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Cross-Cultural Issues in

Alaskan Education Vol. II

FOLKLORE AND EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION
IN ALASKA

C. Douglas Rider
Center for Cross-Cultural Studies
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

(Ed. note: This paper was originally presented at the 80th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Society held in Los Angeles, California, December, 1981.)

Introduction

In this paper, the author attempts to identify selected ideological characteristics of the cultural world of rural Alaskan school administrators. The interaction between administrators and staff, students, community members, and visitors is influenced by the administrators’ world view concerning the nature of man and his activities. An analysis of the administrators’ cultural behavior, in this case the telling of stories, tales, sayings and proverbs, can lead to an increased understanding of their world view which, in turn, can lead to a more lucid picture of school decisionmaking in a cross-cultural context. The primary purpose of this study has been to examine the behavior of school principals in a cross-cultural context. The observations reported here were collected over a two-year period of three-to-five-day visits a month into several rural communities in Alaska as a University field instructor. The visits with each principal often included many hours and sometimes days. Visits ranged from 6 a.m. to the late evening. Visits occurred in school and out; in his office, in the village store, at the local Native corporation or village council offices; when he was sober or not so sober; with or without his wife and children; in other words, in nearly every setting in which a principal might interact each day.

Soon into the study it became apparent that the administrators with whom I was working had an interesting common behavior -- they all loved to tell stories. Some were more proficient at it than others, but all subjects told stories. Initially, I did not record the stories in detail, nor did I tape record them; rather, I took them to be an integral part of the principals’ behavior and no more or less important to my study. In reviewing my field notes, however, I saw emerging a pattern of behavior and a set of common themes in the stories. I began to note the story and the social and physical context within which it was related. In fact, this particular aspect of the study became a preoccupation. Coincidentally, part of my duties during this period included teaching an anthropology course in contemporary American culture and an introduction to folklore course.

Context

The context for the study is five rural Alaskan villages in a region inhabited by Alaskan Natives of three different linguistic groups. The villages are all permanent settlements with subsistence living as the primary source of economic activity. The subsistence patterns center around sea mammals and reindeer herding with some reliance on riverine resources. Several villages are known for their whaling activities, which are a vital and important focus of their culture.

The villages display many differences and similarities with respect to the following physical characteristics which I would like to sketch. The similarities are that all villages are located on the ocean shore; they all have a prominent air field with at least two bush flights each day (weather permitting); they all have large and conspicuous fuel oil tanks; most housing is of the wooden frame type; they have a pick-up truck that travels from “downtown” to the airstrip; they have several small general stores; a myriad of CB antennas; snow-goes, ATV’s and dogs. Also, there are seal skins, fish racks, whale or sea mammal bones, and outhouses in each village. Finally, each community has a school as its most prominent building.

Some differences in the physical setting are that two villages have a predominance of government housing. Two villages are renowned for their polar bear hunting, one village for its reindeer herds, and one village for its whaling and walrus hunting. Two villages have television, and telephones are available if desired or affordable. Three villages do not have television, and in these communities there is only one village telephone, usually located in the “Native” store. The smallest community has 200 inhabitants; the largest, 400 inhabitants, depending on season.

The inhabitants of these villages are Eskimo. Three distinct languages are spoken. In one village nearly all the Native people speak Siberian Yupik; one community’s language is Central Yupik, which all adults speak fluently, although the children do not. Three communities are Inupiaq-speaking with most adults fluent, but only a small percentage of the children have any degree of fluency.

The schools are usually the centerpieces of the villages. Several are in the geographic center of the village, with housing on either side. Unlike the pattern in other parts of rural Alaska, where the schools are physically removed from the village, these communities envelop the school building. The school gymnasium or recreation room is a source of community participation, and in all locations is in use night and day by the local residents. Most village residents describe the school as the most important structure in their community and express pride in their school.

