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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

EDUCATION AND THE
SUBSISTENCE WAY OF LIFE

reproduced with permission from

Does One Way of Life Have to Die So Another Can Live

published by
Yupiktak Bista
Bethel

"The Yukon-Kuskokwim Region is considered the most 'backward' in Alaska and as such stands a chance of preserving its culture through the educational system. It is our intent that by incorporating the study and practice of our culture in our schools we can save this culture from which we come. It is our conviction that the Yupik way of life can be saved and only our young can save it."
- Harold Napoleon, 1974

What kind of education will prepare our children for the uncertain future that lies ahead? How can education give them the options to strike their own balance in living on a combined subsistence and cash economy? How can we prepare our children to meet the unpredictable and difficult circumstances of the rapidly changing world?

We did not always have these problems of the meaning and purpose and approach to education. Before the erection of school houses and the introduction of professional teachers to whom Western civilization entrusts the minds of their children, education was growing up in a village. Education was done in the home with the father, mother, grandmother, grandfather, brother and sister, uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends. Education was also given by the weather, the sea, the fish, the animals and the land. Children at a very early age came to terms with the elements. We did not have to worry about relating education to life, because learning came naturally as a part of living. Education was the process of living from the land, of subsisting, of surviving.

The coming of Western civilization broke this unity of education and living. Suddenly survival depended upon knowing a new language, new skills and new ways of relating to people and the world. Today we have entrusted the minds of our young to professional teachers who seemingly know all there is to know. They are teaching a child how to read, write, repair a car, weld two pipes together. But they are not teaching the child the most important thing. Who he is: an Eskimo or Indian with a history full of folklore, music, great men, medicine, a philosophy, complete with poets; in short, there was a civilization, a culture which survived the harshest of environments for thousands of years. Now this culture and the subsistence way of life are being swept away by books, patents, money and corporations.

It is not our intent to wage war on Western civilization. We merely want to come to terms with it—on our own grounds. We do not dislike Western civilization or White Man. We simply treasure our young and our culture. It is our belief that both can live together side by side, but not necessarily eating out of the same bowl. We can share potlatches and Christmas together.

Most parents see school as a necessary and vital thing if their children are going to share and take part in the Western way of life. If we are to control our own lives and run our own affairs we must each know the ways of the dominant culture. And we must have well-educated leaders who can look after the interests of the Yupik people. But the shortcomings of the present educational system have to be recognized.

When formal education began in this region in 1886 with the first Moravian Mission, people began giving up some of the mobility of the subsistence pattern of living. In order to be near the school, they had to forego some traveling to hunting and fishing camps. But even though people have become well-settled in villages all of which have schools, the achievement rate for Native children has remained far below the national average. In 1960 the average educational achievement level in this region was only 2.6 years. By 1970, the average had risen to 4.6 years.

Underlying the high dropout rate and absenteeism among students is the fact that school is an alien atmosphere for the children. Well over 90 per cent of the Native students in this region enter school speaking Yupik Eskimo which is spoken within the family as well as throughout the entire community life. Their lives become ordered by the ringing of bells and the calling of roll. They begin learning about buses, cows and chickens, Thanksgiving, baseball and spaceships; all of which may be interesting, but are nevertheless foreign to the village. Parents within this region have stated over and over again that acculturation and adjustment to Western society is not and cannot be a goal of education. However, a student's adjustment to the school environment demands acculturation which in turn represents a loss of traditional values and increased isolation from his own culture.

Look at the children at the age of five or six when they begin going to school to learn their ABC's from the adventures of Dick and Jane and their sense of history from the lives of George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. The young children cannot identify with this way of living and these people. And so, as they are being prepared to go out into the world, they begin to lose a sense of their own identity, their own place and person.

This process of alienation continues and even accelerates when the children reach high school age. To attend high school they are usually away from their home most of the year. Their courses are designed to prepare them to go on to college and then on to various careers and professions. They are oriented toward finding the best paying jobs. Their lives become organized to the clock, the working day instead of the routines of living in a village.

Although the modern education system can give the children many skills that will be valuable, the process is usually very hard on them. During the time the children are away at school, learning more and more of the skills that it will take for them to live in the cities and become leaders in that world, they are learning less and less about their people and themselves. When they come back educated they are no longer the same children that we once saw leave for school. Some of them return home after so many years and are strangers to their own people. But much worse, they are strangers to themselves.

It has always been difficult for parents to send their children from their village to go to school. Their sadness has been balanced by the belief that this was necessary for their children's future, so they could make their way in a changing world. Now many of these parents are realizing that the education system has a great weakness that is leaving many children unprepared to live either in the village world or the outside world. It doesn't develop and strengthen a child's own self image and confidence. His education doesn't help him know who he is or where he came from. His education leaves him stranded somewhere between the village way of life of his parents and the white way of life he has been taught in school. He is between two worlds, not really belonging to either.

