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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
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Indigenous Education Worldwide

Cross-Cultural Issues in

Alaskan Education Vol. II


Lary Schafer
Center for Cross-Cultural Studies
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

The Nature of the Problem

An historical account of Alaska Native education is a varied and complex one.1 The first effort to impose a formal educational system upon certain Alaskan Native groups was that of the Russians in the late 1700s. Then, when the U.S. government purchased Alaska in 1867, there was a long period when schools were operated by three disparate American agencies: the federal government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA); the new territorial government; and several different church groups. Following statehood in 1959, a centralized Alaska State Operated School System (ASOSS) was established to manage the majority of the new state’s schools. A large number of BIA schools continued to operate as well as a number of church schools. In 1975, the ASOSS was dissolved, and twenty-one new school districts, called Regional Educational Attendance Areas (REAAs), were established. As a result, a more localized system for the administration of schools was finally possible.

Today, the REAAs provide schools for nearly eleven thousand pupils, seventy percent of whom are Native (Hecht, 1981; p. 193). There are still some BIA schools in Alaska but, because of recent federal budget cutbacks, these schools may soon be turned over to the state.

From the time Alaska was purchased from the Russians, the substance of the public school curriculum was directed toward serving the non-Native population: “. . . thus the seeds of discontent on the part of the Native people were being sown” (Darnell, 1979, p. 434). Discontent was rooted nearly one hundred years ago when both the territorial government and the BIA were operating most of the schools within Alaska. During that time, an essentially racist educational philosophy and a standardized curriculum were geared to serve the needs of a mythical average middle-class American Caucasian child. The cultural context of Native people was given little, if any, consideration. A result of this stringent educational system was the increasing disorder and disruption of the traditional Alaskan Native society.

The Winds of Change

By 1960, Alaska was undergoing massive social, economic, and political changes which were to alter Native life forever. It was difficult for Native people to express their concerns and discontent over these changes, but new winds of social change were beginning to blow, and Native people would soon learn ways to articulate their discontent.

During this period of national social ferment, there was a proliferation of educational and vocational training opportunities for Native people. More and more young people were attending boarding schools and vocational training programs and joining the armed services. Despite the relocation of many Natives and the erosion of village life, there did evolve a cadre of Native leaders who began to articulate the concerns of their people.

Paralleling the Alaskan Native movement, an increasing number of ethnic and cultural movements were gaining momentum on a national scale. Black Power, La Raza, and the American Indian Movement were all voicing the need and demanding the rights of minorities to live with cultural integrity.

A corresponding national political sentiment gave implicit support to these ethnic protests. Many programs, such as Vista, Peace Corps, and Teacher Corps were all directed, at least in part, to the problems articulated by American minority groups. The Great Society of the '60s evolved in response to the social concerns of all American people, including the poor and culturally different.

All of these forces helped Alaskan Natives to define and articulate their general concern and dissatisfaction with the educational processes they were experiencing, a situation common to all Alaskan Native peoples. When societies reach certain stages of discontent, they may choose to correct the situation through a revitalization process, “. . . a delineated, organized, conscious attempt by some or all members . . . to construct for themselves a more satisfying culture” (Wallace, 1964; p. 57). I am suggesting that the processes Alaskan Natives have gone through during the last two decades in their efforts to reconstruct the educational systems in their communities can be likened to a revitalization process.

The “Solution”

Because of the commonly accepted notion that real “learning” can take place only in a formal school setting, there arose a cry from Native people and educational personnel that it was the school system which should be altered to solve the problem of disrupted Native cultural transmission. The schools then began to incorporate aspects of Native culture into the curriculum, based on two major criticisms: (1) the standardized curriculum was foreign and irrelevant to Native students and, (2) many people felt that the schools failed to acknowledge traditional culture. Something was needed to “revitalize” the traditional culture which was perceived as disappearing or changing uncontrollably. As the presence and power of schools increased, Native people were led to believe that if elements of Native culture were integrated with the school system, they could regain control of the transmission of their culture.