The village schools are operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the State of Alaska. The BIA operates the K-8 component in several villages, and the State operates the high school. In two villages the State, through a regional school district, runs the total K-12 program. The BIA provides housing, with running water and flush toilets, for its employees while the State-funded school district does not. In villages with both BIA and State schools this difference in housing is a significant source of discontent amongst teachers. Maintenance on these relatively huge structures, including light, heat, and repair, can reach the $100,000 range each year.

The focus of this study is The School Principal and his or her oral tradition and world view as it affects school decision-making. Each of the eight principals in this study possessed Alaska teaching certificates. Two principals were certified in special education and did not have administrative credentials. Three principals were actually principal-teachers. A principal-teacher (p-t) is expected to teach a full course of study and devote late afternoons to administrivia. The full-time administrator who does not teach is expected to devote his or her time to “managing” things -- interestingly, the paperwork is about the same for both roles. The p-t’s in the study did not hold administrative credentials. At least one p-t was in the classroom no more than one day in five and his aide actually handled the teaching chores.

With respect to advanced credentials, four principals had Masters Degrees and one had significant course work towards the doctorate. The BIA did not require the same academic credentials as the State-funded schools (that has now changed); thus, the BIA administrators were less credentialed, in general, than those employed by the State. All the principals were male, which is not unusual in educational administration. These principals considered themselves the most educated, most authoritative, most experienced; most influential persons representing Western cultural institutions in each village. It makes sense, then, to focus on their folklore to investigate the type of influences that they exert in the village schools. A further task of the analysis is to demonstrate an adherence of the folklore to an American core value system (Kluckhohn, 1961). This analysis examines the tendency of principals to plan ahead, get ahead, to stress self-reliance, to stress dominance of the environment and achievement without substantial regard to the cross-cultural context.

Categories of Rural Educators’ Tales

Analysis of the “texts” of the folklore presentations (stories) indicate that they were adjusted for each audience in that the raconteur would use a common theme but vary the presentation for different groups. The tales then could have positive or negative overtones depending on social context. Some of the themes or genre of folklore are exemplified in the following texts.

Airplane Tales

We were coming back from Gold Town and we had to get below the clouds to see. We were almost on the deck! The pilot didn’t seem to know where he was. Everyone was panicked because we knew there were hills between us and St. Joseph. I’m not going to say I was scared but they will have to replace the seat cover in the plane. The pilot finally saw a clearing and he sat it down -- we waited out the weather.

I was coming back from a principals’ meeting and the weather rolled in -- we couldn’t see sh--. The pilot really look scared -- his radar didn’t work. We called Gold Town for permission to come back but they were weathered in, too. The pilot decided to get below the weather. We saw the ground! We were about 300 feet up -- the guy in front of me almost came unglued. I won’t tell you what it did to me.

Folklore that concerns air travel is foremost in the repertoire of many rural educators. With the only means of travel being small aircraft, and with the difficult weather found in most areas of Alaska one can understand this apparent preoccupation. Many communities are tied to the outside world by small aircraft; thus, it becomes important for communications and survival. For many principals and teachers the airplane becomes an obsession and tales abound regarding harrowing experiences. Frequently, the tales are embellished in order to make the unusual occurrence one that involved near-misses that endangered life and limb.

New Teacher Tales

I was waiting at the airstrip for my teaching couple to arrive. The plane sat down and I walked over to see if they were on board. There was a couple --but they didn’t seem to be getting out. The pilot said they were the ‘Jones,’ but they saw Fishcamp Village from the air and said, ‘return us to Gold Town.’ I tried to talk them off the plane but they said you’d have to be crazy to teach here. You know: they were right -- you have to be tough or crazy, and after two years I’m a little of both.

There was this new teacher who had been promised housing in the village as an inducement to teach in this community. When he got here he found that the roof of the house was only six feet high (he was six foot four inches tall), there was no electricity, no water and no toilet. He moved into the school kitchen and we can’t get him out. He says they will have to get him better quarters or he will live in there all year.

