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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


Mark Kuhn and Wendy Rosen Esmailka
Center for Cross-Cultural Studies
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

(Ed. note: This article was originally presented at the 40th Annual Meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology, Denver, March 22, 1980. All rights are reserved by the authors, and quotations may not be made without the written consent of the authors.)

For the first time in the history of formal schooling in Alaska, Alaskan Natives have become a viable presence in the schools in roles as certificated teachers. To an equally important, albeit different, degree Alaskan Natives are now participating in educational policy decisions as members of locally elected school boards and village advisory school boards.

The struggle to gain authentic control of their children’s education is one that involves multifaceted efforts. Future successes in these efforts depend to a measurable extent on a particular role of a Native teacher. Becoming a classroom teacher and receiving the official sanction that accompanies certification are the initial steps; the subsequent step is at least as important, although it has received scant attention. Specifically, it is crucial that a Native teacher be allowed and encouraged to develop his or her own teaching style in order that Native students receive the total benefits from the Native teacher’s presence. Research about a Native teacher’s impact on village school education is limited. However, it seems probable that the development of a Native teacher’s individual teaching style is currently encumbered by institutional structures and constraints, community images and sanctions, and the limitations of the teacher’s own educational past.

A Native teacher’s presence in the classroom is a recent phenomenon, currently limited to only about four percent of the total number of Alaskan teachers. Therefore, it would be premature to evaluate the ramifications in a precise manner, except for some of the most obvious advantages and disadvantages.

Undoubtedly, we can assume that there will be qualitative changes in the classroom experiences of Alaskan Native children who have Alaskan Native teachers. However, an examination into the nature of these changes seems to reveal some limitations on major changes that can occur under present conditions. The potential that the introduction and utilization of Alaskan Native teachers holds is somewhat tempered by the structural characteristics of the schools, their curricula, and the school districts that will employ the teachers. Compounding this is the teacher’s own experience as a student, and in some cases, as a former employee. The mere presence of a Native will not effect the changes necessary to attain complementary and responsive schools for the villages in rural Alaska.

Although more Alaskan Native teachers are being hired, the indigenous language is being used in some instructional instances, and the subject matter has changed slightly, the schools are essentially the same as they were preceding Native teacher employment. Nor have the cultural and social organization of the school, the acculturation and assimilation of children, or the organization and priority of valuable knowledge changed significantly. As the history of Alaskan Natives’ education demonstrates, schools play more of a part in shaping the future than simply providing a means to learning literacy skills (Holthaus and Collins, 1973; Darnell, 1979).

Rural Alaskan schools did not evolve naturally from the needs of the residents, the parents, or the children who were to attend the schools. Instead, the schools were organized and controlled by non-Native people who often attempted to “civilize” the Natives. The patterns established in Alaskan schools are similar to those established for other Native Americans in that they contributed to the destruction and disruption of the social fabric of the cultures.

Patterns of life changed as Alaskan Natives settled into permanent village sites to be near the schools and then adapted their subsistence lifestyles accordingly. Few of the “benefits” of American education were ever achieved. Instead, Native languages were denied in the school: this sometimes led to a total or near total replacement of English in the community. Valuable subsistence and survival skills, formerly taught by family members during what was now the “school day,” became superseded by school work.

Currently there are cosmetic changes in the curriculum, a limited use of indigenous languages, and an allowance for Native teachers to portray the “artifacts” of their cultures in bilingual/bicultural classes. However, in order to change bilingual/bicultural classrooms (in this instance, we mean any classroom where most participants are of a culture different from the dominant culture), it would be helpful to examine just where culture reveals itself in the classroom. In so doing, the areas where a discrepancy can occur between the culture of the school and the culture of the community may be determined.

The most visible area where culture manifests itself is in the subject matter of the curriculum. This visibility makes it the ideal area for change and revision. Conversely, this feature also makes it easier to promote only surface adjustments. As “bilingual/bicultural” curricula and various subject areas integrate the artifacts of the local culture into their educational program to better reflect the local physical environment, there is little attention paid to functions of curricula other than transmitting facts.