The educational system rallied to deal with this issue by incorporating a host of specially funded educational programs such as Johnson 0’MaIley, Indian Education, Bilingual-Bicultural, Title I, Special Education, and Community Education, all of which supported activities intended to bring Native culture into the school. Theoretically, these programs would satisfy Native demands for “traditional culture” in the curriculum to solve the problems of negative social change that Native people had been experiencing. The result is what might be called an “accommodation model,” an attempt by the educational system to incorporate and attach traditional Native culture with the school curriculum. This was intended to help solve the problem of failure of the schools to promote the transmission of Native cultural knowledge and values. As a result, many schools today have a full range of “traditional activities” and “cultural artifacts” that are included in the daily learning activities. Native craftsmen and experts are brought into the school to teach language and various handicrafts which invariably include skin sewing and beadwork for the girls and snowshoe or sled making for the boys. Storytellers are occasionally brought in to share bits of oral history. This “accommodation model ,” the attempted integration of the Native cultural system with the school system, has been “bought” by many of the people involved with these programs (both the Native clients and those who offer the programs) as the solution to the problems discussed. Overall, there has been an almost total acceptance of this approach as a way to deal with the problem.

I have suggested that the efforts to make the schools responsive to their needs constituted a revitalization movement for Native people in that it was an “organized and conscious attempt” to use the formal educational system to produce a more satisfying culture for themselves. However, there is an important catch to all of this. Wallace states that, “Impelled by the vast emotional force of such a movement, a people can successfully accomplish sweeping changes in culture in a very short time; but they can also commit collective suicide, if the cultural changes are ill-conceived and the chosen means are unsuited to the desired ends” (p. 58, emphasis mine).

The dilemma may be, then, that collective cultural suicide is occurring for Alaska Native people and, for whatever reasons, Native people have been deceived by what may be ill-conceived programs and methods of preserving the cultural values they hold dearest. Actually, the special school programs were not, for the most part, of Native peoples’ making, but were originated by unsuspecting and some not so unsuspecting educators who used them to suit their own purposes.

Concerned Native and non-Native people involved in these processes must ask themselves if the perpetuation of this particular educational model regarding Native culture has caused significant positive changes and created a more desirable state of affairs. I believe if we critically examine the schools’ cultural programs, we will find ample evidence suggesting that the integration of Native culture with the formal educational system may not be as beneficial or positive as has been previously thought. Instead of helping to define and preserve a satisfactory cultural identity of Native people, the programs and their underlying philosophy may in fact be instrumental in perpetuating undesirable changes in Native culture.

The Problem of “Culture”

The discussion in this section parallels the issues raised in Dubbs’ article elsewhere in this publication. As he states, the major problem with current educational terminology is the use, misuse, and abuse of the term “culture” while relating it to the transmission of Native culture, and the indiscriminate use of various definitions of terms applied to bilingual-bicultural programs. “Most action programs . . . parade around a variety of conceptual terms while paying little heed to how their often implicit or, at best, imprecise definitions of those terms shape the structure of their action programs” (Dubbs, 1982). This is most evident in the change certain terms undergo from their original meaning at a program’s conception to the stage when a program is put into operation. In some programs the operational definition is so far removed from the original meaning and intent that one could almost suspect fraud. An example of this transformation is the use of funds designated for “traditional” activities being spent for basketball team travel, justified because some of the players are Native students. Related to the misuse of terms is the political issue of recognizing who is defining a program’s terminology and who is actually implementing the program.

