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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. II

Nonformal Educational Strategies
for Rural Development in Native Alaska

Michael J. Gaffney
Alaska Native Studies Program
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

(Ed. note: This paper was originally presented to the Conference on Rural Education and Development, Kuusamo, Finland 9-14 September, 1979, sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Paris, France; and the Ministry of Education, Helsinki, Finland.)

This paper focuses on the relationship between rural education and development. It attempts to examine this relationship as it applies directly to the changing socio-economic conditions of an indigenous minority group whose cultural organization and traditions are different from the larger industrial society in which its members live.

I shall first describe the development context of the Alaskan Native situation with special emphasis on the emergence of new institutions, both social and economic, resulting from Native self-determination efforts. Secondly, I shall specify critical aspects of the relationship between education, and development within the context of Native institution-building. I shall then describe the salient features of one proposed nonformal education strategy -- the development of a network of village-based Native youth organizations. Finally, I shall conclude with a conceptual statement on the mutually complementing functions of formal and nonformal education as illustrated by the Native youth organization proposal.

The Alaskan Native Context

The 1970s have seen the Alaskan Native community subjected to extraordinary pressures to quicken their adaptation to alien social and economic institutions of the larger American industrial. The ways of thinking and forms of human relationships implicit in these new institutions are having far-reaching, change-producing impact on the entire fabric of Alaskan Native cultural life. This is most particularly the case in rural Alaska where approximately 77 percent of the State's 60,000 Native citizens live in villages consisting of 25 to 3,000 residents, the majority of whom support themselves mainly by subsistence hunting and fishing activities supplemented by seasonal firefighting and construction work. It is not a melodramatic exaggeration to suggest that what is at stake is the future survival of a significant culture and its life style. The issue is succinctly stated in the title of a Native nonprofit corporation publication: Does One Way of Life Have to Die so That Another can Live? (Yupiktak Bista, 1976).

These pressures for socio-cultural change arise from a complex of recent events ranging from the emergence of Alaska as a critical petroleum-producing region to changes in the "special" relationship between the United States Government and Native American peoples. As Alaska becomes increasingly central to the formulation of both government and corporate energy policies, two resulting mineral resource development activities and concomitant growth in the State's non-Native population places considerable stress on the vital culture-sustaining link between Native subsistence land-use patterns and Native social organization. Moreover, in contrast to past periods of "termination" and "assimilation," the current era of U.S. Government relations with Native American peoples can be characterized as one of "self-determination," with the government, mainly through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, seeking to convey to local Tribal Councils and equivalent organizations large measures of policy-making and fiscal management responsibility in the areas of Native health, education, and welfare. Within this era of self-determination, the most momentous event for the Alaskan Native community has been the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) on December 18, 1971, as compensation for aboriginal land rights.

Through ANCSA, Alaskan Natives received 40 million acres of Alaskan land and 962.5 mil lion dollars. To receive and invest this money and land in ways that collectively benefit the Native community, twelve regional Native profit-making corporations were established in different cultural/linguistic regions of Alaska. These corporations are directly accountable to their respective Native shareholder constituencies as they make capital investment, resource development, and land management decisions affecting the social, economic, and cultural conditions of these reg ional constituencies. Moreover, within each regional corporation boundary there exist numerous village-based corporations which receive and invest ANCSA monies and land under the guidance of the regional parent corporation.

The drive for self-determination among Alaskan Natives has also brought about the establishment of Native nonprofit corporations in the twelve regions to administer wide-ranging social service delivery programs, many of which were formerly under the control of federal and state government agencies. These non-profit Native corporations annually administer over a hundred million dollars in education, health, employment, and other social programs. Like the profit corporations, they, too, perform strategic socio-economic planning and development functions within the Native regions of Alaska.

As with many Third and Fourth World societies, Alaskan Native institution-building must deal with a colonial legacy and the imposed development imperatives of the world-wide, political economy. The acceptance of the provisions of ANCSA by the Alaskan Native community signaled their recognition that new forms of social and economic life are essential for their survival as a culturally distinct, indigenous people. Yet at the same time they do not accept a linear theory of social change; that is, while there can be no turning back of the historical clock, it does not necessarily follow that their only development option is an institutional order imitative of the dominant Euro-American social system. And herein lies the key Native development issue: Can enduring social forms and economic-occupational structures be created in Native regions which are at once consistent with evolving cultural patterns, yet offer adaptive resilience to the imposed imperatives of the larger political economy? As, for instance, African societies want their nation-building efforts to have a distinctly "African" quality, so also do Native Alaskans want their development efforts to have a distinctly "Native" quality. The aspiration is clear when a Native spokesman says, " . . . please try to fathom our great desire to survive in a way different from yours" (Yupiktak Bista, 1976).

