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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


Barbara Harrison
Center for Cross-Cultural Studies
University of Alaska, Fairbanks


During the 1978-79 school year, I worked in three Alaskan Eskimo villages as a field center coordinator for a community college. My primary responsibility was to assist students in first and second year college courses in a field-based delivery program of postsecondary education. As the school year progressed and I came to know the students and their problems in higher education, the comments of the women suggested a major premise: Eskimo women in these three villages perceived program structure in postsecondary education as a source of conflict with traditional female roles in family and community.

As I obtained further information from the women, I began to relate their conflicts to those perceived by women in education in the mainstream society. I questioned whether sex role relationships in the two societies were alike or different, and, if they were different whether the differences were important in educational program planning. Finally, I questioned whether the conflicts perceived by the women might not have unintended consequences not only for the individuals in the programs but for the communities where they lived.

A brief description of the three villages where I spent the 1978-79 school year will serve, I hope, as an appropriate introduction to a discussion of women in higher education in these villages.

The southwestern portion of the state is occupied by the Central Yup’ik language group (Krauss, 1974). The three villages where I lived are located in this language area, on the coast of the Bering Sea. Modern technology in these villages is minimal. None of the three villages has roads or automobiles, central electrical plants, sewage systems, or running water. Each village has only one telephone, installed in about 1976, and only one village receives television from a nearby urban center. Small airplanes land on mud airstrips, and even these airstrips did not exist five years ago. In recent years, cash income has become important for the purchase of snow machines, gasoline, and home heating oil, but the economy is still primarily subsistence based. Hunting, fishing, gathering, and the preparation of food are the primary occupations of most villagers.

In spite of the isolation, life in the three villages differs considerably now from life in 1915 when the first non-Eskimo established permanent residence in one of the villages (Drebert, 1959). Churches, state and federal government, and the school have been the primary agents of change since 1915. While this is not the place for a complete accounting of the ways in which change has taken place, a brief history of the school may prove helpful in understanding the discussion which follows.

The missionary who settled in one of the villages in 1915 started a day school, but school was conducted sporadically until the establishment of a permanent Bureau of Indian Affairs school in 1924. Because subsistence patterns of the people made travel to spring and fall camps necessary, it was not until the 1940’s that people settled permanently near the school. Thus, it was the 1940’s before children began to receive any substantial number of years of formal schooling. High schools were established in two of the villages in September, 1977, and the third village had its first high school in September, 1979. In earlier times, one had to leave the village for a high school education, and very few chose to do so. Higher education in the form of field-delivered programs reached these villages in the mid-70’s.

One goal of the schools has been to teach children to speak, read, and write in English. At present the schools conduct bilingual programs where children are taught in Yup’ik for the first three grades with some English as a second language instruction. In the fourth grade and thereafter, all instruction is done in English. To date, the schools have not been very successful in their attempts to alter language patterns. Very few adults speak, read, and write in fluent English, and Yup’ik quite clearly remains the dominant language.

Women in the Villages and Higher Education

The discussion which follows has several limitations. As I have noted, my concern focused on the women students essentially. I have no doubt that male students have problems, too, but they did not volunteer information in the same way the women did. In addition, I was present in these villages as a teacher -- not as an anthropologist -- and my major concern was devoted to being a good teacher. Although some systematic study involved, most of my discussion is based upon informal observation. As a result, my conclusions are tentative. The astute reader will also note my ambivalence as a participant-observer. The two roles -- that of anthropologist/observer and that of educator/participant -- seem to me to involve a number of contradictions. My position as field center coordinator did not allow me to choose one or the other of the roles, and the inherent contradictions are evident in this report. However, I hope my observations will serve to encourage discussion with regard to the types of program design and research which are needed in order to resolve at least some of the difficulties in the present situation. It is also my hope that other educators working in similar programs can benefit from the experience described here.

The major premise was soon affirmed. Eskimo women in the three villages perceived program structure in postsecondary education as a source of conflict with traditional female roles in family and community. The following description of women’s roles demonstrates the conflicts the women perceive. The description came from the women themselves.

