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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


Steve Grubis
Center for Cross-Cultural Studies
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

The Problem

During the past 30,000 years the indigenous peoples of what is now called Alaska controlled the learning experiences of their children. Skills, knowledge, and values important for survival and success in a severe environment were transmitted to the children in an informal manner. Parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, and sisters were the teachers, and the world in which the children lived was the classroom. There existed a seemingly immutable bond between learner and the teachers of the community, between learning and living.

The encroachment of western technology severed the bond between the child and his traditional teachers. The earning environment and the traditional teacher were replaced by formal systems of education and the professional educator. The position of the parents and others in the child’s life was subsequently reduced by the imposition of the formal schooling process and the teacher from “outside.”

Rural Alaskan education confronts a unique set of circumstances that have profound implications for pupils, teachers and administrators. During the past five years, there have been approximately 1,000 teaching vacancies in Alaska annually. A percentage of these vacancies reflect growth in new schools and programs; however, the majority of the positions are due to professional turnover.

The in-state supply of teachers graduating from campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and the Cross-Cultural Educational Development (X-CED) Program barely meets ten percent of the annual State demand. Therefore, except for the ten percent of Alaskan residents who re-enter the teaching profession, eighty percent of vacancies in Alaskan education are filled by teachers who receive their training outside of the State (Roth, 1979). The problem is more severe in the twenty-one Regional Educational Attendance Areas (REAAs) than in the urban centers. For instance, of a total of 895 teaching positions, 357, or forty percent, were new hires in 1978-79 (Dickerson, 1980).

Annually, rural Alaskan school district (REAAs) are faced with a very serious attrition problem. Districts must select and introduce new staff to the teaching setting. Many districts attempt to address the attrition rate by having orientation and staff development programs for their new hires. Dickerson (1980), in his comprehensive analysis of orientation needs of newly hired teachers in rural Alaska, found that:

Twenty-six percent of the new teachers stated that the district had not done anything that was especially helpful to them in adjusting to the job. Thirty-six percent reported similar problems regarding their adjustment to the community. Respondents’ dissatisfaction with the assistance provided by the district was evident in most of those responses.

Newly hired teachers in rural Alaska encounter many adjustment difficulties. Dickerson’s study found that:

Both the new teachers and REAA superintendents identified similar adjustment problems of new teachers. The most frequently mentioned problems are coping with isolation, understanding and adjusting to living and working with a minority culture, living in poor housing, and teaching in a multi-grade, multi-subject situation.

Dickerson’s use of the term “isolation” can be deceptive. The question that needs to be raised is, isolation from what? Alaskan village communities are isolated from one another, but individuals within those communities of 100 to 500 people are not necessarily isolated from each other. And it is in village settings with populations of fewer than 500 people in which sixty-seven percent of new teacher hires are employed.

The Cultural Fatigue Phenomena

As J. Alter comments:

The new teacher to a bush REAA seemed to quickly adapt and succeed, or suffer through the year and leave. Few appeared to fall into a middle category. It is not difficult to understand why. The typical new REAA teachers were young, inexperienced teachers from out-of-state. They simply were not prepared for what they encountered. No one advised them what their new communities were like. Neither were they provided with a meaningful preservice orientation to their district, its people, students, and procedures. Thus, they started school in a state of shock which many never overcame (Alter, 1978: 159).

The term “shock,” as used by Alter, or “culture shock” as it is often referred to in the literature, is frequently used to describe the debilitating experience that newly hired bush teachers often undergo. Hall’s (1959) definition of “culture shock” as a “removal or distortion of many of the familiar cues one encounters at home and the substitution for them of other cues which are strange” describes in part the new Alaskan teacher’s experience. However, Guthrie’s (1966, 1975) label of “culture fatigue” may be a more accurate description of this phenomena. The “culture fatigue” process is much more subtle than the tern “culture shock” implies. What follows is a description of this process that takes into account some of the characteristic stages which accompany the evolution of the cultural fatigue phenomenon. It is necessary to bear in mind that there exists no uniform set of sequences or stages which can encapsulate the entire “cultural fatigue” process as it plays out among all rural Alaskan teachers. The following description represents one interpretation of this process. It is a result of numerous discussions with rural teachers and my own experiences over the past fifteen years as a teacher, principal and university faculty member in rural Alaska and the Canadian north.