In light of the changes of definition which can occur, the definition of the term “culture” is perhaps the most critical and complex issue in educational program development. There are probably at least as many definitions of culture as there are anthropologists, or program directors and school superintendents. The definition that is most common in educational circles, however, is the one that emphasizes the material and technological aspects of culture. It focuses almost exclusively on material and artifactual items -- clothing, tools, art, etc. There are reasons for the widespread acceptance of this definition, the most obvious being that this focus is the easiest to deal with because it focuses on concrete items that can be easily managed by teachers who are unfamiliar with Native culture. A less pronounced reason for such widespread acceptance of this materially oriented definition of culture is the inability of some educational decisionmakers to see the value and definitions which treat “culture” more abstractly. Even more frightening is the possibility that some of those who do understand the implications of a more comprehensive definition of culture, opt for the material definition because it allows them to control the extent to which Native culture will be accommodated in the school curriculum. One consequence of accepting a material definition of culture is that Native culture programs are often added as “tag- ons” to the regular curriculum and are often al located minimal time when it is convenient for the school and staff. Thus there is an implicit message that Native culture is not important enough to occupy equal prime time in the school curriculum.

Hidden Messages

It seems to me that we must carefully examine all the information and messages being transmitted by the schools’ special cultural programs. The explicit message, of course, is that the school system recognizes Native culture as an important element of education and, by adding it to the curriculum through these special programs, the school is helping to solve the problems articulated by Native people. We dwell too much on this explicit message and often ignore what might be the underlying one. This acceptance occurs for numerous reasons, but two should be mentioned here: (1) people are not aware of any alternatives to the present situation, and (2) many people are coerced into believing the school’s explicit message because of the economic and political powers of the people perpetuating the system. What may be of greatest concern, however, are the implicit messages being conveyed by the various cultural programs and structures.

Let us look at one message that is not very subtle. I mentioned earlier how Native programs are often allocated minimal time in the school curriculum, usually depending upon the school personnel’s convenience. The implications of this “tag-on” approach are not lost on as many people today as in the past. In more and more public and private forums Native people can be heard bemoaning the fact that so little time is being spent on these subjects, and that these programs are usually the ones that are sacrificed when alterations in scheduling, curriculum content, or budgeting have to be made. The fact that school personnel do not see these activities as a substantial part of the curriculum is becoming more and more obvious. If cultural activities are important enough to become an integrated part of the curriculum, then many more teachers should be involved. There are cases of a few teachers who look forward to the cultural activity periods, where lessons are presented by another teacher, only as an opportunity to enjoy some free time for themselves. I have heard teachers in one community say they “can’t wait for Spring Camp Week” so they can send their class out each day with Native instructors, giving the classroom teachers a week of rest.

Another implied message may have even more dire consequences for Native people: By immersing Native culture in the context of a non-Native school system, the implication is that Native culture has no strength and vitality of its own -- that it is incapable of perpetuating itself as a viable cultural system, and only through the formal schooling process can it be preserved and transmitted. The power of this message is undeniable.

Many Native people have been convinced that the way to strengthen Native culture is to involve kids in more “traditional activities,” -- and these must be done through the school. So the “accommodation model” is perpetuated and innumerable functions of Native culture, such as discipline, language, traditional skills and values, continue to be relinquished by parents to the school.

And how does the school actually preserve Native “cultural activities?” By being performed in a formal school context, these activities are often given form and meaning. Original meanings and values relating to the activities are distorted, and the cultural activity and product often become ends in themselves. How would one deal with a paradoxical situation in which a Native and a Caucasian student are doing a cultural activity together, e.g., making a pair of moccasins, and the Caucasian student’s turn out technically better than the Native child’s? How do you explain to the Native child that it is not the moccasins, per se, which are culturally meaningful, but that the values, history, traditions and knowledge of his people create the complex configuration which is his “culture.” Such a task would indeed be difficult.

One consequence of all this is that the positive feelings Native people have toward their cultural heritage are undermined. The rnechanisms for transmitting their knowledge and social values are passing out of their hands into those of the public school system, leading, eventually, to a loss of control of their cultural destiny.