Education and Survival

Our young people are often not prepared in practical ways to live in either world. Their high school programs supposedly lead to careers and professions, but all too often the young people can not find jobs. Employment in the region is scarce, with many skilled jobs going to white people who gained experience outside the region. Some young people migrate to the cities where there are more opportunities, only to find they are not prepared for the competition of the wage earning market place.

Likewise, the young people are often not prepared to live in the bush. During their student years they have not been learning all the skills necessary to subsist off the land. One result of their studies has been that many have not had the opportunities to learn how to hunt, fish, prepare food and make clothing. If subsistence skills are lost, there could be tragic consequences to the Yupik people who have by nature been self-sufficient. People have survived in this region only because they have known how to draw food, clothing and shelter from the land. In this time we are living now, people are tempted to depend upon money. If a person has one skill that can earn him money, he can go to the store and buy food, buy clothing, buy plywood and 2 x 4's to build a house. But there is great danger in this. Inflation is driving up the costs of everything so that one must work more for less. We have also seen that there are sometimes shortages of store-bought things. Sometimes one cannot find the food one needs at the store. Sometimes clothing, fuel, building materials and other things are not available. If a person knows only how to live from the store, he will be lost if one day the things in the store cost too much or are simply not available. But if the person also knows how to live from the land he will survive.

Until recently only a few radical economists and environmentalists dared suggest that there are limits to growth and wealth, that there could be a world economic crisis. But recently we have heard the President of the United States warn that a recession or depression might come. We hear world leaders warn that the world's economic system may collapse, that there may be widespread famine. But it is not hard to imagine our difficulties if such an economic disaster comes. If store bought supplies become scarce across the nation, our region will probably be one of the first places in which they disappear altogether. If there is nothing in the stores, money will be worthless.

And if money is worthless, the cash earning skills we have been taught will be worthless. The people who will survive will be the ones who have the skills to live from the land.

As a people and as individuals we must consider very carefully how our education can make us dependent upon the Western economic system, the future of which, is unstable at best. If our children are educated just like other children in Anchorage, and Des Moines, Iowa they will grow to be just as dependent upon the Western economic system. Our children could come to be just as vulnerable as anyone to the fluctuations of the stock market and the whims of Arab oil dealers. But if the education our children receive helps them retain some of the subsistence skills and self-sufficiency of their ancestors, they will carry into the uncertain future tools which may make the difference between surviving and perishing in difficult times.

Subsisting and surviving requires different skills in different places. The knowledge one needs to survive in Harlem is different than the knowledge one needs to survive in mid-Western farm country. Men living in the jungles of Brazil must know certain things to live in their environment; men living in the highlands of Nepal must know other things. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is a very demanding environment which can seem hostile to those who do not know its ways, but which can provide life to those who know how to live with the land. Education of children in this region should equip them to live with the land.

Even if there is never an economic collapse, subsistence skills and knowledge of the land and waters will be invaluable. Such knowledge will permit Yupik people to live a fuller, richer life. And it will help them use, protect and manage subsistence resources in the context of the modern world. As long as subsistence resources continue to be the resource base of this region, knowing how to use them, and care for them will continue to be extremely important.

Just as important to the subsistence way of living as the skills of hunting and fishing, sewing and preserving foods are the ways of cooperating and working together. As elaborate as the modern classroom may be, it is still not equipped to really teach children the ways of sharing and helping others that has in the past been learned in the home and village. In fact, the competitive atmosphere of modern schools in many ways works at cross purposes to the cooperative atmosphere of traditional Eskimo education. This conflict is so fundamental that Pat Locke, a Sioux Indian wise in the ways of both Native and Western education, once said, "that all the differences between the two processes of education stem from the fact that the purpose of Western education is for the individual to find ways to excel and promote himself, his career, his life; whereas, the purpose of Native education has always been for the individual to find ways to serve his family, be a useful part of his community, to work for and with his people."

In our region, in our past, sharing and cooperation have not been just social niceties. They have been ways of survival. If everyone were just looking out for himself, the Yupik culture would have vanished long ago. It has been through sharing and helping each other that people have survived. Children learned these ways naturally as they grew up in the village. It is a great event when a boy gets his first seal, not just because he has proven himself a hunter but because he has something to share with others. His first seal is divided among people in the village, first to the older people who can no longer get seals themselves.