Stage One -- The Grand Alaskan Teaching Adventure: Enthusiasm/Apprehension

The first stage in the process of “cultural fatigue” is one of intense excitement, mixed with qualms of uncertainty. The teacher is entering a world where both the physical and social environment are new (to the teacher) and rapidly changing. Village Alaska is a setting of environmental extremes (100 Fahrenheit degrees above zero to -75 degrees below zero) and rapid political evolution. Legislative acts such as the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which resulted in regional Native profit and nonprofit corporations being established, and the decentralization of the rural school system, which resulted in the creation of twenty-one new school districts, have initiated dramatic changes in the political, economic and social landscape of rural Alaska. The rural areas are being impacted by forces and conditions of which the new rural teachers have only minimal knowledge. Consequently, they can become apprehensive about the expectations that communities may have of them.

Another factor which tends to erode the initial enthusiasm of the Alaskan teaching adventure is that traditional teaching methods do not necessarily work in cross-cultural settings. Research indicates that ethnic interactional and communicative styles vary, and many teacher preparation and district staff development programs do not attend to this cultural variability in inter-ethnic communication. One traditional teaching methodology, i.e., “spotlighting” (directing class attention to one individual to respond), can even work at cross-purposes in creating effective learning environments with some cultural groups. School districts that are unaware of differing question-answer response time among ethnic groups operate under a tremendous handicap in providing assistance to teachers in Native classrooms and in their interaction with village adults. A newly hired Alaskan bush teacher who was successful in Indiana may or may not be successful in rural Alaska. Teacher optimism tends to fade when various teacher methodologies do not produce the results they did in “outside” classrooms.

The explanations given by some newly hired bush teachers when they reach this juncture in the “cultural fatigue” process is exemplified by the following statements: “I was successful as a teacher elsewhere, so the problem must be with the kids.” “They are slow learners, and their parents just don’t care.” This posture, if reinforced by the teacher’s peers, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of academic failure.

Stage Two -- The Fading Dream: Ambivalence

The previously mentioned factors can lead to the subtle dissolution of the grand Alaskan teaching adventure. Eroding enthusiasm sets the stage for the second characteristic phase of the Alaskan bush teacher’s “cultural fatigue” process: ambivalence. Growing ambivalence and frustration with both the classroom and the community can lead to either community avoidance or open hostility. In this stage teachers typically associate with others with whom they are culturally compatible, i.e., other teachers. This period tends to be characterized by a focus on the negative aspects of the community and school to the exclusion of the positive. The community is often perceived as “unclean” and the people “unreasonable,” and village adults and students are perceived as attempting to take advantage of the teacher.

The ambivalent stage tends to emerge after the first three-to-six-months in the community. It is also during this period that environmental conditions become a factor. Close living conditions and long dark winters can place stress on both new and experienced teachers. There is an increased vulnerability to static states of mind. The teacher becomes susceptible to mythical constructs reflecting prejudicial views of the community and its inhabitants. Northern conditions such as “cabin fever” are a very real phenomena that numerous rural teachers and their spouses experience. Thus, the lengthy and extreme weather conditions of the Alaska winter facilitate the cultural fatigue process. It is not uncommon for an Alaskan bush teacher to suddenly leave the village unannounced during the school year and never return. The inability to move through this stage of ambivalence contributes to the high teacher turnover rate.