The skills and knowledge the educational organization chooses to convey to the students are linked to the school’s socio-cultural environment. The school determines the essential body of knowledge that will theoretically prepare the student for the future. Inseparable from this is the socialization process the student learns, which, ideally, prepares the student for a role in society. It has been pointed out that the school is a microcosm of the wider society that reflects the norms and values of the world beyond school (Lightfoot, 1978). This is achieved, at least in part, through structural arrangements and the promotion of appropriate behavior patterns within the school. The school setting provides conditions that are not available in other settings so that the experiences can lead to acquisition of the society’s norms and values. American schools have changed their structure and the behaviors promoted within it to meet the roles that are required to fit into an industrial system (Bowles, 1972).

A number of norms have been identified as having particular relevance to the economic and political participation in industrial societies (Dreeben, 1967). Independence is one of them, i.e., learning to do things on one’s own, being self-reliant, being subject to the scrutiny of an authority figure. Another one is achievement, i.e., being competitive, working to master a situation, and working to change and adapt the environment rather than accepting it fatalistically. Placing individuals into categories; having them do the same task at the same time; and confining their interests to the task at hand, are some others. Children participate in these norms at school, and schools contribute to the emergence of these norms in the child (Dreeben, 1967). An Alaskan village school, having a curriculum and a structure that is similar (if not identical) to a mainstream American school, results in socializing children into a society and culture that does not yet exist for them.

The social and cultural setting of an Eskimo or Indian village in Alaska differs from the suburban, urban, and rural communities of mainstream America. There are differences in size, accessibility, economic base, housing, language, social organization, and cultural values, among others, if a school’s characteristics reflect the society in which it exists, then a village school’s characteristics should reflect the norms and values of the village: the behavior and social structure within the school should complement the culture beyond its walls. Quite obviously they do not. This is reminiscent of continual struggle experienced by other minority groups within the United States.

There are many areas in the classroom where culture plays a major role in determining the required mode of behavior. These can lead to a discrepancy and conflict between the home, community, and the school. From a larger perspective, this discrepancy can be seen in how a classroom is organized, i.e., in the ways children are permitted to interact with each other, to make decisions, to solve problems, and the style of learning that is encouraged in the classroom (Barnhardt, 1980). These factors can have a direct correlation to whether a student succeeds, based on the cultural orientation that child brings to the classroom and the classroom’s receptiveness and utilization of that background or the opposition and rejection of that orientation (Cockerham and Blevins, 1976). The discrepancy also exists in the ways that a teacher expects a child to act within the classroom context and is inextricably linked to that child’s successful negotiation of the many interactions that occur daily. Some of these have been perceived in preferred modes of sharing; working well with others; being fair; settling disputes; learning standards of work performance; cooperation; mutual assistance; and punishment (Sieber, 1979). All of these, plus the many others that flow from them, are culture-bound in their connotation of what is “acting right” in that situation.

Alaskan Native children, moving back and forth between school and home, may know what to do or what is expected of them given a set of circumstances. However, the solution may conflict between home and school, and a difficult choice must be made. The values of the school system do not originate with the consent and participation of the parents. In fact, it was not until the past five years that Native parents were even provided with formal means to influence the school.

One might expect that many of these interactional differences would be eliminated, or at least minimized, with the advent of Native teachers. Current research that examines classrooms in which all participants are Alaskan Natives should analyze potential teacher/student congruencies that may be occurring subliminal ly to the current classroom structure of interactions (Barnhardt, 1981).

However, Alaskan Native teachers also are caught between the preferred values and goals of the community and those of the school. Native teachers are required to implement the curriculum and organize the classroom and daily schedule appropriately -- in a sense to “buy into” the brand of discipline and behavior espoused by the school and other teachers, In some cases, Native teachers are rejected by individuals within the community for having “sold out” to the system.

A Native teacher is usually one of the first people within a village community to graduate from a college or university and stay in the village to work, and he or she is subsequently under close scrutiny by school personnel and community members. Perhaps more critically, the school and community watch very carefully for evidence of “good teaching,” possibly to a much greater extent than they scrutinize those teachers who come from “outside.” Local teachers who have grown up in the village or surrounding area have been acclimated to the inherent village socialization status. They are more attuned to the subtleties and intricacies of the village social system and, consequently, are subject to the prevailing temper and mood.

