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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



Jim Stricks
Cross-cultural Education Development Program
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

Every cultural group has been faced with the problem of its own survival among diverse neighboring populations. Some process (either explicit or implicit) for transmitting cultural values and insuring the development of appropriate behavior in the society’s children must be established. This process involves the transmission of the essential knowledge, skills, and techniques of the older generations to the younger ones. Such skills include those necessary for survival in the natural as well as in the socio-economic environment and their transmission can be further categorized in terms of informal and formal processes. The informal occur in an incidental way, often as immediate need arises, in a natural setting; the formal usually require the establishment of an institution of some sort which specializes in controlling such processes and which usually is separated in some sense from the general flow of social life. These processes of cultural transmission-socialization, or formal and informal education-exist to preserve the traditional cultural life of the society.

A specific cultural group’s development of transmission processes depends upon two major interactive factors: the nature and needs of the child, and the goals of the society.1 Consequently, each society is unique in the details of its socialization processes and there is a great diversity around the world.2 In Palau, an island in the Pacific, for example, children are taught in a painful manner that “people are not to be trusted,”3 and this has definite repercussions in the economic, political, religious, et cetera, subsystems of the society. In contrast, the Ulithians, another Pacific Island group, are very solicitous and supportive”4 of their children, thus engendering trust and an atmosphere of relaxation. Although the basic physical needs of children in these two societies are likely the same, the groups’ implied goals, based on their collective adaptations in their respective ecological systems, are different, and therefore demand the development of different emotional and intellectual attributes for the individual members of the culture.

Similarly, educational systems vary a great deal around the world especially with regard to their level of formality or informality. Chance5 describes some aspects of the informal processes of education of the Inupiat Eskimo in northern Alaska as they were before contact with the Russians and Americans. Children learned the essentials of survival in Inupiat society and the natural setting by actually participating directly in the activities of the household. Boys accompanied their fathers on hunting trips while girls learned how to take care of the house. Religious and social lessons were learned through informal mechanisms like evening story-telling with elders or games and play with the peer group. There was no specific place or time that children learned important things; whenever there was a need or occasion for the transmission of traditional cultural skills or beliefs, such transmission occurred. This was an adaptive situation since, in a harsh environment like northern Alaska, a group that depended on hunting and gathering its food could not spend a lot of time educating its young in a special place or at a special time or in a special way and obviously would not need to do so since most of the necessary things could be learned in other ways more closely connected to the daily lifestyle of the adults. They “did not have to worry about relating education to life because learning came naturally as a part of living.”6

European and American societies have developed more diversified socio-economic systems with many more alternatives for an individual’s survival in the environment and society. As a consequence, the school was developed as a formal institution designed to specialize in the transmission of certain aspects of the cultural heritage. Developed originally to teach children to read the Bible, the school slowly evolved to include many other areas so that now it has taken on a larger share of the responsibility for transmitting a wide range of cultural values, attitudes, and knowledge to the young. It has also developed as a training ground for all sorts of vocations and careers and has begun to control, through educational sanctions, the gates to certain economic advantages. The school, of course, is a very formal mode of education; it “exists” only during certain times, five days a week, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for only 9 months each year; a professional elite has grown up to run it; special buildings have been built to house it; its activities are based on abstract systems which become increasingly complex as one progresses through the grades and increasingly separated from the ordinary daily life of the adult population. Although this American system of education has adapted somewhat to the highly complex needs of the society in which it developed, some critics would contend that it has become increasingly maladaptive, and that it does not really meet the needs of the young people anymore, nor does it transmit viable cultural beliefs and skills.

At any rate, it can be seen that both the indigenous Alaskan and the American culture groups developed their own distinctly unique cultural transmission processes according to their appropriateness for meeting the specific needs of the societies in which they arose. What happened when these different groups came into contact with each other in Alaska?

In a culture contact situation of this type, where one cultural group has a large population, great power, and great economic wealth, and where the other does not, usually the former becomes the dominant group. Its values, beliefs, and institutions take precedence over those of the smaller group, whose members begin to accommodate themselves to the larger group. This process is called acculturation. In Alaska, for several reasons, such a process has not been entirely completed; that is, although many Alaskan Natives have adapted some American technological and material elements as well as some social values and belief systems, they have not been completely acculturated. Many are still able to practice traditional subsistence lifestyles including hunting and gathering activities and their attendant social relationships. However, these are becoming more and more impossible to maintain with the influx of immigrants to Alaska and the development of mineral resources in the rural parts of the state.