Stage Three -- Hanging in there: Reconciliation/Transcendence

The third characteristic of the cultural fatigue process has two variations. One is to reconcile oneself to the ambivalencies and continue to tolerate the classroom and the community for the purpose of career advancement and financial reward. One simply hangs on, gets through and flies out of the village on the first available plane when school closes for the summer, without coming to grips with the sources of discomfort.

The other variation of the third stage can be labeled “transcendence.” This stage is one in which the teacher begins to understand the host culture and community. In this stage the teacher emerges with a more balanced view of the classroom and community and the negative and positive aspects of the particular cultural scene become more equal.

One of the major difficulties that the village teacher may have in reaching the transcendence stage is maintaining enthusiasm and commitment to a teaching role that he or she may feel is viewed with ambivalence by the village. This feeling, which is the result of the teacher’s perceptions of actions within the village, is often misleading. It is based upon the teacher’s own cultural interpretations of the standards of behavior and the meanings and social actions of others (Goodenough, 1971). Every human society has a shared set of rules, maps, and plans for organizing their behavior individually and as a group (Spradley, 1972). Teachers have, as do all people, conditioned responses which were formed by the societies in which they matured. These static responses and understandings determine the rules, maps, and plans which constitute their world view. This ethnocentrically influenced world view is an inhibiting insulator in developing cross-cultural understanding and transcending the ambivalence stage of cultural fatigue. The brief nine-month immersion of the teacher in a village setting, and the teacher’s continual evaluation of the meanings and actions of villagers based upon unshared assumptions, contribute to the teacher’s potential stereotyping of village behavior.

Village teachers tend to be primarily dominated by two concerns -- time and task. These teachers dwell in a world in which they are financially rewarded for time on task. Time on task is measured by the minute, and teachers are rewarded accordingly. This is often culturally incongruent with village task orientations, which are not as temporally bound as are the non-Native’s. The disregard for western time values is in many ways due to traditional village livelihood patterns, which are closely related to the seasons and local climatic conditions. For example, the commercial fishing industry, which constitutes virtually the entire economic base of some villages, has not dramatically interfered with village time values. Prior to the emergence of the fishing industry, village residents were intimately involved in subsistence life styles, i.e., life styles which depend upon trapping, fishing, and hunting. Despite the emergence of seasonal employment, subsistence activities continued to play an important part in the economics of Native villages. Subsistence activities, which are seasonally determined and environmentally influenced, require a different time and task orientation than that with which the teacher is typically acquainted. The task of hunting caribou is not bound by a five-day, eight-hour a day work schedule. This activity is interrelated with migration patterns, weather conditions, and fish and game regulations. Thus the teacher may incorrectly interpret as apathy a lack of attendance at what he considers to be a meeting important to the village, whereas the underlying reason may be economic: there are caribou in the area.

There is also the typical teacher’s predilection to view the village society in an evolutionary manner. If one’s own society is highly technological and embraces a literary tradition, it seems natural to place nonliterary, hunter-gatherers who possess limited technology at the other end of the evolutionary spectrum. What has been overlooked is that these “other” groups have been successfully adapting to a severe environment for at least 30,000 years. This implies the existence of highly refined, long-term survival mechanisms in the form of political and economic structures and practices. Anthropological research has shattered the fictitious evolutionary legends of western cultural superiority. However, legends that support ethnocentric positions are slow to dissolve.

It is most perplexing for the teacher to realize that the villagers she or he is dealing with, who only recently may have attained “necessities” such as running water and electricity, are actually members of at least two western-style corporations. In addition to a villager’s position as a Native Alaskan corporate shareholder, each adult may be a part of one or more of the numerous factions within the village. The teacher needs to be aware of the existence of this factionalism. This is a most difficult awareness to achieve because the teacher has a cultural background in which “close observation and interaction do not normally occur, hence he is often ill-prepared to deal with the political intricacies of village life” (Cline, 1974). These intricacies, if misunderstood, can jeopardize the teacher’s transcendence of the cultural fatigue phenomenon.