Women’s roles are well defined. A young, unmarried woman is expected to live with her parents and contribute to the family welfare as housekeeper or contribute a high proportion of her cash income (if she is employed), in addition to child rearing, a married woman has important responsibilities in food preparation. In the spring when the men are seal hunting, the women clean and work on the seals, in the summer, when the men go to the canneries, women smoke fish and collect mice food (edible roots which the tundra mice gather and store) and wild spinach from the tundra, in the fall, they pick grass for drying and basket making, they dry tom cod, clean ducks, pick berries, and collect mice food. In the winter, women sew and make parkas, boots, and other clothing. If a woman’s husband traps, she prepares skins for sale, in addition, women in each household bake the family supply of bread. Labor-saving devices are few and far between. Laundry is done with wringer washers, and clothes are hung out to dry even in the coldest weather.

The missionaries who entered the region in the early years of the 20th century were very influential. Today, church life is a central feature of life in all three villages. As a result, church activities demand considerable amounts of a woman’s time. One student told me that she tried to explain that she needed to study, but it was hard to say “no” when others said they wanted her help. The schedule of activities in one village was as follows:

Monday night
Tuesday night
Wednesday night
Thursday night
Friday night
Saturday morning
Saturday afternoon
Saturday night
Choir practice
Women’s fellowship
Prayer meeting
Bible class
No activity
Children’s hour
Ladies’ aid
Young People’s group
Three services

If one is a church officer, additional time is spent in planning and organizing. There are other activities such as song fests, rallies, and conferences in which people from several villages participate.

In summary, then, a woman’s first responsibility is to her family, and her second responsibility is to the church. As a consequence, problems arise for women seeking secondary and post-secondary education. Many Eskimos -- men and women alike -- have come to believe in the promise of education. People believe that education will lead to jobs, status among non-Natives, and knowledge for its own sake. There are also those who believe that education will help Eskimos to defend themselves against incursions by the dominant society. Eskimo women seek education for all of these reasons.

In prior years when one had to leave the village for a high school education -- and those days are not too far past -- young women were sometimes called back to the village before graduation because help was needed at home. There are women in their early 20’s who wanted to finish high school but could not because of family responsibilities. The new small high schools in the villages are a partial solution to that problem -- but they are only a partial solution. Young women are still called upon to abandon high school in order to assume responsibilities at home.

Young women who have graduated from high school are expected to live with their parents in the village until marriage. Parents fear that a young woman who goes away to college will become involved in alcohol abuse or prostitution. One young woman told me that, when she was a junior in high school, she wrote to the University of Hawaii for information. The material arrived at home when the girl was away from the village. Although her parents knew no English, someone else in the village told them the packet meant their daughter was going away to college. The parents returned the materials to the University of Hawaii before the girl ever saw it. Now, the girl says she is “stuck.”

Married women have problems, too. Even where classes are offered in the village, husbands may not like their wives leaving the family at night to attend classes. Not all husbands feel this way, however. There are also men who encourage and support their wives in their educational efforts. A married woman’s many obligations to family and community may leave her with limited time to devote to school work. One of the most painful moments I experienced occurred when I found that I had to advise an intelligent, motivated, hard-working married woman to withdraw from a course in which she had been making progress because she could not complete the work in the established time. Course offerings in the villages are limited, too. Even if a woman is able to meet her responsibilities to family, community, and the school’s time lines, she is likely to find that there are no courses available which will lead to her occupational goal.

The Community College Program Structure

The program offered in the three villages consisted of introductory college courses in mathematics, English, the social sciences, and education. Although the courses were delivered in the villages, they were delivered within a traditional structure. Classes were to meet regularly at a given time in a given place. A set number of reading and writing assignments, in English, were to be completed in a set period of time, and three credits per course were earned upon completion. A letter grading system was used, and students who did not complete courses on schedule were to receive failing grades. Textbooks were the same books which might be used in similar courses in the mainstream society, and the teachers who designed the courses emphasized what they saw as the need to make courses “comparable” to those offered on the University of Alaska campuses in Fairbanks and Anchorage and in other colleges and universities. This program structure was the major source of conflict for the Eskimo women. A program structured around flexible time lines, credits, and assignments might allow women to fulfill their family responsibilities and educational requirements as well.