A Native teacher is measured against a “good” Caucasian teacher (and often measures her or himself against such a criteria). But who are these models of “good” teachers? The only available models are non-Native teachers, who are often unfamiliar with and insensitive to the mores and communicative styles of the village. Such “model” teachers are implicitly, at best, espousing the values and practices of mainstream America. As this “good teacher” role is carried out by a Native teacher, however unconsciously, it may serve to negate the styles and natural practices of that individual. Furthermore, what may be acceptable from a non-Native teacher may be totally reprehensible from a Native teacher who should “know better.” As the Native teacher adapts to the “good” teacher’s behavioral patterns, the differences in classroom teaching practices become increasingly less noticeable.

There are, of course, differences -- particularly in the area of interaction between teacher and students. Research outside of Alaska has demonstrated that differences in cultural background and orientation may interfere with efficient classroom learning (Philips, 1972). When the teacher and students come from the same culture, there naturally will be improvements in the quality of the interaction that takes place, ultimately resulting in enhanced quality of students’ learning. Limited research that has been conducted (in Alaska) in the past few years substantiates this (Collier, 1973; Scollon and Scollon, 1979; McNabb, 1979). These studies show direct parallels to Native Americans’ situations in the “lower 48.” However, the scope of this paper cannot adequately cover the breadth of that topic. What we can say is that a combination of Native teachers and Native students should help to decrease cultural miscommunication which is so often translated as the student’s lack of understanding, disrespect and resistance, or a lack of motivation on the part of Native children in the presence of a non-Native teacher.

Although such interactional dissonance will be substantially reduced, there is much that inhibits a Native teacher from teaching according to his or her own methods. The perceptions as to what should occur in school are often shaped by what schools have done in the past and the ambiguous definitions for “school teacher.” The collective educational past of a community, in conjunction with the teacher’s own past, has been shown to exert a powerful influence on people who are establishing their own school systems after a long period of outside influence and colonial rule (Kimball, 1974).

School administration also does its part to insure the continuation of the status quo by consistently reinforcing the process that most teachers go through before they even enter the classroom. Typically, the Native teacher has first been hired as an aide, possibly as a bilingual instructor, and then has matriculated from a teacher education program. Finally, the new teacher must pass an interview for the job. This teacher is usually a “safe bet” to fit into the total school program and conform to all of the normative behaviors shaped by the non-Native teaching staff.

Socialization of a new teacher into acceptable teaching behavior patterns is carried out by members of the school staff. Interestingly enough, many Alaskan Native teachers have been trained almost exclusively in alternative methods for rural cross-cultural classrooms. Although they originally seemed to agree that such methods might be more appropriate for village schools, once they began teaching, Native teachers reverted back to the traditional methods currently in use. This is, of course, a typical response for beginning teachers. The pressures on a new teacher to behave in ways congruent with the established role of the “good teacher” is very difficult to resist (McPherson, 1972). The critical point here is that this new teacher has a cultural heritage and cultural background that is distinctly different from her or his non-Native counterparts and predecessors. It is difficult for a Native teacher to withstand these pressures and proceed with responsible teaching.

Any rural Alaskan teacher’s role, simply stated, is to prepare Native students to live a productive life within the village at present and in the future. This acquisition of skills is complicated for Native students because it requires skills to deal with continued infringement as well as skills for commuting back and forth from the rural areas to the regional and urban centers. Specific literacy skills and knowledge, a recognition of cultural differences, and a strong background in the students’ own cultural heritage are but the bare minimum for survival. Other skills, equally as important but as yet unspecified, must be taught in the schools in order to guarantee the self-determination of Native peoples in Alaska. To date, few school districts have even begun to ask the question as to what these skills might be. There only have been surface attempts to talk with community members about this issue. Native teachers, trained in alternative curricula, potentially are in a strong position to help determine exactly which skills might be necessary for the future. Such decisions need not create radical deviations from the current curricula but can supplement and enhance the curricula to make them more responsive to current needs in rural Alaska.