The insidious effect of this state of affairs is that many people, Native and non-Native, interpret it as proof that the Native culture must be related or connected with the dominant non-Native culture to maintain an identity. Native culture is seen as having validity only in terms of having some connection with the dominant culture. Many of us have seen books and other sources that discuss Native American contributions to the Caucasian culture, e.g., agricultural items such as squash or corn, or other items such as moccasins or street names. Some years ago, I heard an eloquent reply to this point of view at a national conference. A young Indian man exclaimed that he did not want to hear about what Indian people contributed to the Caucasian culture, nor did he want his existence justified by what his people had supposedly contributed to the Caucasian culture. In fact, he said, the strength of Indian culture is that it did not contribute to the dominant culture, and that what is basically Indian has remained Indian. Indian culture, he asserted, has the strength to perpetuate its own existence in its own way, rather than by operating only within the framework of some other non- Indian culture.

I believe he was suggesting, as I am, that a solution to the dilemma of loss of cultural integrity on the part of the Natives is not to continue the present system nor strengthen the school’s accommodation models, but to reconsider the function of these programs and establish a new order of relationships between the two different but equal cultural systems. A colleague of mine suggested that one way to help eliminate problems in this area would be to give the special programs equal time in the school. My counter to that argument is that once Native cultural activities are carried out in a non-Native institutional setting, they can never hope for an equal footing within that setting. By the very nature of the relationship, they are contained and judged by non-Native institutional values. Within the formal school system, Native cultural forms will always play a subordinate role to the overt and covert structure of the institution. The answer, then, is not that Native cultural forms should have equal time in the school but, rather, that they should have equal time with the school.

New Questions and Different Messages

The educational philosophy of the school’s special programs reminds me of scenes from the Pogo cartoon by Walt Kelly. In his cast of characters, Howland Owl, an educated type, gives the same answers to all questions. The special cultural programs in our schools often follow the same pattern; they apply the same answers to different questions whether or not they are appropriate. But some very critical questions have yet to be asked and they require new perspectives.

There are four questions I wish to pose in an attempt to bring a new perspective to the problems we have discussed. The first question concerns the nature of culture. Can we arrive at some definition of culture that will be satisfactory to both the school system and Native people? And, if so, what kind of definition of culture would take into account the rapid sociocultural changes Native people are now experiencing? A third question is: Are there ways that both traditional and contemporary Native culture and values may be transmitted other than through special school programs or in an institutional context? The fourth question is: How viable could any of these alternatives be, considering the political, social, and economic forces at work in Alaska today?

The Question of Culture

I once had a discussion with the superintendent of schools of a rural school district and he told me that the local people “had no Native culture left,” that when he walked through town everyone was dressed in Western clothes, they all watched T.V., spoke English, and in essence displayed the cultural traits of the non-Native dominant culture. This attitude typifies the type of mental trap we fall into when we are not able to see beyond the exterior trappings of everyday material and behavioral cultural artifacts. This man viewed Native culture as either lost or so far deteriorated that it was no longer a factor in relationships, especially in the school context. Sadly, this view is not limited to non-Native people. Many Natives also have been indoctrinated with a material concept of culture and are kept in a state of confusion by the rapid pace of social change. Often, it is the young adult Native who identifies the loss or disuse of certain cultural material objects as the loss of his/her culture. Some of the consequences of this attitude have been extremely tragic for these young people.

Some theorists and practitioners attempt to sidestep the trap of a material definition of culture by focusing on cultural behavior patterns instead. This, too, has proved to be inadequate because behavior is also a cultural artifact. Behavior is a consequence or product of culture and does not constitute culture itself. This fact can best be demonstrated perhaps by the following example, If I, a non-Native, behave like a Native, by participating in certain cultural behaviors like Native dancing or subsistence activities, am I then a Native and do I have Native culture? Obviously, the answer is no. I can participate in those activities and assume the appropriate mannerisms, but they do not instill me with “Native” culture. In the same way, I do not lose my own culture by “behaving” like a Native, just as Natives do not lose their culture when they participate within non-Native contexts. The addition or subtraction of “cultural traits” from one’s repertoire of personal traits is not a critical factor in the definition of culture.