Frank Nokozak has related how he learned the ways of sharing and helping others: (John Paul Jones interpreting)

"You know what the older people used to do for him? They would share their things with the people who did not have them. He did this for the people who did not have... When the people come to his place, he gives them food. People go to his home to ask for dried fish. He gives dry fish to those people because they need it. He said he wouldn't be like that if it wasn't for his dad who used to tell him to always be kind and give to the people who do not have. His dad used to tell him to be that way because you only live once. The people are born in one time and die. He repeated that it was his dad that taught him always to be kind and share."1
The classrooms can neither teach the skills nor impart the values and character which link the children to the subsistence way of life of their culture.

Building a New Way of Education

The process of young people losing their identity and not being prepared to cope with life is costing us many young people each year. And each year our young people seem a little less self-sufficient, a little less able to live from the land. These problems have been growing since our first contact with whalers, traders and missionaries. How can they be dealt with? We do not have ready-made solutions. But we do have a starting point and a direction in which to head. To make education more meaningful for our children we must start with our people in the villages and proceed to develop an educational process that combines the learning of ABC's and algebra with our traditional values, skills, and ways of living and learning.

To begin developing this type of learning process, Yupiktak Bista started in the spring of 1974 a Cultural Heritage Program in which students as the Bethel and St. Mary's High Schools returned to villages for two weeks. During this period, older people in the village taught the students their own history and traditional skills. A live-in learning experience was chosen over a "Native studies" course because such courses set students up as observers much the same way a birdwatcher studies a bird or an anthropologist studies a culture. If the student is just a watcher, he remains inactive when he should be an active participant and he can actually become further disassociated from himself and his culture. Only by "living" his own culture will a student come to appreciate, understand and be a part of it.

In describing the Cultural Heritage Program to some students, Peter Atchak, who helped get the program started once said:

"When you get to a village the older people will tell you stories about how things were a long time ago. The women will teach the girls how to be women. And the men will teach the boys how to be men."
So it was that students went out to villages, often not their home villages, to live with foster parents who could teach them traditional ways. As the following comments by the students reveal, it was quite an experience for them. A boy who went to Hooper Bay said:

"Activities I participated in were the Eskimo dance and telling stories to the old people (testing my skills, whether I knew or not the stories they told me; they let me do the talking the day after they talk.) What I made during the cultural heritage program was the spear, the spear handle, fish hook spear, fish hook spear handle, ivory ring, a model seal out of soap stone, a parka, water boots out of seal skin, and information about how to make sleds, boats, and drawings of the old. The new skills I learned were to balance on top of the wavy sea in a kayak, and throw a spear without tipping over and a lot about hunting in the sea with just the kayak.

"Man, it was all right! Because they were open to me as well as to my friends who went down to Hooper Bay. I would like to go back to a village where I stayed. And I was just getting dreaming with the old people. They brought me to their world. They let me feel I was old when I got out of their stories."8

Another boy summed up his experiences in Toksook Bay by saying:

"All of these projects were of an advantage to me, cause I have never really gotten into Eskimo culture. Now I have a brief meaning of how survival takes place, what skills were needed to become a man, and how to make things to live off of."8
Staff of the Kuskokwim Health Corporation said:

"...especially noteworthy to us has been the reaction of the students and dormitory parents to the First Cultural Heritage Program. At a time when Bethel was experiencing some 'pre-breakup' behavior the high school students returned enthusiastic and in a positive frame of mind. Therefore, we would encourage the continuation of such a stimulating program with many desirable mental health consequences."8
The high school nurse was another person who noticed a change in attitude and outlook on life. Peggy McMahon said:

"In working with the high school students as their nurse, I have been able to observe their behavior and attitudes throughout the school year. As always, the first semester of school started out with high enthusiasm in both teachers and students. However, there seemed to be a real let-down in spirit after the Christmas vacation. Class attendance seemed to drop and I found many more students in my clinic with vague physical complaints and emotional problems. It seemed that many students were using the excuse of going to the nurse's clinic, but just wanted to talk to someone about their restlessness with school and desire to go home. More than the usual number of students seemed to be 'down during the months of January, February, and March. I think the introduction of the First Cultural Heritage Program at this time was valuable. It came at the end of the third quarter when spirits were especially low. I know that I was having difficulty dealing with the negative and demanding attitudes and behavior of many of the students during February and March. The Cultural Heritage Program seemed to give everyone a chance to learn different things and in a different setting than the school building. The first week after the Program I found that the students seemed happier, less demanding and better able to cope with some of their problems than they were before the two week program."8

Some of the strongest reactions to the Cultural Heritage Program came from the parents and old people who had worked with the students. Hilma Shavings from Mekoryuk said she felt this approach to education was:

"...very important for our children, since a lot of our children are losing their own culture. I feel this program is a little bit of a beginning for our kids to see how their ancestors live to survive in this land that white man would call 'harsh country.' I feel this should be an ongoing program because even my own kids don't know how we have lived. They haven't seen the houses we used to live in. My own girl, that's going to Junior College, doesn't know how to sew how we do... I think this cultural heritage program will help the students. You never know what they might run into during their lifetime. At least, in case they run into some hardships they'll know how to make their own things. If it's a girl, make their own clothes and sewing and things like that. If it were a man, at least he will know how to survive if he was out on the tundra. You'll never know with all these traveling by snowmachines, airplanes, outboard motors, if you'll get to your destination. At least they should know how to survive without having to depend on these conveniences all the time."8
Also, emphasizing the importance of knowing traditional skills was Andrew Brown of Mt. Village.

"This program was one of the best things that ever happened in this area. The things our forefathers used to do is too good of a thing to let it phase out. Who knows when the things the students learn might be the ones for survival in case of emergency or anything that will cut us off from the outside world. It could be for a short time or for a long period. Our land can still provide us clothing and food. Our young people should learn how to tackle with these things. Our culture is phasing out. Right now is the time to revive it back."8
In Chevak, David Friday said:

"I've been home for a long time and I was home during the time the St. Mary's students and Bethel Regional High School students were at home and most of the people participated with the Cultural Heritage Program. Because of what's been happening some of these people haven't been doing these things. Then all of a sudden this Cultural Heritage Program came to the people. It made an impression on me that these people are learning that their culture is cool. I think this Cultural Heritage Program helped the people out in the villages too. Some of them dug up cultures from the past to teach these children. They are the type of people, I think, that are caught between two cultures. They don't know what to do or how to make a living because they are confused. I think with this program, it helped find themselves in a situation where some of these people weren't really too certain of who they really are, their real selves, where they'd be satisfied and happy about it... There was a comment from an old man who said, 'I don't want to pass this life unless I pass my knowledge to another younger person.' I think this Cultural Heritage Program has opened that door to many of our people."8

The Cultural Heritage Program is not meant to turn back the clock, to prepare young people to live just as their ancestors did. Its purpose is to begin building a new educational process which will be based on our way of life. The value of passing on traditional ways is not because it is a way to turn from the present world, but because it simply offers young people the best hope of making their way into a troubled and uncertain future. Knowing the ways of their Yupik ancestors offers young people the invaluable qualities of self confidence, self reliance and the ability to live from the land should they choose to or should this become necessary for survival.

Modern education reflects the ways that Western civilization appears to have lost its way and no longer makes any sense. But we are now tied to this dominant culture. We must know its ways; we must have the necessary tools to cope with its problems and make use of its opportunities. So it is, that to find ourselves as individuals and as a people and make our way into the future, we will need the knowledge and ways of learning of our heritage and also the skills and knowledge of Western civilization.

How can a new process of education that draws from both cultures be created? What policy and institutional changes must be made? How will new curriculum, methods and teachers be introduced? These are not easily answered questions.

The difficulties of bringing about change in the entrenched educational system are many, but our experience with programs like the Cultural Heritage live-in has shown us that they are not impossible to overcome. And the basis for change toward an educational process combining two cultures must be an appreciation and acceptance of "multi-cultural equality." In education, multiracial equality recognizes that Native students are still Native people. Many of them may prefer to speak the language of their people and to live in villages as hunters, fishermen, wives and mothers, rather than enter the competitive and materialistic life of the cities. Their education should prepare them for this way of life. It should not, as the present system does, cut off this option. And all of our children, even those who go on to college and professions beyond our region, need to know their roots in the subsistence way of life of the Delta in order to know themselves. So it is that the education of all our young people must include learning some of the old ways and learning how to subsist on the Delta today.

Multi-cultural equality implies that parents and grandparents should be involved in the educational process, as teachers, advisors, counselors, administrators, and school board members. A man or woman who has lived in a village all their life and perhaps has never gone to high school may nevertheless have more meaningful ideas about high school education on the Delta than a professor armed with degrees and years of experience.

The wisdom of our old people should be respected at least as much as the knowledge of the school teacher. Each finds within himself a balance between the elements of these two heritages and ways of life. Education should help keep options open for young people to live different kinds of life styles. The classrooms should not close the doors on the subsistence way of life that has been a good way of life for the Yupik people for thousands of years.

FOOTNOTES

1. Testimony, D-2, Land Hearings, Federal-State Land Use Planning Commission, 1973.
2. Interview by Yupiktak Bista.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Davidson, Art, ed. "Education and the Subsistance Way of Lofe," in Does One Way of Life Have to Die So Another Can Live? Bethel, Alaska: Yupiktak Bista, 1974.

 

 

 

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Last modified October 7, 2008