Very few village students complete the courses for which they register. Community college staff members tend to blame the students or the local culture for this low completion rate using such terms as “unmotivated” and “irresponsible” in describing student behavior. I believe that the staff members’ explanation is incorrect. The low completion rate is the result of the application of a program structure which is inappropriate to the culture and needs of the Eskimo students.

Sex Role Relationships and Program Structure

Traditional program structures in higher education are adapted to accommodate the ideal male sex role in the mainstream society. The conflicts perceived by the Eskimo women resulted from the fact that neither male nor female roles among the Yup’iks are the same as sex roles in the mainstream society, and traditional program structures are therefore inappropriate for use among the Eskimos. I believe that a discussion of traditional program structure, followed by an examination of sex role relationships in both societies, will support this contention.

Program Structure. The actual program structure reflects a widespread generalization of school people in Alaska, i.e., that schooling is context-free, if a particular plant design or instructional model works well somewhere in the “lower 48,” Alaskan educational planners assume that it will work well in Alaska, too. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. I suggest that schools have at least two contexts -- the context transported to the school by the teachers and administrators in the form of beliefs, and the context of the local culture. In schools of the dominant society, the two contexts tend to coincide. In Alaskan village school programs, they very often do not.

Two of the contextual beliefs which educational planners bring to the villages are beliefs about what is and is not appropriate sex role behavior, and beliefs about what is and is not appropriate structure for educational programs. Berger, Berger, and Kellner (1973) have presented a thesis regarding the “package” of “modern consciousness” which is transmitted to non-technological societies via primary and secondary carriers. According to their theory, education is a secondary but important carrier of the package. I suggest that an important part of the package has to do with sex roles. The mind set of technology and bureaucracy not only determines what is to be done but who is to do it. Mainstream society views of appropriate sex role behavior in schools (including programs in higher education) may well be part of the context of the educator.

The problems confronted by women in education in the mainstream society and in the Eskimo villages can be compared. Damico and Nevill (1975) have described the conflicts perceived by married women in college in San Francisco. The problems of married women students in both societies seem to be quite similar. The major difference between the Eskimo women and the San Francisco college women seems to be that unmarried women in the two societies have different family responsibilities. Unmarried women in the Eskimo villages where I lived have family obligations similar to those of married women. In the mainstream society, unmarried women generally do not have extensive family responsibilities, and they therefore need not confront the same conflicts between family responsibilities and higher education. The traditional middle-class male orientation of the educational structure which creates conflicts for women with family responsibilities in both societies affects all Eskimo women.

Although there have no doubt been changes in recent years, and there are probably exceptions to the rule, the Damico and Nevill study, among others, indicates that higher education is generally not structured to accommodate anyone (male or female) who has extensive family commitments. Alaskan community college educators can be expected to share beliefs with mainstream society educators about what is and is not appropriate structure for a college level program, and those beliefs may include beliefs which effectively limit participation by students with primary responsibilities to the family. I am not suggesting that higher education for the mainstream society should change, although others have argued on behalf of that position (Lee and Gropper, 1974; Frazier and Sadker, 1973). However, a major concern that warrants attention is the effect on Eskimo students when beliefs about appropriate structures for higher education are carried into villages as part of the context of community college personnel.

Sex Role Relationships. An understanding of sex role relationships among the Yup’iks is important when one examines the potential, albeit unintended, consequences of programs of higher education in the three villages. Sex role relationships among the Yup’iks are fundamentally different from sex role relationships in the mainstream society. As a result, traditional program structure can be expected to have different effects on sex relationships in each of the two societies.

Carolyn Matthiasson (1974) has edited a book in which societies are classified as “manipulative,” “complementary,” and “ascendant” according to the general nature of the relationships between men and women within the societies. While I am aware that Matthiasson’s approach has limitations (cf. Lamphere, 1977), I nevertheless believe that it is the best model available for use in considering sex roles in the two societies, in complementary societies, Matthiasson states, “. . . women are valued and considered important members of the community, whereas women in Western societies are commonly forced to achieve their goals by manipulating men” (1977:435). The dominant American society is classified as “manipulative,” a society in which men dominate and women are forced to manipulate.