A logical question follows: If material objects and behavioral acts are not culture, what is? Ward Goodenough’s discussion on the nature of culture has provided me with several extremely useful tools for sorting out this issue. As I understand Goodenough, he says that culture consists of a set of learned standards by which we judge and evaluate all of life. These standards are the device that we use to impute value to all things in our lives. We use these standards to judge ourselves and others, to tell us what is good or what is bad, to tell us what to believe in or not to believe in. When a group of people came together to adhere to the same standards, a society and a culture are formed. This definition allows for the broadest base of understanding and yet at the same time permits us to deal with the most specific aspects of any culture.

Language often has been considered an important attribute if not a synonym for culture. In Alaska, the loss of Native language is often considered the same as loss of Native culture. Is the speaking of a language culture, then? If we use Goodenough’s definition we would have to say no, the language itself is not culture but the standards we use to attribute value and acceptability to that language is the culture. For example, if I went to a Native community and spoke the language fluently, I may meet and even surpass the group’s standards regarding the technical aspects of the language. But I would not satisfy the complex social criteria that the people of the community use to assess the total speaker of the language. I could not meet the biological standards (ethnic), the historical standards, the emotional standards, etc., that the Native speakers use to judge the total use of the language.

Let us look again at the simple example of the two children in the classroom, one Caucasian and one Native, each of whom has made a pair of moccasins. In the formal school setting, the moccasins might be evaluated primarily in technical terms (cutting or stitching skills) and the Caucasian child might have a superior moccasin in those terms. However, an assessment of these moccasins by the standards of the Native community would be very different, stemming from a long-standing network of cultural values -- the history, traditions, and knowledge accumulated over many, many years. The moccasins in this sense are an expression of an intricate, enduring, honored life style, a concept impossible to express concretely.

Learned and accepted standards are imbedded in the fabric of every society, in effect becoming the culture of that society. “Culture, then, consists of a society’s standards for deciding what is, standards for deciding what can be, standards for deciding how one feels about it, and standards for deciding how to go about doing it” (Goodenough, p. 62).

A Viable Alternative

If the consequences of the present school-based cultural programs have been as detrimental as I have suggested, what then can be done to improve programs? As we have learned, numerous social, political and economic constraints led Native communities to realize that it was no longer possible to transmit their values in a traditional manner -- through the family and community. Recognizing this problem and articulating it, they turned to the school system to relate their cultural values. The school’s inability to accomplish this task has made it clear that sane alternative must be identified.

I am arguing that Native cultural activities must be separate from the formal school context if they are to retain the values Native people honor. Pressures of social change on Native culture, though, seem to dictate that the transmission of Native culture be kept within an institutional framework. Can a Native institution be created, capable of providing cultural integrity to its people? This would be a radical departure from today’s thinking about the nature of cultural programs and their relationship with formal education, and about the nature of transmission of culture.

Why do we have “school” nine months of the year? Why are classes held five days a week and six and one-half hours a day? Can a parallel system be instituted whose sole function would be to transmit Native culture? I believe that the formal educational system can be restructured to accommodate the cultural concerns of the community and that the academic curriculum and the cultural “curriculum” can share equal status and time.

The “new” educational system, accommodating both academic and cultural needs, would limit the formal curriculum to academic subjects only and would not be responsible for the transmission of Native culture. The cultural program, on the other and, would be an integrated, ongoing cultural experience incorporating the whole of a community’s culture. It could be offered in an intensive four or five month process every year, it could be offered in two or three intensive sequences throughout the year, or it could be a program entailing five hours a day. The critical element in this model is that both educational processes would be separate from each other, but they would share equal status.

If a model like this were utilized, academic skills would be presented as “subsistence” skills necessary for survival in the modern world. It would be made clear that the acquisition of these “tools” would in no way detract from a student’s cultural identity but would, in fact, provide Native people with the economic and political prowess needed to maintain a traditional life style as they so chose.