This category of tale was second in emphasis to travel tales. These stories dealt mainly with the inability of the new hire to adapt to the rigors of Alaska in an immediate fashion. It is not unusual to hear that several teachers each year do not remain in the village even a week. Many candidates explain to recruiters that they are experienced back-packers and can rough it without difficulty. It seems no matter how much an outsider is told, the isolation and lack of facilities comes as a shock, a shock some never quite recover from and, thus, do not make it through the school year. They become the subject of everyone’s favorite “new teacher” story.

Central Office Tales

This gal from Gold Town came out here last week and totally screwed up my operation. She is the special ed person and seems to think she can operate without my permission. All those Central Office people come out here and practice their tricks on my kids and then go away and leave me with the fall-out. If I say anything, they immediately report to the superintendent that I don’t cooperate. It would be nice if we were really principals and not hosts for the safaris of people from Gold Town. They seem to think that they are big wheels doing a favor for the poor village administrators. I will talk to the rest of the principals and see if I can resolve this issue.

That G-- d--- guy comes out here on big per diem, sleeps in my house, eats my food, drinks my booze, pumps me for information and leaves without giving us a dime or even a nice thank you. All of us ought to go stay at his house and do the same.

There are several themes in these tales that occur in other categories of folk stories. The initial theme is that the village school is in a state of equilibrium, and input from Central Office may upset this equilibrium and cause difficulty for the on-site administrator. The second theme is that many Central Office personnel are inconsiderate dolts and do not observe simple amenities expected of visitors of any station in life. Also, headquarters’ people seem to be chosen for their ability to offend and take the opportunity to do so at a high degree of frequency. The uncontrolled visitor is a threat to harmony in the village situation.

Visitor Tales

This whole plane of foreigners comes descending on the school. My G--! They wanted to ski to Siberia or some such s---. Why is it we get all the weirdos in the world out here? Then the weather got bad and they had to stay for six days. They bitched about sleeping on the floor, they wanted better meals, and they wanted to know why they had to be out of the classrooms by 7:30 a.m. One guy tried to proposition a high school girl. Thank G-- the weather cleared and they left. We charged them 40 bucks a day each for the school fund. The seniors will have a h--- of a trip this year.

One of the worst things that can happen to a frequent traveller to the bush is to be labeled as cheap, strange, or said to have bizarre habits. Unfortunately, it is true that many visitors do make unusual demands on the schools. In most rural Alaskan communities there are no hotels or restaurants, and the school is the only available place to house people. Further, most schools have the facilities to prepare meals. Thus, the school principal is frequently an inn-keeper, whether he wants to be or not, no matter how unwelcome the guest. Many administrators have published menus, room-rates and a check-out time. This procedure does save hurt feelings and misunderstandings although such lists frequently are seen as mercenary by the travellers.

This presentation format does not provide space to give textual examples for each category, nor to relate the context for each genre, but some of the other dominant topics are:

Staff (includes unions)
Spiritual Happenings
Ground and Water Travel
Village-related problems
Domestic Difficulty
Drinking Behavior

Analysis

In order to qualify for this study it was necessary for a tale to be told (with variations on a theme) in at least three locations: The where, when, who and what was recorded. There is no attempt to assess the veracity of a tale -- it is not important, given the purpose of this study.

It was usually during group meetings attended by all administrators in a district or region that folklore behavior was most pronounced. The function of folklore seems to be to recruit new members into the occupational “brotherhood.” In addition to recruitment, folklore appears to function as an orientation into appropriate ways of acting. This recruitment process is accompanied by a need for maintaining allegiance to this occupational group. The highlight of the informal sessions is when the “new guy” begins his attempts to become a raconteur. Thus, the stories help to provide continuity in a very mobile population. Since the average tenure of a bush principal is about two years, folklore provides cultural continuity and provides guidelines to assist the new principals in behaving appropriately.