Ideally, one solution to rural Alaska’s extreme teacher attrition rate is to employ teachers who are familiar with the local culture. This would lift a major burden from school districts. Native teachers who are local community members appear to have natural advantages over the teachers from “outside.” Native teachers tend to stay in villages significantly longer than non-Native teachers. Sound educational pedagogy emphasizes the need for the educator to build school experiences based on an understanding of the background the child brings to the school. Native teachers are obviously more intimate with the village child’s background. The informal child-rearing patterns of village Alaska are not alien encounters for indigenous members of the village.

Despite ninety-five percent of rural Alaska’s population being Native, it is estimated that less than two percent of the State’s teachers are Native. This imbalance will continue for the forseeable future, and the State will continue to import “outside” teachers until such time when there are an adequate number of local teachers. The preparation and continued assistance of these newly hired teachers is an identified need of the Alaska State Board of Education and many school districts. How then can new teachers from “outside” be better prepared to cope with the features of cultural fatigue outlined above?

Conceptual Framework of the Cross-Cultural Orientation Program

In order to achieve an effective rural Alaskan orientation and staff development design, the conceptual structure of the program should be consonant with the realities of rural schools, their environments, and those who are the recipients of school services. Brislin and Pedersen (1976) argue that “cross-cultural training for orientation is most successful when there is a careful analysis of the potential difficulties a group of trainees might have in the future, and some understanding of why they might have these difficulties.” University cross-cultural training programs tend to overemphasize the abstract and intellectual as opposed to the actual and functional. The involvement of experienced rural classroom practioners in a teacher orientation program tends to keep the training grounded in the realities of rural school districts.

The conceptual design of the Cross-Cultural Orientation Program (X-COP) at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks provides participants with intellectual tools as well as physical and interactional survival skills that can be applied in a village setting. Alaskan teachers have identified flexibility, objectivity and tolerance as personal qualities that enable them to exist effectively in villages (Dickerson, 1980). An effort is made throughout the year-long orientation program to address these personal qualities both in formal and informal contexts. Simulated patterns of village interactional structures and extensive time in village settings are crucial components of the process through which intellectual understandings and personal skills are developed. Two-thirds of the training provided by the X-COP occurs on site while the participants are teaching and living in rural communities. The program is a variable generating approach to learning as opposed to a variable reducing model. Participants are not provided with a “cookbook” of how to teach in a cross-cultural milieu. Rather, they are provided with possible explanations for the phenomena and behavior they observe and interact with (Barnhardt, 1977).

An attempt is made to provide those involved with insights, sensitivities and interactional strategies appropriate to particular village settings. In addition to acquainting participants with relevant cross-cultural literature and resources available, numerous opportunities are made for extensive formal and informal contacts with Native and non-Native persons familiar with issues in rural Alaska. This sharing of accumulated experiences with experienced rural teachers, administrators, and community members assists new teachers in becoming more professionally effective and tends to facilitate positive interaction among members of different cultures. A premise of the program is that the potential for village classrooms is increased by teachers who are enthusiastic and have an understanding of their roles in a cross- cultural context.

Explicit Program Goals

The intent of X-COP is to (1) increase the effectiveness of rural Alaskan teachers, and (2) improve the quality of the students’ school experiences. The year-long program is designed for teachers/administrators who have had no previous exposure to rural Alaska and its multicultural population. The summer component contains approximately ninety participants, the majority of whom become employed in almost every rural school district in the State.

The staff development experience consists of three sequential three-credit courses: one in the summer, one in the fal I, and one in the spring. There is also an intensive one-week workshop in January and a wrap-up and evaluation workshop in June. This approach to orientation and staff development is a long-tern sequential procedure as opposed to the traditional “one-shot- only” inservice orientation workshop.

