devise to illustrate the point.

The three contexts thus can generally be described as follows:

  1. Broadest context of the Rural Alaskan life style.
  2. Inter-group affiliation within specific communities of the broader Rural Alaska context.
  3. Intra-group affiliation, usually seen in the context of the ethnic identification processes.

What I will be concerned with here is the codification of speech forms and their use as idioms of identification and their function in delineating inter and intra-group spheres within these contexts.

Rural Alaska Lifestyle as a Group

In Alaska, there are numerous Native groups, identified as Eskimo, Indian, and Aleut in the broadest sense. And among these groups there are many sub-groups differentiating themselves by language, culture or geographical location. Although each village is unique in its own right, the majority of Natives and others living in what is often referred to as “the bush,” have similar experiences in terms of the physical, social and political environment, which cause them to see themselves as belonging to a special class of people. There is general feeling that sharing these experiences gives one an affiliation with the group. This “group,” as one can imagine, has a rather amorphous nature, and boundary lines are highly flexible and fluid depending upon the specific situation in which the boundaries of this value sphere are identified. Whether the individual is accepted into the fold of his or her group depends on many things, including the specific experiences and the ability to send out recognizable and accepted signals identifying oneself with group membership. These signals will be received and translated by the group, and the level of participation in the group activities will thus be determined. There is a limit to the level of participation, depending on the specific experiences of both the individual looking for recognition and the receiving group.

I would like to share an experience which I think demonstrates how identity signals are received and translated into admittance into specific group value spheres. This example illustrates how a specific speech form, a “village dialect” of English, was the overt signal which alerted an audience to my background and allowed me to share in certain experiences with that particular group. Working with the Alaska Federation of Natives, I had occasion to visit the villages of Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island. On one of the first visits, I went in with a number of state and federal officials who also had business in these villages. In Savoonga, we met as a group with the Indian Reorganization Act Committee, school board, and other interested people. During a break of our all-too-familiar show and tell program, an Eskimo woman asked if I was part Eskimo or Indian and if I was from some village. There were no physical characteristics to make me stand out from the State and Federal people who were on the same program. I assured her that I was neither Eskimo nor Indian, but had spent considerable time in the Tlingit community of Kake. She replied she suspected as much because you talk like us.” Evidently during my presentation I had inadvertently slipped into a form of village dialect which she recognized. The use of this speech form identified me as having had some experience in a rural community, at least enough for me to have picked up some use of the village dialect. It implied much more, and after being asked more specific questions about my years at Kake, I was accepted as a member of the group, at least up to certain specified levels. Use of village dialect was an overt signal which allowed me admittance to the sharing of certain activities which were denied the other visitors, including invitations to visit homes for tea and meals and to share sleeping quarters rather than being bunked in the school. The use of village dialect contained overt signals with positive attributes allowing for inter-action in value spheres that would otherwise have been denied. This is not to suggest that outsiders consciously attempt to use village dialect as a means of gaining admittance to a village community, but only to illustrate my point regarding some functions which speech forms serve.

Although the above example is one which shows speech form as a positive attribute, there have been, and are, situations where such signals are clearly received and translated as a stigma. The following examples illustrate how village dialect can be translated as a negative signal which can result in classifying the dialect speaker to an inferior status.

In many situations, especially inter-group interaction, village dialect functions as a stigma, an overt sign or signal, usually negative in connotation, identifying a person as belonging to a certain category. Stigma is an attribute which distinguishes between virtual social identity and actual social identity of individuals or groups. Virtual social identity is the characterization of an individual based on what others feel a person should be. The characterization of an individual based on the person as he exists constitutes his actual social identity. If these characteristic attributes are negative, so that the person is viewed as less than his virtual social identity, then these attributes may be classified as stigmas and constitute a special discrepancy between virtual and actual identities (Goffman 1969: 3). However, the stigma per se is not the discrediting factor so much as the relationship of those involved in the process of identifying the stigma.

One example of speech as stigma can be seen as reticence on the part of many Native people to discuss or communicate with members of the dominant culture, reflecting a feeling of inadequacy in their ability to express themselves properly, explicitly, and articulately. For many village people, the self-perceived inability to express themselves effectively in a standard or acceptable dialect of English will often cause them to remain silent, rather than to give themselves away as poor speakers.

In reality, however, village dialect can actually enhance a given communication, since certain social and cultural phenomena may be made more meaningful when communicated through a particular form of speech. For example, certain personal relationships have categorical values that are best expressed within a particular form of speech, one of which may be village dialect. Emphasis on particular phenomena through specific speech forms may make manifest a meaning that could not be duplicated by standard English. Nevertheless, many see this form of village English as a stigma and avoid situations in which such “incompetence” could be recognized. This reluctance to speak in certain situations may be internally sanctioned, though such internal values often have outside pressures as their sources.