The same book contains a report by Jean Briggs on sex role relationships among Eskimo groups in the Canadian Arctic (1974). Briggs describes those relationships as complementary. Although my observations of Eskimo life have not been as extensive as Briggs’, her description of the relationships between Eskimo men and women accurately represents the relationships between men and women in the villages represented here. Although one set of behaviors is considered appropriate for men, and another is considered appropriate for women, each respects the other’s contribution. Neither sex sees the other as generally inferior. Members of both sexes recognize that the work of both men and women is required to maintain Eskimo life.

Although a number of anthropologists contend that male dominance is universal (thereby implying that there can be no such thing as truly complementary sex role relationships), my position is that sex role relationships in the three villages are complementary and fundamentally different from relationships in the mainstream society. Anthropologists who have considered the question of sex role relationships have identified control of economic resources and participation in public decision making as important measures of the degree of male dominance in a society (Begler, 1978; Chinas, 1973; Rosaldo, 1974; Lewis, 1977; Elliott, 1977; Lamphere, 1977).

Control of economic resources. In the three villages where I worked, men hunt and fish and women gather, prepare the fish and game, and distribute it after it is prepared. I observed only one exception, and that was when five walruses were taken in one of the villages. The men butchered and distributed the walrus meat. Women, however, butcher seal, clean ducks, dry fish, wash berries, prepare akutaq (“Eskimo ice cream,” made of fish, berries, and seal oil), and bake bread. “Seal parties” are held in the spring, and women distribute portions of the seal catch at those parties. In addition, it was more often women than men who gave me ducks, fish, seal, and bread.

Cash income is secondary to subsistence in the three villages. Jobs are few and far between, but any member of a family who can bring in money does so. All income belongs to the family, not to the individual, and it is disbursed in accordance with family decision. These observations with respect to control of resources tend to support the view that sex role relationships among at least some Eskimos are indeed complementary.

Participation in public decisionmaking. The question of public decisionmaking is more difficult. In all three villages, members of the village councils and village corporation boards were men. The council composition initially seemed to indicate that women were barred from public decisionmaking, and their non-participation might then be interpreted as an indication of their inferior status relative to men. However, an examination of the historical origins of the council system suggests otherwise. Village councils in the three villages were established as the result of the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. Under the terms of the Act, “tribes” could receive substantial loans from the Federal Government if they organized for their “common welfare” by adopting “. . . an appropriate constitution and bylaws, which (would become) effective when ratified by a majority vote of the adult members of the tribe . . . at a special election authorized and called by the Secretary of the Interior.” Section 16 of the Act continues:

In addition to all powers vested in any Indian tribe or tribal council by existing law, the constitution adopted by said tribe shall also vest in such tribe or its tribal council the following rights and powers: . . . to negotiate with the Federal, State, and local Governments. . . .

The decision-making structure for the village corporations also originated in Federal Law under the terms of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. The present system of public decisionmaking in the villages, then, is not indigenous to the local culture. It was imposed by the Federal Government. In order for groups of Native Americans to be recognized as legitimate by Federal, state, and local governments, they had to establish bureaucracies.

In the thesis proposed by Berger, Berger, and Kellner, bureaucracy is a “. . . key phenomena of modernity” (1973:41). Modernization, they say, “. . . must be regarded as a process by which specific clusters of institutions and contents of consciousness are transmitted . . . Modernization is a process of transmission of packages” (1973:119). Although the Bergers and Kellner do not include the transmission of sex roles in their discussion of packages, sex roles may very well be an important part of the package. When agents of Western society impose bureaucratic structures on non-technologically developed societies, they impose what is to be done, how to do it, and, implicitly, who is to do it. When constitutions and bylaws became essential to Eskimo communities, the idea of council and board activities as a male domain may have been transmitted as part of the package.