Research on Peace Corps programs indicates that “follow-on training” which involves bringing volunteers together again for critical issue discussions significantly reduces attrition rates (Arnold, 1967). X-COP contains a strong and systematic “follow- on training” component which, aside from the sequential academic context, enables participants to focus on immediate issues of concern in their cross-cultural settings. A study of an earlier “summer only” Alaskan teacher pre-service program demonstrates that participants had significantly less attrition than non-participants. The Alaska Rural School Project (ARSP) reduced premature attrition rates by as much as thirteen percent (Orvik, 1970). X-COP, which is a successor of ARSP, is more extensive and long-term than the earlier program. Today there is also an emerging body of new research literature that attends to the realities of teaching in cross-cultural settings (see McDermott, 1974; Gumperz, 1977; Scollon, 1980; Philips, 1981). It is this literature and the resulting conceptual framework which provides the academic core of the program. The literature speaks to the social realities of the rural Alaskan classroom and teacher. The program attempts to create situations in which newly hired teachers are continually in the process of expanding and reintegrating their experiences.

In order to achieve an effective rural Alaskan orientation and staff development design, the goals of the program should be consonant with the realities of rural schools, their environments and those who are the recipients of school services. This training is designed so that it can be integrated into school districts’ staff development programs. School board members, the State Department of Education staff, teachers and district administrators serve as resource personnel for the Cross-Cultural Orientation Program.

In order to attend to local school district needs, X-COP encourages district-specific teacher orientation and staff development programs. These programs are to be planned and implemented by district staff. X-COP is available to provide assistance in collaborative planning with district inservice coordinators.

Areas that local districts are encouraged to include in their district-specific orientation programs are:

1. Specific job expectations
2. School district philosophy and policies
3. Orientation to the specific community in which the educator will be working
4. Curriculum materials and programs used in the district.


The first phase commences in the summer during three weeks on campus in Fairbanks. Some participants are selected by the school districts involved in the program. Other participants are free agents seeking employment.

This phase revolves around job-embedded and job-related experiences. The participants review a wide range of problems they are likely to encounter in their first year on the job. Special attention is paid to cross-cultural educational issues in order to instill a sensitivity in participants who have had little exposure to the multicultural make-up of Alaska. In-depth coverage of key issues involve such guest lecturers as school superintendents, rural school board members, successful rural teachers, Alaskan Native university students, Department of Education staff, National Education Association-Alaska staff and university faculty. Among the key issues discussed are:

  1. A historical framework for reviewing contemporary issues in Alaskan education
  2. The anthropology of Alaskan Natives
  3. Native Corporations
  4. The evolving life style in villages of Alaska
  5. The formal and informal learning environment of the Native child
  6. Cross-cultural teaching strategies
  7. Multi-grade/multi-subject classrooms
  8. Teacher performance in rural classrooms
  9. Students’ special language needs
  10. The computer in rural schools.

Phases II and III (fall and spring semester) of the orientation for rural Alaskan educators occur on site and consist of one course per semester.

The phase II (fall) course is entitled “Education and Cultural Transmission.” The purposes of this course are:

  1. To prepare and explain to participants the emerging reality they encounter in rural Alaska
  2. To explore and use cultural systems within the local community to better understand the potential relationships between the school and the community
  3. To understand the role of the educator in the process of cultural transmission
  4. To foster an educational rationale for the use of the local community as an educational resource
  5. To acquaint students with materials, ideas and resources that are available to stimulate the use of the surrounding environment in the formal educational process.

Phase III revolves around ways the participants can incorporate and apply strategies and understandings learned in Phase I to the formal school environment.

The phase III (spring) course is entitled “The Social Organization of Classrooms and Learning.” The purposes of this course are:

  1. To examine communicative behavior in cross-cultural classroom settings
  2. To explore cultural variability as it relates to teacher effectiveness in the classroom
  3. To examine how rural Alaskan classrooms are influenced by the social organization of the community
  4. To develop effective cross-cultural teaching strategies to increase the effectiveness of the rural educator.