This, I would suggest, is the origin of the following example. In this situation, village dialect is seen as a stigma by another group, usually some form of the dominant culture, such as a bureaucracy, educational institution or other formal organization. When people speak in a village dialect, they are often stigmatized as incompetent and inept in understanding the ways of the organization or person being addressed. Being identified and placed in such a category often results in being talked down to in a patronizing and derogatory manner.

An example of this can be seen in the client relationship between Natives and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) General Assistance program when the program was operated out of the BIA headquarters in Fairbanks and managed for the most part by career employees. There was much dissatisfaction expressed by the Native clients, who stated that there was little understanding on the part of the BIA Assistance officers and that they were always “talked down to.” BIA employees often complained that the Natives could not manage money or that they drank it up. But what was extremely important, in terms of the issue here, was the frequency that the comment was made by BIA personnel that the Natives could not even speak “proper English.” My limited field observations suggest that those who spoke a village dialect were treated differently from those who spoke standard English with a minimum of dialectal variation.

When local Native organizations later contracted with the BIA to administer the General Assistance program, Athabascan and Eskimo case workers were hired and there was, in general, a change in attitude toward the relationship between client and case worker. At this time, I had the opportunity to observe at close hand many client transactions, and one thing absent in the interaction was complaints by caseworkers about the Natives, not speaking proper English. There was also more informal communication between client and worker, and though I made no systematic comparison, I suspect there was much more interaction then than there had been between the client and the career BIA employee under the old system. I would like to emphasize that there were a great many factors influencing these interaction situations and ensuing attitudes; however, the speech form which had previously functioned as a stigma was now removed as an intervening variable.

As Alaska Natives move into positions of influence, they are becoming less concerned about village dialect and other overt signals which were once perceived by themselves and others as stigma. They are now speaking out without fear and shifting the responsibility of understanding to the listening party.

This last example has several interesting implications that may be worthwhile to discuss. When the BIA was running the program the interaction was inter-ethnic, that is, it was basically Native interacting with another socio-cultural group, the BIA. Shultz (1972: 15) states that inter-ethnic encounters tend to be characterized by a lack of intimacy, and that participants usually prefer to discuss only “safe” topics, that is topics which tend not to get personal, such as weather, formal business, et cetera. This type of communication makes for some measure of social distance, and where one group or participant is dominant the distance becomes vertical as well as horizontal. When the reorganization of the General Assistance program came about and Native people were hired and the participation took place in the local Native Center, the type of interaction changed-it became intra-ethnic. Shultz (1972: 16) describes intro-ethnic encounters as more intimate and less concerned with institutional identification. Although the context of relationships tended to be impersonal and bureaucratic, it was couched in an ethnic context as well, which made for a much different quality of relationships. Ethnicity establishes a more informal context for interaction because of its known historical and social relationships.

Inter-Group Identification Processes

I will now focus on the boundary maintenance processes that take place at another level of group identification-that of various sub-groups within larger community or regional contexts-and how speech forms are used by such groups as methods of delineating and recognizing group boundaries. The identity process on this level is mostly social, although ethnicity can be a factor in many of the situations.

Perhaps a comment on social identity is in order. In most Alaskan communities there is a “lot of action.” The source of this action comes from increased economic opportunity and increased political power, the two main phenomena behind these increases are the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the Alaska Natives Claims Settlement Act. There is no need to go into detail about the effects these have had on rural Alaska, except to say that they have brought great social, economic, and political changes throughout the State. So much so in fact, that there has been a trend toward the formation of new groups along economic and political lines. As Wax (1974: 165) has indicated elsewhere, being a contemporary Indian may be a matter of social and political identity, as well as cultural identity. The nature of interaction between groups at this level is less formal than the previous level, but for the most part still revolves around “safe” topics. Again speech forms can play important roles in identifying and helping maintain the boundaries of the group though this first example involves village dialect, the use of the Native language and its function as stigma occurs in a less overt and more subtle way than the previous examples. These situations were observed in the communication structures and patterns in a rural elementary school. I knew the teacher and most of the students fairly well, and for the most part I attempted to play the passive observer, being fairly unobtrusive and not interfering noticeably with any interaction taking place. There were eleven children in the classroom (grades 1 through 4) and the teacher. The students sat in a semi-circle around the chalkboard. The teacher used this central location when something had to be written on the chalkboard or when some general information was given to the whole class.

