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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


Andy Tamas
St. Paul, Alberta

(Ed. note: This is a revision of a paper presented in 1979 to the Alberta government’s ministerial committee on Native peoples’ education.)


The current level of education in Canada’s northern Native population is generally below national norms and far below the level required to ensure adequate benefit from the many employment opportunities likely to become available through northern development in the next few decades. Not only will there be jobs directly related to energy resource development projects, there also will be a general increase in population and new economic activity in a host of affiliated areas. Unless a concerted effort is made to prepare northern people to take advantage of these opportunities, most new activity is likely to benefit the few who are already educated, or will be taken up by outsiders drawn north by the promise of employment. Native residents will probably remain at the lower levels of the socio-economic ladder.

Although the focus of this paper is related specifically to education for employment arising from impending industrial development in the north, it is not limited to this relatively narrow area. It is not enough to speak only of the training of Native peoples for jobs in industry. If education in its broadest sense means the general uplifting of the quality of life in the community, we must address ourselves to more than the strictly economic, employment-related aspects of man. Education that is to benefit the community as a whole must provide skills to help each of us enrich our lives on many levels, and must address a range of human characteristics and needs that reach deeper and broader than those usually found in employment-focused training programs.

Consequently, although there is a definite need for education that will improve Native peoples’ economic circumstances and enable them to participate in jobs arising from development-related projects, this broader perspective must be the context within which such education is considered.

Efforts are underway in many countries to assist people from traditional cultures to make a satisfactory transition to contemporary social and technological realities. However, in northern Canada, part of one of the world’s most affluent nations, the government seems to have great difficulty in establishing programs which make wide-spread and significant improvements in Native peoples’ well-being. Years of expenditure of massive sums of public dollars in education and social adjustment programs have not produced the expected results.

There doesn’t appear to be a simple method for resolving the many problems in this general area. Over the years, many attempts have been made to address this issue in Canada and, in a broader perspective, in the international development arena. The purpose of this paper is to present my tentative and partially-formulated views as a contribution to what will hopefully be a continuing deliberation of this important issue.

Education and Cultural Change

Education has been described as a goal-oriented activity in a particular cultural context (Spindler, 1963). It is clear that the issue of education for economic development involves cultural transmission and cultural change. If society hopes to provide meaningful education so that Native northerners can benefit from the massive economic activity foreseen for the north and contribute to the well-being and diversity of the community at large, an educational bridge must be built between two cultures -- the Native traditional patterns on the one hand, and the dominant, pragmatic, efficiency-oriented, marked-economy culture that pervades contemporary western society on the other.

Bridges are usually built from both sides of the gulf they are intended to span. Education is required for both groups. Unless the dominant sector is willing to undergo changes in outlook comparable in scale to those so clearly cal led for by the educational programs proposed for the Native sector, the result is likely to remain an inadequate accommodation of the weaker party to the inflexible attitudes and expectations of the other.

A course of action must be taken to cause potential employers to look beyond customary patterns of operation and to adjust hiring practices to benefit all sectors of the northern population. Unless legislative imperatives compel employers to shift in this direction, industrial development is likely to focus clearly on the maximum utilization of available resources (including manpower) as measured by efficiency and, profit criteria. The social costs of this economic activity are likely to be ignored. These will presumably be picked up by government through its various health, social service, and justice or corrections agencies. Industry must begin to examine and re-evaluate the practices and habits of thought to which they have become accustomed, and, in so doing, begin to become aware of their own culture and the cultures of others.

Most of us are largely unaware of our own culture (Hall, 1977). We have habits and thought patterns that are distinctive products of our own upbringing, and we deal with the world in the manner to which we have become accustomed over the years. We assess and understand our experience through complex “structures of meaning” that form the basis of our “psychological framework” (Marris, 1975 and Schumacher, 1974). These concepts are essential ingredients to be considered in planning education programs for societies undergoing cultural change.

We seem to live by a complex set of largely invisible “rules” which we acquire as we mature. We become aware of these rules most frequently when they are “broken,” i.e., when things don’t fit our accepted or accustomed patterns of behavior. Examples of this sort of invisible psychological framework can be illustrated in the customs of etiquette related to eating and other appropriate mealtime behavior. When a guest belches loudly following a hearty meal he is, to most people in the dominant North American culture, committing a gross breach of etiquette. Some Canadians would consider the guest who belched to be socially inferior or generally “ill-bred,” and would establish a whole set of patterns of behavior for future interaction with him on that basis. He’s breaking the rules we’ve been taught in our society. It has been noted, however, that in certain eastern cultures the lack of such a loud belch would be a comparable breach of etiquette, and would cause as much consternation in the hosts as a Canadian’s belch would cause in a dining roan in Ottowa.