This state of affairs, of course, has had and continues to have certain implications for the maintenance of continuity in the transmission of cultures in Alaska. With the introduction of schools to Alaskan Native villages there arose an obvious conflict between the American and indigenous peoples’ goals and their respective processes of cultural transmission. An Alaskan Native child was suddenly subjected to at least two patterns of life, two value systems, two systems of belief-one in his home, the other in the school. Not only that-such a child was subjected to at least two types of transmission structures and methods-again one at home and the other at school. Such a segregated system of cultural transmission could only engender confusion, discontinuity, unrequited expectations, and insecurity.

Recent educational practitioners have attempted to overcome the dissimilarities of content between these disparate cultural transmission systems through such things as bilingual programs, culture heritage programs, Indian Education programs, et cetera. These all seem to be steps in the right direction because they attempt to reintegrate aspects of the two cultures. That is, they attempt to bring some of the more traditional aspects of Alaskan village life into the classroom; for example, they encourage the continued use of the Native language and furthermore, attempt to utilize it for teaching aspects of the dominant culture. Similarly, they encourage the continued engagement in traditional arts and crafts, survival skills, and technology not only for their own inherent value but to assist in the transmission of the indigenous culture. In this way, perhaps, the content of the cultures in contact are partially beginning to be meshed and melded into a new viable cultural alternative.

However, if the methods, the structure, the form of the transmission process remain strictly that of the dominant culture, such a meshing cannot be entirely successful. Cultural content which is inextricably bound to informal transmission techniques as in the indigenous Alaskan Native system cannot readily be transmitted within a formal framework like the school classroom without being significantly altered. Thus, if some sort of mutual acculturative process is desired and a new cultural framework more amenable to the needs of rural Alaskan residents is to be established, then some alteration of the processes of cultural transmission institutionalized in the school must take place. What is needed is a restructuring of such processes in a way which more closely reflects the Alaskan village lifeway. The specific attributes of such systems would vary with location. Certain culture-bound laws and regulations regarding education should be relaxed to allow for experimentation with alternative administrative and pedagogical structures. Education would not have to take place in one building, separate and different from all the others in the village, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, for an arbitrarily selected nine months of a year. It could be continuous, a part of the daily life of the village, and particularly of traditional roles, methods, and processes.

With the establishment of the Rural Education Attendance Areas, the people of rural Alaska have the opportunity to significantly alter the traditional American educational institutions in ways which will more appropriately meet their own needs. It is a difficult task and one which they will have to perform in their own way. It is up to the village people themselves to make decisions concerning the education of their youth. Only through their effort and commitment will it be possible to integrate different lifeways and cultural transmission processes by incorporating some of the traditional indigenous education modes into the formal education process. Moreover, in view of the increasingly frequent complaints about the maladaptive nature of the traditional school systems in America, such experimentation with alternative forms among Native Alaskans, may also greatly benefit others in the American society.


1. Watkins, Mark Henna; pg. 427
2. Spindler in Reals; pg. 208
3. Ibid,pg.210
4. Ibid. pg. 211
5. Chance, 1966
6. Yupiktak Bista, pg. 68


Barnhardt. Ray. “Educating Across Cultures: The Alaska Scene,” in Cultural Influences in Alaska Native Education. Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska, CNER, 1974.
Chance, Norman A. The Eskimo of North America. New York, N. Y.: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.
Davidson. Art, ad. “Education and the Subsistence Way of Life,” in Does One Way of Life Have ro Die So Another Can Live? Bethel, Alaska: Yupiktak Bista, 1975.
Henry, Jules. On Education. New York, N. Y.: Vintage Books, 1972.
Kimball, Solon T. Culture and the Educative Process. New Yotk, N. Y.: Columbia University. Teachers College Press, 1974.
Spindler, George D. “From Omnibus to Linkages: Cultural Transmission Models,” in Roberts, Joan I. and Sherrie K. Akinsanya, Educational Patterns and Cultural Configurations. New York, N. Y.: David McKay Co., Inc., 1976.
Spindler, George D.; “The Transmission of Culture” in Reals, Alan R.; Culture in Process, 2nd edition. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 1973. ch. 9, pp. 207-261.
Watkins, Mark Hanna. “The West African ‘Bush’ School.” in Spindler, George D., Education and Culture: Anthropological Approaches. New York, N. Y.: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963.
Watkins, Mark Hanna; “The West African ‘Bush’ School” in Spindler, George D., Education and Culture: Anthropological Approaches. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
1963. pp. 426-443.
Yupiktak Bista, Davidson, Art, ed.; “Education and the Subsistence Way of Life” in Does One Way of Life Have to Die so Another Can Live? 1974; pp. 68-75.





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Last modified October 7, 2008