Another function of folklore in this context appears to be that of attaining compliance to a set of norms. Normative compliance is not unknown to organizational theorists and is probably a common occurrence among managers, rather like an indirect order. The principal’s story or tale usually expresses what is appropriate or inappropriate behavior and, in the cases under discussion, the sanctions that were imposed. The audience for this type of behavior was usually younger colleagues, teachers, or students. Organizational scholar Louis Pondy, for example, states:

. . . meanings will frequently be ‘stored’ in organizational myths and metaphors to provide rationales for both membership and activity in organizations. The role that institutional leaders play in the creation of myths and metaphors is a worthwhile focus for study (Pondy, 1976:33).

Pondy and others argue that organizations create meanings which are stored in myths and metaphors. Myths and metaphors, he continues, are implicit in the organizational, educational, and managerial platforms of schools (Sergiovanni and Carver, 1980: 239). The folklore of the principals demonstrates several significant motifs. The one of most importance is similar to what Francis Hsu has labeled “self-reliance.” This is the core American value according to Hsu (1972). Analysis of the folklore, regardless of genre, illustrates this core value as a distinct orientation of the informants. The texts of their stories reveal verbal illustrations of their own independence, uniqueness, individualism; and economic, social and political equality. Several examples of stories that support my analysis will illustrate this self-reliant theme. The fact that some people are judged by their deviation from an arbitrary measure of adequate self-reliance is found in the writings of Hsu (1972:249).

I’m out here by myself, trying to make a better world for all of us. As difficult as it can get at times, I know how important it is to encourage people to stand on their own two feet. Without the schools, the people would still be in the stone age. We have an important mission -- to make these people less dependent on the federal government, and to take their place in the modern world.

The children in this school have no sense of pride. They copy one another’s work, they can’t go to the bathroom alone, they want help on tests, they are obstinate and difficult if singled out for reward or punishment, and they won’t speak up. When I went to school we were punished if we did any of those things. It must have worked to my benefit because I’m now the principal and I have all this responsibility.

The tales that led me to the association of folklore, core values and world view were those that contrasted Native dependence with the Caucasian’s self-reliance. For instance, stories about Natives often dealt with alcohol, welfare, working habits, etc., usually relating a general dependence or lack of self-reliance on the part of the local people. Conversely, most tales about principals’ behavior lauded their ability in coping with extraordinary circumstances. For instance, there were stories of principals who disarmed villagers who came to the school drunk. There were stories of villagers who had to be persuaded not to shoot-up school equipment because they were mad at the government. There were stories that clearly indicated the independent, self-reliant principal and the independent and unreliable local person. A typical example of folklore to support my analysis demonstrates the notion of principal as folk hero (cf. Botkin, 1980:2):

I was just about to hit the sack -- we put the kids to bed and we were really tired. It had been a hectic day. The villagers had received some dividend money, and booze was everywhere. Just then I heard a volley of shots -- I looked out the window and some drunk was shooting the school snogo. I got on some boots and my parka and went outside. I was not going to let some drunk ruin the machine. Well, I talked my a-- off and he went away. When I got back in the house my wife asked, “Didn’t you worry about him shooting you?” I honestly didn’t think about that until after -- I guess I was rather foolish -- but only the good die young.

This tale was told by principals in three villages, without acknowledging the fact that it happened to someone else in some other place and time. It was part of the repertoire of folklore, and it did express the self-reliant nature of the shared knowledge of principals in that region.

The stories recorded were not always checked for accuracy. In fact, many of them are probably folk fallacies (Dundes, 1972); however, they may be no less real to the teller and audience than a story that is legitimate oral history (legend).

As indicated above, the folklore or folk fallacies almost universally demonstrated the non-Native as self-reliant and Natives as dependent. This perceived dependence by the principals can be seen as affecting their ability to make valid decisions with regard to the conduct of education in cross-cultural settings. This is especially the case if Hsu is correct in his assertion that: “In American society the fear of dependence is so great that an individual who is not self-reliant is a misfit” (1972:250).

It would appear that an individual expressing self-reliance as an important component of his or her world view would have a basic conflict with “folks” from cultures that do not rate self-reliance as a high priority in their own world view or core values. This appears to be the case in rural Alaskan schools where the school principal is the apparent personification of the self-confident, self-assured and self-reliant leader.