As the teacher helped an individual student, the remaining children would often start to talk to one another. The talking was not loud, and had a sort of constant, buzzing effect. Occasionally the teacher would interrupt her discussions with individual students to warn the class to be quiet and continue with their work. After several instances of this, it was noticeable that the teacher spoke directly to two particular children most of the time. There was not noticeable loud talking from these two to distinguish them from other students when they were reprimanded for making too much noise. It seemed that the other children were making similar levels of noise, although there was no accurate way in which the noise level could be measured.

What did become distinguishable upon closer observation was occasional use of the Native language by the students. It was when these two students, and occasionally others, would speak their Native tongue that the teacher would respond, as though the sound of the Native language was an indicator of distraction. When the Native language became audible to the teacher, for whatever reason, her attention was attracted and she responded by reprimanding those children who were perceived as “making noise.” The evidence is not sufficient to suggest anything except that on this particular day in this particular school it seems that the teacher responded unconsciously to the Native language as excessive noise, in that sense a stigma. This phenomenon is discussed in Lambert (1964) in more detail where he deals with individual responses and attitudes to a comparable statement in two languages or dialects. The above is a similar situation in which two languages are being used and one language elicits a more favorable response than the other.

One of the things that has happened here is a break in the primary group identity through the encroachment of symbols from another group. The primary group is the class which includes the teacher. When several students start talking the Native language, signals are being transmitted that indicate they are acting as a different group, to the exclusion of others, most importantly to the exclusion of the teacher. There are a number of ways in which this process could establish in-group/out-group relationships; Kutchin/Non-Kutchin speakers, Teacher/Students, or Native/Non-Native. However these relationships were interpreted, group boundaries were made visible by speech form which elicited alternative response by the parties involved.

Another example of the function of village dialect in maintaining boundaries occurred in a relatively large rural community, where the outward appearance provides very few overt signs of the various sub-cultures that live within the community. However, there are, as in most communities, many different groups with different value systems, all of which are differentiated by specific though fluid boundaries. Sometimes speech form becomes one of the instruments used to distinguish these different spheres of values.

One faction of young people in this community perceives themselves as belonging to a higher social class than some of the others namely, the less educated and those from the smaller villages. They often speak disparagingly about the “dumb Indians,” who are often identified as being unable to read, write and speak standard English. The comment, “The dumb Indian, he can’t even write or speak right,” is often bandied about. I observed a group of these young people for a time when they discussed the “dumb Indians. . .” All the participants were Native themselves. My presence was probably not a factor, since I was in the bedroom babysitting and few of the group were aware of my presence. As the discussion progressed, it became apparent to some of the participants that the label “dumb Indians” may be putting themselves outside the identity boundaries of generalized “Indians,” as seen by the people of this area. Before they reached this stage of introspection. the group began consciously using exaggerated village dialect. The juxtaposition of the forms of speech was used to create stylistic effect depicting the speakers’ attitudes. It was done as an act of reaffirmation of identity with the larger group, and their identity as “Indian” was reinstated and verified by use of this particular form of speech. This exaggerated use of village dialect declared their ability to cross boundaries and to participate in two value sub-systems while maintaining their identity as “Indian,” an activity in which the “dumb Indians” could not engage.

It is interesting that these students turned to village dialect instead of their Native language to reaffirm their identities. One of the reasons is that many young people in this area do not speak their Native tongue. The village dialect, therefore, represented an overt signal of group characterization used to establish group and individual identity. In this particular case, village dialect was perceived both as a stigma and as a positive symbol in identifying particular group boundaries in the same sphere of interaction.

Personal and Ethnic Contexts of Group Identification

The third level of identification process I wish to discuss is the function of speech form in maintaining ethnic identification. The major difference between ethnic identity refers to direct cultural and historical relationships between people. Ethnicity is defined here in the narrow sense, in that it is past oriented and is primarily a sense of belonging to a particular ancestry and sharing specific cultural phenomenon as language, religion and other traits (DeVos 1975: 19). This level of intra-ethnic interaction is characterized by higher levels of intimacy than the other two, and in fact intimacy seems to be the main structure of the interaction.

The city of Ft. Yukon is not a traditional village site, but was a central trading place for the nearby villages, and after the Hudson Bay trading post was established, it became the largest population center on the upper Yukon. Many of the inhabitants of Ft. Yukon are from the surrounding villages and although there are situations in which people interact and see themselves as Ft. Yukoners, the more common focus of identity is ethnic. Ethnic identity is an important factor in dealing with problems. particularly when conflict is involved. These problems may be personal, social, economical or other, but support of one’s primary ethnic affiliation is very important in the solution of these conflict situations. The following example relates how, in a conflict situation, speech form was used to emphasize ethnic differences.