For the vast majority of the schools in rural Alaska, there has been a rapid increase in the demand for standardized, district-wide curricula. As the Rural Educational Attendance Areas (which emerged in 1976) are becoming more established, curriculum developers and administrators are seeking unified texts and curricula for all grades. Such curricula are often based on linear learning and require little teacher preparation time, limited teacher instruction, extensive recordkeeping, and the breaking down of subject areas into segmented pieces which, theoretically, can be easily measured. These changes have sometimes resulted from a belief that Indian and Eskimo children are culturally, socially, and academically disadvantaged, and that structured curricula will somehow compensate. This theory, too prominent in schools with minority children, is carried to an extreme in Alaska. The number of students placed in special education and remedial classrooms is sometimes as high as 70 or 80 percent. This results, in part, from the fact that special education and other resource people are typically and traditionally those educators who are not trained to be sensitive to cultural differences. Such differences often affect the evaluation of a Native student’s test results and subsequent placement. Unfortunately, it probably will be a considerable number of years before Native teachers hold the majority of positions in special education and other resource areas. Also, the limited body of research that has addressed these issues is rarely disseminated, much less considered for use by local school district administrations. Even the standard curriculum in regular classroom work is often taught on the level of “deficiency mentality,” that is, that Native students are not capable of learning on grade level or are not able to learn the quantity of material that students in the “Lower 48” are expected to achieve. One common misconception seems to be that in order for rural youth to learn, the content must be delivered in a slow, drill-like, repetitive manner.

These highly structured curricula dictate the content to be learned and, most unfortunately, the mode whereby the teacher presents the material and the children respond. Curriculum consultants and school district administrators, knowing little about learning styles of the Native population, determine the mode. This rigid and routinized form of education very subtly indoctrinates the students to the behavior patterns of mainstream America.

Two additional factors will influence the effectiveness of Native teachers in Alaska. First of all, community participation may ultimately foster changes that allow the Native teacher more freedom to teach in a manner unencumbered by Western tradition. Valuable skills and cultural knowledge are in the hands and heads of community members whose participation would be a welcomed addition to the skills of a small village school. However, the current state of affairs makes it seem ridiculous for a community member to consider working in the school as a volunteer: the proliferation of funded supplementary programs has provided schools with a plethora of paid, part-time positions. Nor is the environment of the school conducive to volunteer work, because the structure of the daily schedule and tightness of structured curricula do not accommodate impromptu and/or varying structures of community participation. Nevertheless, increased participation would provide community people with an informed picture of what actually goes on in school, and would provide the teachers and students with alternative models for their own respective roles in learning. And, finally, community participation in schooling would inject the classroom, and school in general, with a set of values and a style of teaching that rarely has been represented previously.

Many schools in Alaska exist as institutions that are physically and ideologically separate from the community. Such isolation of the classroom from the community invites misunderstandings, distrust and territoriality between teachers and parents (Lightfoot, 1978). Such an arrangement makes it easy for teachers and administrators to use the students’ home life and parents as scapegoats in the education process. One might expect that Native teachers would not experience this problem. On the contrary, some Native teachers are finding resistance from the community in their dealings with children, particularly in the area of discipline. Prior to their employment, certain family ties, responsibilities, and leveling mechanisms for social positions had been clearly defined within the community. Perhaps a violation of these prior relationships creates feelings of animosity between community members and local Native teachers. Over time, as communities become more used to seeing their own members as members of the school faculty, such dissonance, particularly in the area of classroom management and control, may improve.

As Native teachers comprise a larger percentage of the total number of teachers in rural Alaska, qualitative changes should occur. One of those changes may well be improved interaction between students and teachers. Native teachers, having a better understanding of village life, may understand students’ values and interactional styles that have traditionally and incorrectly been perceived as a hindrance to classroom learning.

In cases where the language of the community is different from that of the school, Native speakers could use the language in the classroom to enhance learning. Other significant changes can be effected: more community influence (through formal channels and also through informal networks of village life in which a Native teacher is more likely to participate than a non-Native); curriculum content that reflects the environment of villages and the probable future; changes within the established school day schedule that better reflect the village’s traditional schedule; and, finally, an incorporation of traditional Alaskan Native values and beliefs in the classroom socialization process.

With very few exceptions, these changes in the structure and content of the village schools are yet to be seen. With the minute number of Native teachers currently employed in Alaska’s schools, and the lingering effects of collective educational pasts of Native teachers and village people, major change is difficult and will only occur over a relatively long period of time.

Given the past history of formal education in Alaska, the resistance to change of a bureaucratic school structure, and the pressures to conform to the accepted notion of what a “good” teacher is, the opportunity for innovative Native teachers to surface is fraught with obstacles. Unless there is initiative and opportunity for Native teachers to follow in the footsteps of their non-Native counterparts, schools will retain the status quo, and Native teachers will be merely a more efficient agent of the acculturative mission of the school.


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Last modified October 15, 2008