An all-male composition of village councils does not necessarily imply that men were regarded as being of higher status than women. When decision-making processes are imposed on other cultural groups, the processes change as they are transmitted. Jean Briggs has noted that similar behaviors in different societies should not necessarily be evaluated in the same way:

. . .one should be careful not to evaluate Eskimo behavior that looks similar to our male-female behavior in terms of Western values. The same behavior in two cultures may be differently rationalized and may form parts of different behavioral complexes, so that it has different meanings in each culture (Briggs, 1974:262).

It should not be assumed that, because elections are held and officers named, the councils necessarily represent hierarchies for decisionmaking similar to city council structures in the dominant society. Harry Wolcott has described the dissatisfaction of one group of Kwakiutl villagers with the council system introduced by the Canadian Government (Wolcott, 1967). The council system in Blackfish Village functioned quite differently from council systems in the dominant society. Eric Madsen has described the role of “visiting” in decisionmaking in one Eskimo village (Madsen, this publication). His paper also suggests that, although elections and councils exist, the actual decision-making process is not the same hierarchical process found in the mainstream society.

Consideration should also be given to the possibility that participation in community decisionmaking may not be highly valued by the Eskimos. Bill Vaudrin provides an example of one way in which the differences in the values of the two societies can be seen:

Village people have indicated their disdain for Anglo forms and structures in any number of ways, not the least of which is reflected by the Yupik word for village council member, angaayuqaruaq (pretend boss). In some villages, people on the council are legitimately high status individuals in that local context (although almost never are THE leaders on the council, and even less often are they council presidents). But in many situations they are middle status or lower, designated more than anything else because of their willingness to play the role of ‘pretend boss’ -- to go through the motions of setting up meetings, answering correspondence, filling out papers, and entertaining visiting agency officials (Vaudrin, 1974:79).

Although other villages may have “pretend bosses” as Vaudrin suggests, the council president in the village where I spent the most time was a man who exerted genuine leadership. However, he was not a “boss,” pretend or otherwise. I was told that the council was “under the people” -- not “above” the people as might be expected in a hierarchy. The council was expected to act in accordance with the will of the people, and the council members were expected to solicit views and recommendations from all adult male members of the community before a decision affecting the community was made. “Visiting” probably did play an important part in the process of soliciting views and gaining consensus in these villages.

My conclusion regarding public decisionmaking in the three villages is that the lack of female membership on the village councils and boards probably did not reflect presence or absence of male dominance in the community. Women voted, attended council meetings and corporation shareholders meetings, participated in discussions at those meetings, and thereby participated in public decisionmaking. I suggest that when the council form of decisionmaking was integrated into the local culture under the influence of the Federal Government, participation as a council or board member became an appropriate part of the male sex role because it was part of the male sex role in the society from which the structure was adopted, but neither status, prestige, income, nor power accrued to men as a class as a result. I suggest that membership on councils and boards was generally viewed as a duty which had to be performed in the service of the community rather than as a locus of power, prestige, or income.

Because my conclusions are tentative, I hope that the decision-making processes in villages can be given further study. Based on my observations, however, I must question whether participation in public decisionmaking is a useful general measure of presence or absence of male dominance in other societies. It would seem to be useful only to the extent that access to a position of public decisionmaking is valued in the society being observed and to the extent that status, income, or power accrues to participants in the process.

Family decisionmaking is also conducted in a non-hierarchical fashion. The Eskimo family is still the strongest and most important institution in these villages. Households often consist of extended family groups. When married children move out of the household, they commonly establish their new home adjacent to one of the parents. Young adults generally conform to the wishes of their parents and other family members, and children are generally valued and enjoyed. Decisions affecting either one member of a family or the family as a whole usually are considered by the entire family and differences are negotiated. No one member of the family is the final authority in all situations.

In considering the question of complementary sex role relationships in the three villages, I also think it is necessary to consider the nature of the relationships among the villagers generally. Ideal relationships in the villages can be termed cooperative. Personal property consists of such items as clothing, and tools, and some larger items such as snow machines; but houses belong to families, and a few structures belong to the community. Food is distributed throughout the village (although some imported food is sold for cash), and the tundra and sea “belong” to everyone. The only hierarchical or stratified administrative structures which exist are those which have been imposed by outside agencies. Complementary sex role relationships would seem to be an appropriate reflection of this ethos of cooperation.