Education and Development In Native Alaska

For the Alaskan Native community, the achievement of genuine self-determination and self-reliance is doubly difficult. Not only must their institution-building proceed, within certain legally prescribed parameters and on the basis of a number of externally determined political and economic realities, but the Alaskan Native human resources available to lead and manage this enormous effort at all professional and managerial levels are appallingly lacking. This high-level manpower bottleneck is amply documented in Kleinfeld, et al., Land Claims and Native Manpower (ANF/ISER, 1973). They find that the ". . . 1970 census figures indicate that only 73 Natives in Alaska had any graduate level training and only 235 had college degrees (and) . . . a special survey indicates that over the last four years, only 19-23 Natives per year have graduated with four-year degrees." In light of this, it is further confounding that nowhere in the ANCSA document is there provision for or mention of the kinds of trained Native manpower required for effective, self-determined implementation of the Act.

That this human resource bottleneck exists is hardly surprising. Comparable to the colonial experiences of many Third and Fourth World societies, the Alaskan Native experience historically included the school systems' "cooling out" of Native academic and professional aspirations in favor of vocational educational goals and village artisanship. Consider also that only 150 Natives have been awarded Baccalaureate degrees from the University of Alaska during its fifty-year history. And like the Third and Fourth World, the Alaskan Native community is finding the achievement of indigenously chosen social and economic goals to be very elusive when the colonial legacy persists through the importation of large numbers of non-Native professional, technical, and academic personnel. Indeed, the "Nativization" of its professional work force, through both formal and nonformal educational processes, is as much a development goal of the Alaskan Native community as are, say, the "Africanization" programs of post-colonial Africa.

Furthermore, the problems of the uneven quality of public education and the professional manpower shortage bottleneck are exacerbated by a general malaise among many village youth as they are consistently frustrated in their search for socially significant roles and directions within the normless conditions of rapidly changing cultural patterns. The extraordinary pressures on Native traditional life, coupled with the lack of a rural economic-occupational structure capable of absorbing young people (and many other segments of the population) in productive, culturally consistent ways, is resulting in classic cases of adolescent alienation manifested by increased alcohol and drug abuse, generational conflicts, and violence.

Perhaps the most tragic indicator of Native youth alienation is the steadily increasing incidence of attempted and accomplished suicides. During 1965-69 the suicide rate among Alaskan Natives aged 20-24 was 47 per 100,000.1 From 1970-73, this rate climbed to 170.6 per 100,000. As a point of reference, the suicide rate for the total U.S. population in 1970 was 11.6 per 100,000. Of course problems of random statistical variation in small populations must be kept in mind when interpreting these figures, but, by any reasonable measurement standard, the seriousness of the problem is evident.

Indeed, village adults are disturbed over the alienated behavior of many village youth and they, too, are searching for understanding of the phenomenon and for ways of coping with it as parents. Traditionally, a subsistence life style within an environment free of pervasive Western intrusion found Eskimo and Indian parents exercising subtle rather than overt controls over children, relying heavily on personal example and culturally institutionalized character ideals which sharply defined the adult roles of the good and generous hunter and the hardworking, supportive wife. These traditional socialization processes now appear to be losing their effectiveness under the stress of changing socio-cultural conditions.

Youth Organizations as a Third Educational Environment 2

In an attempt to address the problem of Native youth alienation in a way that fits with evolving Alaskan Native self-determination efforts and development activities, the Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, proposes consideration of the notion of "youth organizations as a third educational environment." This strategy seeks the integrated development of networks of village-based Native youth organizations and a cohort of formally trained Native professionals whose university degree program is oriented to facilitating youth organizations and similar forms of human resource development in rural Alaska. It is reasoned that within the press of socioeconomic change and development, such Native youth organizations could play a critical role by offering an indigenously controlled third educational environment to complement the formal curriculum of the schools and the socialization processes of the home. As a third educational environment, these organizations may be expected to provide opportunities for (a) more active youth involvement in community affairs, civic service efforts, and cultural heritage projects; (b) the development of individual occupational and educational career goals in both the public and private sector as these relate to regional and community needs; (c) constructive testing grounds for leadership and organizational skill development; and (d) a comfortably structured forum for discussion of the wide range of issues surrounding the impact of change and development on Native adolescents.

The formal training component of this strategy involves the enrollment of Native university students in a field-based Baccalaureate degree program. These students would intern under the auspices of Native village and regional corporations, working as youth organization coordinators and pursuing a course of study emphasizing adolescent growth and development, community development, and relations between various forms of education, both formal and nonformal, and socio-economic change and development.