The academic program would take only about one-half the time currently used by the schools. The cost, then, would also be cut drastically. The remaining school budget could be used to support an institution whose sole function would be to transmit Native culture, with a program designed, taught, and controlled by Natives. It would be free of the institutional constraints of the formal school system which, in the past, had given it second-class status.

In some ways, this plan is similar to the old BIA schools where Native students were taught the “three Rs” and cultural activities were kept quite separate. The new educational system I am proposing would provide a similar curriculum structure with the separation of academic learning from Native cultural transmission, but without the explicit and implicit messages to its students that Caucasian is best and Native is inferior, Instead, the new two-fold system could transmit a strong positive message about Native culture.

The old BIA system gives us some evidence that this separation of contexts indeed does work. The strict separation of functions in the BIA school allowed for the development of many Native leaders, people who maintained a strong sense of cultural identity even after going through a culturally suppressive system. In the school, they learned quickly that what is done is “school” things. The boundary was definitely drawn and no one had any question about what was Native and what was not. Once the “enemy” was identified and the rules of interaction were known, it became easier for Native students to deal with the system. Many Native students compartmentalized their lives: They spent nine months at Mt. Edgecumbe and then three intensive months at home where they were, in a sense, going through a cultural revitalization process.

Many Native leaders in Alaska today are products (survivors) of that old BIA system. With the clearly defined Native context to fall back on at regular intervals, they found they were ultimately able to cope with the other system. One of the problems with the “accommodation model” in today’s schools is that these boundary lines have become blurred, indistinct, and confusing. It is becoming more and more difficult for Native youth to identify the Native context because of its current relationship to the school and its subordinate position in that relationship.2

A Last Question

Is this radical departure from the present educational practices and philosophies feasible? Admittedly, it would require drastic changes in the perspectives of all parties involved. The state and other funding agencies would have to allow Native communities to use educational funds as they saw fit for the betterment of their community. There would have to be major accommodations and concessions made regarding uses of educational monies.

If such radical changes were initiated, Native people would have yet another difficult task. For such changes to work, Native communities would have to go through a process akin to a cultural renaissance. Core cultural values would have to be identified, perhaps reestablished, and new methods to transmit these values in a Native institutional context would have to be devised. The task is a monumental one, but well worth the effort.

Although I am not familiar with their particular perspective, the NANA region apparently is thinking along lines similar to those I have presented here. They have established a Spirit Committee whose function, as I understand it, is to identify the core cultural values of that region and seek ways to perpetuate them as much as possible. If such an endeavor is successful, it may provide a working model for other Native groups who wish to regain control of their cultural destiny.


1. For a detailed historical account of Alaskan Native education, read publications by Frank Darnel I, Kathryn A. Hecht, Louis Jacquot, and Charles K. Ray.
2. For a similar perspective, see Wolcott’s “Teacher as Enemy.”


Darnell, Frank. “Education Among the Native Peoples of Alaska.” Polar Record Vol. 19, No. 122, pp. 431-446, 1979.
Dubbs, Partick J. “Cultural Definitions and Educational Programs (in this publication).” Paper presented at the 40th Annual Meeting at the Society for Applied Anthropology, 1980.
Goodenough, Ward. Culture, Language, and Society, Menlo Park, California: Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, Inc., 1981.
Hecht, Kathyrn A. “The Educational Challenge in Rural Alaska: Era of Local Control,” in Rural Education in Urbanized Nations: Issues and innovations, J. Sher, ed., Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1981.
Jacquot, Louis. Alaska Natives and Alaska Higher Education, 1960- 1972. Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska, Cooperative Extension Service, 1974.
Ray, Charles. A Program of Education for Alaskan Natives (Revised Edition). Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska Press, 1959.
Wallace, A. F. C. “Revitalization Movements in Development,” in Science, Technology and Development: International Cooperation and Problems of Transfer and Adaptation. New York: UNESCO, 1963.
Wolcott, Harry. “The Teacher As Enemy,” in Education and Cultural Processes. B. Spindler, ed., New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1974.





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Last modified October 15, 2008