Unintended Consequences of the Program Structure

Consideration should be given to the possibility that women’s status could be adversely affected by the presence of higher education programs in these villages. Carolyn M. Elliott has noted that, in some “developing” societies, women lose, rather than gain, status in the process of development (Elliott, 1977). “Indeed, women may be worse off in important ways because the benefits of modernization have accrued mainly to the male half of society” (p. 1). Her comments may be relevant to the three Eskimo villages. One of the unintended potential consequences of the community college program may be that one sex may lose status relative to the other as the result of the educational programs which are offered there. At present, the complementary sex role relationships tend to give women equal status with men, if higher educational programs are structured in such a way as to make it easier for one sex to complete them than the other, the benefits of education may well accrue to one more than to the other, If higher education leads to greater access to cash income for one sex than for the other, economic resources may in time be controlled by that sex, and the balance of power may tip in that direction as a result.

I suspect that Eskimo men as well as Eskimo women have extensive family commitments and that the educational progress of men also may be handicapped by the way in which traditional program structure conflicts with family commitments. Traditionally structured educational programs operate against anyone whose first responsibility is to the care of a family; and, in societies where men and women share family responsibilities (as I believe men and women do in the three villages), men and women alike will encounter problems in seeking higher education.

I do not know enough about male roles in the villages to be sure of the actual effects of the program structure on the lives of male students, but it seems possible that an institution designed to accommodate one ideal sex role in one society has been transferred into another society where neither male nor female roles conform to the ideal model for which the institution was designed. I suggest that a successful community college program might begin with the assumption that family responsibilities are primary in the lives of both Eskimo women and men rather than with the present assumption that family responsibilities are of minor importance to serious students.

If, in fact, traditionally structured programs of higher education impose severe limitations on participation by both Eskimo men and Eskimo women because of conflicts between the program structure and the local culture, the political implications of the program must be considered. Regard less of the intent of the educators, such programs may result in restricted participation by Eskimos in the dominant society. Registration figures in the three villages for the 1978-79 school year indicate that disproportionate numbers of students were, in fact, “selected out.” The number of credit hours at spring registration was only 45 percent of the fall registration.

Can educational programs for these villages be structured in such a way as to accommodate male and female students who have family commitments? I believe the answer to that question is “yes.” For the educational institutions of the dominant society, sheer numbers are one major factor operating against change in traditional structure. “Batch processing” (Philip Cusick’s term, 1973) of 15, 30, or 50,000 college students pretty much necessitates highly structured time lines, credit hours, grading systems, limited personal involvement among students and teachers, etc. The situation is quite different for the rural Alaskan community college. There were between 15 and 25 students in the three villages during the 1978-79 school year, and the full-time equivalents for the college as a whole were between one and two hundred. I believe that this fact alone makes it feasible to discuss alternative structures in the community college program. As Ray Barnhardt has pointed out:

We can no longer accept the traditional administrative and organizational structure of the school as a ‘given’ and expect relatively insignificant changes within that structure to resolve the recurring ‘crises in education.’ We need to step back and examine the influence of that structure and those who maintain it on the educational process and explore alternative forms of social organization and administration that might be more compatible with the changing role of the school (Barnhardt, 1979: xxi)

The single most important point which has evolved from this discussion is that educational programs in culturally different communities can create conflicts with local values and customs because the schools are viewed by educators as context-free. The conflicts created can severely limit educational achievement by people of different cultural orientations. Educators do not generally take the time to examine either their own assumptions about what it is they are attempting to transmit or the cultural context into which the hoped-for transmission occurs.

A number of factors have been identified in other local cultures as potentially relevant to school achievement. A complete description of those factors (including descriptions of both sex roles) would constitute a description of the educational context of the school. Descriptions of both contexts -- the context which professional educators tend to carry into the villages with them and the educational context of the local culture -- are needed if successful cross-culture programs are to be offered.


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