A distinct advantage of a field-based approach to university instruction is its inherent capability of capturing true praxis of the learning situation: a continual interplay of theory and practice and, in P. Friere's terms, a movement away from the conventional "banking" approach to education and toward a "problem-solving" approach which offers a framework for student-instructor collaboration in the learning process. This proves especially important when dealing in cross-cultural settings and with the uncertainty and fluidity of the development context.

This dual approach to the development of youth organizations as third educational environments is further supported by a series of systematic research activities conducted over the past ten years. This research has focused on the effects of different formal educational environments, such as public boarding schools, urban boarding home programs, parochial boarding schools, and village high schools on the development of village youth.3 These studies have led to the following conclusion: Formal instruction in different types of school settings is highly comparable and makes little difference to the development of technical skills such as level of English language achievement. What does make a profound difference to all dimensions of adolescent development, however, is the degree of nonformal education complementing the formal educational setting through out-of-classroom activities, social relationships between adults and youth, and structured opportunities for formulating socially productive roles.

In the past, many public boarding school programs displaced village adolescents to regional high schools characterized by sterile dormitory situations devoid of any culturally consistent social dynamic which could lead to productive and lasting social accomplishments. The result was the creation of a marginal adolescent society oriented around passive consumption of entertainment, e.g., movies, T.V., and dances, punctuated by sporadic episodes of drinking and dormitory violence. Graduates from these schools have had low rates of college, success and low rates of participation in community service roles.

By contrast, many village youth who graduated from one particular parochial boarding school have done unusually well in higher education, are active as adults in village leadership roles, and have a striking quality of personal integration despite the disorganizing effects of culture change. The school used such educational methods as volunteer teachers who developed significant informal relationships with students, the preparation of youth for leadership through practice in organizing extracurricular activities, and provision of a comfortable framework for group discussions of values, character ideals, and community needs. In sum, the school's influence occurred not so much through the formal educational process as through the creation of a micro-adolescent society which espoused a clear value system oriented around community service. This ideological underpinning has helped these adolescents form productive adult directions, bringing them respect within both the traditional village context and the larger society. In important ways, these methods parallel typical educational strategies of youth organizations as they have developed in Israel and under many other social conditions.

Among Indian and Eskimo adolescents, there have been numerous intriguing, although undocumented, reports of successful youth group experiences. In some villages, for example, religious youth groups appear to have had dramatic effects in reducing adolescents' alcohol and drug abuse by creating group support for a religiously based value commitment. These groups discuss such issues as individual responsibility and choosing between right and wrong. They act out value commitments by organizing picnics, cleaning up town refuse, and going to people's homes when someone dies to sing and cheer up the survivors. Nonreligious youth groups, for example, Boy Scout summer camp or 4-H clubs, also have been described as quite successful, especially when contrasted with the level of adolescent interest that usually occurs in schools. Unfortunately, these youth groups are usually transitory phenomena which fade away as soon as the instigator leaves the community.

One documented exception to this pattern is a Chevak village youth organization which was implemented by Native graduates of St. Mary' s, the parochial boarding school mentioned above as having important, positive effects on Native adolescent development. Consequently, the strategy discussed here places great emphasis on training local Native facilitators, to organize youth groups, in part as a long-range strategy for maintaining youth organizations within village life, but also in part as a means for increasing the pool of Native professionals working throughout the Native community in human resource development.

Nonformal Education Strategies: A Concluding Note of Caution

The proposed notion of Native youth organizations as a third educational environment gains transcending conceptual significance by proceeding from the premise that, in relation to formal education ("schooling"), nonformal education can as well play a complementary counterpoint function. As presented here, the youth organization concept presumes a broad, eclectic definition of nonformal education, it holds with Phillip Coombs that nonformal education:

. . . is not, as some people assume, a separate 'system' of education in the same sense that formal education is a system, with its own distinct structure, interlocking parts, and internal coherence. On the contrary, nonformal education is simply a convenient label covering a bewildering assortment of organized educational activities outside the formal system that are intended to serve identifiable learning needs of particular sub-groups in any given population -- be they children, youths, or adults; males or females; farmers, merchants or craftsmen; affluent or poor families. 4

The importance of Coombs' definition arises from what it says nonformal education is and what it is not: "a separate system of education." It is the explicit intent of this definition and of the youth organization concept not to polarize formal and nonformal education; that is, the "deschooling of society" is neither the basic assumption nor rationale for nonformal education. The fact of the matter is, for better or for worse, schooling in a large-scale, bureaucratic society will continue as the predominate social institution that prepares people for and legitimates their access to authoritative decision-making positions at all levels of the social structure. Given that in the foreseeable future there is unlikely to be any radical shift in the structure of authoritative roles in society, no amount of polemics or tinkering is going to change this basic "credentialing function" of the formal school system. Furthermore, it must be equally recognized that, regardless of nonformal education's capacity for assisting individuals in areas of skill development, vocational training, and in certain forms of social/political consciousness-raising, the evidence surely indicates that it will not displace the school as the essential institution for preparing and legitimating society's decision-makers. 5