To underscore the value distinctions that are central to this discussion it is necessary to introduce the concept of self-sufficiency. The American way is to thrive on honest competition, to engage in fair play, to conquer the environment and to be the “best” as long as no one else is harmed. One should determine one’s own fate and pursue one’s own essence. In other words, one must be reliant on one’s self because no one else will assume that responsibility. The text books of the 19th and early 20th century abound with such sentiments.

A different method of solving the basic existential dilemma of self and community encourages cooperation, self-effacement, little or no overt competition, harmony with the environment and a strong sense of commitment to community. The community becomes self-sufficient and members of the community are seen as interdependent rather than independent. Self-reliance is not sought because it is not an important characteristic of that particular culture. In fact, too much self-reliance is not acceptable because of the need for cooperation and interdependence: it is not the practice of community members to express only self. This basic and fundamental difference in cultural orientation accounts for much of the difficulty in communication in rural Alaskan schools, and it seems that with appropriate training it could be reduced or eliminated as a source of conflict.

Conclusion

Through the gathering of materials in the everyday speech world of rural principals, we have produced evidence that the study of this speech community allowed us entre’ into the more complex processes of human cognition. It was not important to this study as to how the principal learned his world view; rather, it would seem more important to eventually increase his awareness of himself as a culture-bearer. Indeed, how does one increase awareness in a cross-cultural context to provide an understanding of potentially conflicting world views? The process of enculturation, or culture learning is a very powerful process that all humankind experiences. This culture learning leads to an integrated and persistent cognitive view of how the world functions, and it is most difficult to change.

Humans are frequently trapped by their culture learning info believing that their way is the only way and that other solutions to existential problems are, at best, inadequate or inferior to their own. Individuals frequently carry this ethnocentrism into the cross-cultural situation with them. Most often they are unaware of how this affects their day-to-day approach to life. Apparently, they do not realize how their perfectly rational decisions in day-to-day operations in a cross-cultural context are affected by a world view based on a Western ideology, an ideology that is culture-specific and culture-bound.

If administrators and teachers become aware of the values encoded in folklore will it improve their decision making? There is not set and simple answer -- so, it could be asked: will it hurt their ability to make intelligent decisions? I say no! This paper has attempted to demonstrate that folklore provides an avenue to examine values, meanings and ideas that lead to the plans and strategems of school management. It is this author’s belief that awareness of this phenomenon will make administrators conscious of their behavior and encourage them to change and modify existing patterns of behavior. This study was conducted in hopes that the results would have some impact on the practice of educational administration in rural Alaska.

Finally, through the study of occupational folklore, utilizing an ethnographic approach to determine cultural context and directed interviews to establish the nature and genre of folklore, we can readily identify self-reliance as an important core value that is a component of a world view that affects the outlook the administrator has on the process of formal education. Decisions and policy will favor, then, an orientation toward self-reliance. If the receiving culture is not perceived to be in possession of this value in the same priority, conflict can arise. Consequently, folklore provides but one more indication of the cultural barriers that must be overcome to reconcile the variety of expectations of schools in rural Alaskan communities. There needs to be training available to rural teachers and principals that would assist them in coming to grips with value discontinuities that they encounter in the everyday operation of rural schools.

References

Botkin, B.A. A Treasury of American Folklore. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
Dundes, Alan. “Folk ideas as units of World View,” in Toward New Perspectives in Folklore. A. Paredes and R. Bauman, eds. Austin: University of Texas Press for The American Folklore Society, Vol. 23: 93-103, 1972.
Hsu, Francis. “American Lore Value and National Character,” in Psychological Anthropology. F. Hsu, ed. Cambridge: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc., pp. 241-261, 1972.
Kluckhohn, F. and F. Strodbeck. Variations in Value Orientations. Chicago: Row, Peterson, 1961.
Pondy, L. “Beyond Open System Models of Organization.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, Kansas City, Mo., 1976.
Sergiovanni, T. and F. Carver. The New School Executive. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.

 

 

 

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