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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


Patrick M. Pavilla
Akiachak IRA Contract School

(Ed. note: This paper was originally written for the Akiachak IRA Contract School, and has been slightly revised for this publication.)


By most standards, Alaska Native people can be considered to be among the most isolated ethnic group in the country. They reside in many geographically diverse, isolated areas, thus constituting a need for the local communities to control the educational and other services of their people.

The dominant culture, through the federal and state governments, has consistently attempted to control all services provided for Alaska Natives. The Yup’ik, like most of Alaska’s original people, have been exposed to successive impacts of outside influence. The early Russian traders and missionaries gave way to American missionaries, who, in turn, were followed by miners, seamen, traders, and, other people who had different life styles. Many of these have been replaced by the bureaucrat who continues to prevail.

Each of the above groups changed the Yup’ik people in some way. In many ways the changes appear to be negative. The subsistence lifestyle of the early Yup’ik gave way to dependency on jobs, store-bought food and clothing, and permanent settlements near government facilities, including schools, hospitals, and other agencies.

The changes that occurred were often the result of institutional biases reflected in the dominant culture. These alien institutions have changed the Yup’ik society to the dominant culture’s liking, but, in so doing, have brought many disadvantages to the Yup’ik population. They have left the Yup’ik to struggle for survival in a complex society.

After Caucasians settled in the area, the Eskimo had to make a drastic change in his lifestyle and adapt to a lifestyle with which he was unfamiliar. These changes included many obstacles that the Eskimo had to overcome in order to survive. During this process, he had to learn new ways to live and was forced to end the way of life he had known for centuries. This forced change brought many unwanted situations, but since it was brought in by a dominating culture, the Eskimo had no choice but to submit to the changes. Notable changes included family life, religion, health, and education. These four areas underwent drastic changes when the Caucasians arrived in Southwest Alaska. The people in this region did not ask for change, but the “melting pot” syndrome brought change to the Native. Most changes required a new lifestyle for the Native, and he had a difficult time adjusting. When a change was not occuring to the Caucasian’s satisfaction, he would force the Native to adopt his standard of living. Such is the case with the educational system in Southwest Alaska.

Until recently the dominant culture’s approach to educating the “uncivilized savage” was effective in the sense that it produced a crop of “red apples.” When one refers to a red apple, he or she means that a Native was educated only to serve the Caucasian and also to think like him. State and federal governments were proud of the teachers who were responsible for educating the naive Natives. What they were really doing, however, was deculturizing these individuals and eventually persuading them that the Caucasian way was the best way to live. This was a popular form of education until recently, when there arose concerned local communities who realized there was a need for new approaches for educating the Natives.

A Native Philosophy of Education

Education is society’s means of presenting, enhancing and strengthening its way of life. Native education must serve to accurately and effectively transmit the societal and cultural needs of Alaskan Natives. We must perceive education, not only as the intellectual development of the individual for his/her benefit, but also as a social orientation and developmental process responsible for social change which will benefit a collective group. Education also must develop an awareness of the social, economic, political, educational, religious, vocational and environmental conditions of our society.

As educators, we must dedicate ourselves to developing the Yup’ik perceptive abilities so that we can understand our way of life. We must apply our knowledge, awareness, and our collective abilities so the community can achieve an effective social transformation.

The students, parents, and teachers must work together: This process must be in accordance with the concept, “llakutneq.” As long as students, parents and teachers are able to relate to one another as “llakukut,” school problems and other social concerns can be overcome and the school will prosper, If a student has a problem, he or she can discuss it with his/her peers and teachers and seek consultation with whomever the student can trust. The parent must be involved and work with the staff to insure that there is total communication. In this way, we learn to work together.

The educational program must be designed to guarantee the survival of the Yup’ik people by properly planting each foot in the two cultures. Education must be a tool that enhances identification and acceptance in either culture.

Native education also must teach the values that have kept the Yup’ik traditions alive and sustained life in the Delta. It must foster in the students pride in themselves as members of a strong people and teach them the skills and the understanding of life that is essential to keep them strong.

Education, both Native and non-Native, is the main purpose of the schools, and the educational program must not only benefit the students, but also must include the community. All knowledge should be shared -- what one knows is to be taught to others. This process of mutual help was, and still is, a living part of the Yup’ik culture. When implementing this process, the student also becomes an instructor who must share what he learns and help educate the Yup’ik people.

We must create cultural awareness and reinforce pride in our language and way of life. Therefore, our goal is to build positive images to counter the physical and psychological destruction of the Yup’ik people.

Survival of the Yup’ik people will be ensured when we are able to adapt to a changing environment which is threatening the very existence of our culture, our traditions, and our way of life. Through a better educational system, with a Native core curriculum, we will be able to understand and live in our own culture and be respected by the other.

Presently, there is a growing movement to develop Native-oriented curriculum for tribally control led education systems. Rough Rock Demonstration School in Window Rock, Arizona is an example of a modern-day, innovative educational program run by the Navajo Indian Tribe. The Little Red School House in Minneapolis is an urban survival school which serves the educational needs of Indian students. The four Contract schools in Akiak, Akiachak, Chevak, and Tuluksak, are Alaskan examples of progressive education for Yup’ik students.

In conclusion, I wish to emphasize that a functional Native curriculum is possible. It is a long and laborious process, but it is essential. The system in which this curriculum is embedded is going to continue to be that of the dominant society. There will continue to be the skeptical viewpoints which cannot accept that both ways can exist without one destroying the other. In fact, both dominant culture and Native ways have existed in the lives of generations of Native students who have had to integrate both for several centuries. All those thousands of Native people who have endured have provided us with a living model of dual citizenship and bicultural education.



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Alaska Native Knowledge Network
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Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
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Last modified October 14, 2008