Therefore, in the case of colonized and subordinated minority groups, it is especially counterproductive to hold out nonformal education strategies as offering some magical social mobility route around the formal school system and its credentialing function, Indeed, the real challenge is to break down the bureaucratic rigidities and insensitivities of schools so that they may better carry out their basic charter for all segments of the population: the increased academic achievement of students in preparation for greater authoritative role participation in society's decision-making structures.

As a nonforrnal education strategy, the youth organization concept seeks to complement the academic charter of rural Alaskan secondary schools, It even goes so far as to make the claim that the more effectively a village-based youth organization can carry out its nonformal functions, the more effective will be the small rural secondary school in performing its formal academic functions.

In 1976, the Alaska State Department of Education signed a Consent Decree stipulating that the State of Alaska would take immediate responsibility for the construction, staffing, and maintenance of small high schools in 126 villages in rural Alaska. This action was forced by legal suit brought by several Native adolescents in a Lower Kuskokwim Native village against the State. The essence of the suit was that they and other Native adolescents were being denied equal educational opportunity because in order to obtain secondary education they had to relocate either to the nearest urban center having regional high schools or to boarding school programs operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In both cases, Native students were separated involuntarily from their families and communities for considerable periods of time. The documented evidence strongly suggested that this separation caused extraordinary hardship for the dislocated student and his family.

With the advent of small high school programs, the Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, supported by federal grants, moved quickly to establish a field-based research and development effort. The purposes of this effort have been to: (a) design alternative secondary curricula and develop materials more appropriate for these small high school programs and their cultural/environmental settings, (b) suggest principles upon which the University might develop a small high school teacher training program as a degree option, and (c) inquire into the impact small high schools and the process of their establishment are having on the communities involved.

During the course of this involvement it became clear that small high schools cannot be expected to successfully meet the range of social, physical, emotional, and recreational requirements of village adolescents. That is, many of the extra-academic functions we ordinarily expect comprehensive secondary schools in urban/suburban areas to accomplish simply cannot be done by one-or two-teacher multigraded village high schools. A primary conclusion of the report issued this year by the Center on the findings of its small high school project was that, while appropriate interdisciplinary academic and vocational programs and methods can be developed to meet any graduation standards set by the State, this development will suffer substantially if small high schools and their staffs also are expected to assume major responsibility for meeting the other dimensions of Native adolescent needs, particularly those existing from conditions of alienation.6

In summary, the youth organization concept suggests that these needs can be met best through nonformal, indigenously promoted structures. To have such expectations small high school programs will eventually set them up for failure along all dimensions and thus, ironically, have the effect of perpetuating the historic failure of the formal school system to accomplish its charter within the Alaskan Native community.


  1. These statistics have been collected by Dr. Robert Krauss, cited in 2-C Report, Task I, Federal Programs and Alaska Natives, Part A, Section 2, p. 24.
  2. Portions of this section of the paper have been taken from the proposal, "Youth Organizations as a Third Educational Environment," submitted to the Bernard van Leer Foundation, The Hague, Netherlands, by the Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, University of Alaska, Fairbanks and Tanana Chiefs Conference, Fairbanks; Alaska. I would like to thank Dr. Ray Barnhardt, Director of the Center, and Dr. Judith Kleinfeld for their cooperation in this endeavor.
  3. This research is reported in such sources as J. S. Kleinfeld and Joseph Bloom, "Boarding Schools: Effects on the Mental Health of Eskimo Adolescents." The American Journal of Psychiatry, 134(4), 1977; 411-417; Ray Barnhardt, et al., Small High School Programs for Rural Alaska, Fairbanks: University of Alaska, Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, 1979; J. S. Kleinfeld, Eskimo School on the Andreafsky: A Study of Effective Bicultural Education. New York: Praeger Publisher, 1979.
  4. Coombs, Phillip. "Nonformal Education: Myths, Realities, and Opportunities," in Comparative Education Review, Vol. 20, No. 3: October, 1976, p. 282.
  5. See: Bock, John. "The Institutionalization of Nonformal Education: A Response to Conflicting Needs," in Comparative Education Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, October 1976, pp. 346-367.
  6. See Barnhardt, Op Cit.






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Last modified October 14, 2008