These courses are designed for practicing teachers in a field setting, with numerous applied activities and projects built in. Materials and information for the courses are exchanged through the mail. There are some on-site visits by university faculty and two one-week workshops which attend to course content and other topics of concern for the participants.

Implicit Program Goals

There are two sets of goals for X-COP. One set is the explicit goals which are reflected in the content of the courses. The other set of goals can be referred to as implicit goals. These are the goals that the learner acquires in the process itself, in addition to the content. There are two major sets of implicit goals in X-COP. These goals have been identified over a decade of work and research as ingredients for Alaskan bush teaching success. One of the elements that appears to encourage longevity in bush teachers is the existence of a colleague support network. Although physically isolated, the knowledge that teachers are not alone in what they are experiencing is important. The existence of a network of support among bush teachers is a factor in bush teacher longevity. The development of this support infra-structure is encouraged by activities and processes designed to facilitate group cohesion. Teachers participate in both formal meetings and informal social activities. Participants are housed together for the initial intensive phase during the summer. In addition to the summer academic component, as reflected in the explicit course goals, there are other activities throughout the day and evening which meet the implicit goals. For example there are social situations with guest speakers, informal discussions, films pertinent to rural Alaska and education, field trips, participation observation exercises, and athletic events such as volleyball, softball, and croquet.

The support infra-structure that evolves in phase I (summer) is maintained throughout the year by intra-group correspondence, a newsletter and two group meetings that facilitate the explicit academic content goals. District inservice coordinators, through staff development activities and personal contacts, contribute to a local teacher support structure within the larger statewide infra-structure. The role that technological innovations such as computer terminals and audio-conferencing will play in sustaining this support network is currently unknown due to the newness of the technology. Participants are being encouraged to use the technology, however, as an additional support device.

There are also faculty visits to field teaching sites. These visits enable the faculty to become better acquainted with the situation facing the rural teacher and inservice coordinator and to provide on-site assistance. These visits further facilitate the support network. This occurs through the faculty conveyance of messages or packages to teachers in other field sites. Some participants are itinerant teachers, which enables them to visit fellow project participants in their school districts.

Another implicit goal, in addition to the formal course content (the focus in phase I, summer), is the informal approach to learning which the learner acquires. The process of interaction and the flow of events in the summer phase attempts through both instructional style and rhythm to resemble learning in a village setting. Activities do not always convene precisely on time, extended family members tend to be present, young children and dogs amble about. The setting on campus in Fairbanks contributes to the flow and rhythm of events. The summer program occurs primarily in the “rural lab school,” located on a dirt road at the fringe of the Fairbanks campus. The school is architecturally similar to a rural school. The building is flat-roofed and lacks running water except when it rains. It does not have a telephone system. Water for coffee and tea is hauled in each morning by participants, and the lavatory facilities are limited to twin outhouses. The minor inconveniences and lack of Western cultural veneer contribute to the creation of an atmosphere resembling the one the participants may face in their rural teaching assignments.


The Cross-Cultural Orientation Program operates in a milieu in which Western culture’s educational frameworks are intimately involved with village Alaska in creating new cultural survival strategies. The Native peoples of the State, due to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the decentralization of the State’s school system, have become a society in transition amidst political, economic, educational, and social changes. These conditions have caused attention to be focused on the necessity for teachers and an educational system that reflects the values and needs of the unique world of the Alaskan Native.

The focus of X-COP is the villages of Alaska, which are characterized by a maze of interlocking personal and environmental relationships. It is this maze which often is indecipherable to the new rural teacher. The new teacher finds himself in a cultural scene which is undergoing a rapid transformation. How this transformation and the accompanying impact of Western culture will reshape villages cannot be clearly predicted. Whether any of the dynamic multi-dimensional forces that villages are experiencing will improve the education of children is currently unanswerable. What is clear is that effective rural teachers who have some longevity and the ability to cope with “cultural fatigue” are needed if there is to be any long-range improvement of educational services in rural Alaska.


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Last modified October 14, 2008