In certain situations, even standard English may imply stigmatic characteristics. In this instance, a young lady had some sort of conflict with one of her friends in which the argument grew heated. She later expressed her actions and feelings as follows: “I really told her off! I told her off in my very best English!” The unmistakable innuendo here is that being told off in proper English was a real insult. The implication of being “cussed out” in proper English is that that person had to be spoken to in proper English, and that she is less than “Indian.” It implies that the person is outside specific group boundaries and requires a specific form of speech for comprehension. The symbolic message of understanding only proper English makes that form of speech a stigma to the person to whom it is spoken.

In this instance, village dialect can be seen as a restricted form of speech or code to be used only where trusted “Indian” identities are necessary for the interaction. Eidheim (1969) gives similar examples of this among the Lapps and Norwegians, where Lapp is spoken at certain times to those who are known to share similar social identities and value spheres.

In another example, there was a group of young women visiting my house, staying over to catch a plane back to their village. They were sitting around talking about various things when the question of language came up. The girls proceeded to test one another on their abilities to speak the Native language effectively. After establishing that each was an expert,” they proceeded to discuss how others spoke the language differently and perhaps not quite as correctly. One of the girls would say something imitating the dialect from another village, and the other girls would gleefully laugh and joke about how “funny” the other villages spoke the language. Soon another girl would start in by saying, “Here, let me show you how (such and such) people say something.” Then, to much laughter and ridicule of the dialect, she would proceed. This became a major source of entertainment for them and lasted for some time. One of the things that was happening here was that the girls were reaffirming themselves as a special ethnic group and at the same time identifying those dialects by which they can differentiate between members of their group and outsiders.

Summary and Implications

As I have tried to illustrate, speech forms are often much more complex and influential than they appear on first observation. In this paper I have examined a number of diverse speech forms and tried to show how they function in identifying and maintaining group boundaries. Although there are a number of ways in which speech forms complete this task, the two with which I have been primarily concerned are how speech forms are perceived as having stigmatic attributes and how they are used as identity symbols, depending upon the social context in which they are used.

If indeed, identity maintenance is an important process in the functioning of small communities, knowledge of that process should be of considerable value to teachers, both as educators and members of the community.

There are some differences, however, in how identity-related processes can affect non-Native and Native teachers. When non-Native teachers are in a rural Native community, they are often strangers to the complex web of group affiliation that is so typical of these communities. As teachers become more aware of these processes and the underlying structure of local group identities this knowledge can be influential in establishing relationships within the community. On one level at least, the non-Native person can often act with immunity to sanctions against improper behavior by virtue of her/his role as a learner. It is not uncommon for teachers to be given great latitude in their behavior and interaction patterns because of their unfamiliarity with locally established patterns. The communities appear to have a high tolerance for learners, by allowing such persons to make both quantitatively and qualitatively more mistakes than would normally be tolerated. But non-Native teachers become aware of the new social situations with which they are confronted, and they learn the new roles that these situations require. They are expected to behave in an appropriate manner.

The Native teachers too are involved in the identity maintenance process, but in a way different from that of the non-Native teachers. If the Native teachers are within their own cultural milieu, they already know a great deal about the various groups and sub-groups within the milieu. But the Native teachers are a part of that system themselves and are, therefore, more intimately involved with the interaction. One of the differences in the relationships being the level of intimacy as described in intra-ethnic as contrasted with inter-ethnic encounters.

The Native teacher, being so closely related to the social system, may find that the knowledge of group identities is restrictive rather than helpful in dealing with specific problems. The tolerance for error is much less for these teachers, as they have two positions, one as teacher and one as community member, and, therefore, are not accorded the tolerance given to the non-Native “learner.”

Referring to the example of Native language as an indicator of noise level, a Native teacher would probably not be forgiven for the same behavior if it was known. On the other hand, it is improbable that a Native teacher would have responded in the same manner.

The new role the Native acquires as a teacher may enhance her/his social prestige, but the added requirement of acceptable community behavior required of the dual roles may be a source of serious conflict.

I see the solution as perhaps not a dual role situation, but as group identities are being redefined with the ensuing economic and political change taking place, new roles will emerge for “Native teachers.” Although the nature of these roles is speculative, it will probably require a new set of expectations and identity more consistent with the existing social order.


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DeVos, George. “Ethnic Pluralism: Conflict and Accommodation,” in Ethnic Identity. DeVos and Romanucci-Ross, eds. Wenner-Green Foundation, 1976.
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Shultz, Jeffrey. “The Search for Co-Membership: An Analysis of Conversations Among Strangers.” Unpublished paper, 1971.
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