One example of the process of attaching value or meaning to others’ behavior from our expectations, or psychological framework, is illustrated by circumstances seen in the pre-revolution relationship between North American and Iranian businessmen and officials (Hall, 1977). The Iranian education system apparently placed great importance on being able to memorize and recite word-for-word at length from relevant textbooks, manuals, product descriptions, and ordinances, as the occasion demands. The ability to memorize and retain vast amounts of information is the mark of a competent, well-educated person. When American businessmen don’t manifest these traits, they are often initially considered inferior by the Iranians. By Iranian standards they probably are, but are Iranian standards necessarily valid in all circumstances? In order to work together in harmony it is necessary for participants in a transaction to recognize that their own sets of rules, their ways of assessing and attributing value to behavior or events, aren’t the only valid ways to view the world. The Iranians (and their North American counterparts) must see that their culturally-determined, complex psychological system must be tempered to accommodate varying cultural patterns if they’re to have compatible relationships with their foreign colleagues.

All societies have similar culture-specific psychological processes which play significant roles in relationships among people from different cultural groups. Educational programs for both parties involved in northern development must, if they are to succeed in efforts to bridge the cultural gap across the north, be soundly based on a clear appreciation of this fundamentally psychological nature of culture, and must bear this aspect in mind when dealing with education which involves changes in culture.

Factors in Education for Culture Change and Development

The educational needs of northern residents cover the whole spectrum of courses and topics offered by most institutions in the country. An affirmative-action oriented education program for economic development implies training for all levels in industry, from basic trades to middle and senior management positions, as well as the full range of specializations required in other developed societies. This paper won’t specify courses to be offered, for this will emerge from the manpower needs of various sectors of the economy. Rather, it will focus on some aspects which are necessary to bear in mind as programs are planned and implemented, regard less of the subject being taught.

Culture, Learner Characteristics, and Instructional Design

All educational activity embodies, whether explicitly stated or not, an instructional design process. Instructional design is a planning process comprised of at least three major components which, simply put, can be termed a beginning, a middle, and an end. An instructor has a notion of where he’d like to take his students (the end, the learning goal or instructional objective); he makes an assessment of where students already are (the beginning, or assessment of learner characteristics); and then he devises some sort of structured experience to have students interact with the subject matter in order to acquire the desired degree of exposure or competence (the middle, the learning process or means of instruction).

As stated at the outset, education can be perceived as a goal-oriented activity within a particular cultural context. Each of these three components of instructional design is influenced by culture, especially that of the instructor. An instructor defines educational outcomes in terms of his own culture’s perspective. He makes assumptions about students’ learning characteristics based upon his accustomed thought processes, and he structures educational experiences from notions rooted in his particular way of viewing the world.

The education of Native people has (sometimes by design, but, I suspect, largely by default) subjected Indian students to an educational system rooted in the Western European, Judeao-Christian tradition. The implicit goals of this system have been and continue to be to indoctrinate students into an industrialized middle-class lifestyle, including wage employment in the market economy (Freire, 1970; Ogbu, 1979; Wilding and George, 1976). The social and economic reality of Native communities, however, make students’ achievement of these implicit and pervasive goals unattainable at home.

Native values, which have been developed over centuries of a subsistence lifestyle with a rich spiritual and social tradition, are very different from contemporary industralized society’s norms. It has been shown that education or social change activities based on values and beliefs which are at variance with community norms are destructive to community well-being and will tend to make people want to leave their communities (Goodenough, 1963). Because most northern education systems embody values vastly different from those of the communities in which they operate, they tend to exacerbate problems arising from cultural discontinuity. Several factors arise from the fundamental incompatibility of the values (or culture) embodied in the education system with those in the students’ home life. There have been suggestions that the so-called “cross-over effect,” where Native students’ age/grade relationships fall below those for non-Native students, is related to this incompatibility of values (Bryde, 1970). Native students become intuitively aware of this fundamental contradiction of cultures at various ages, but usually at the time they are developing a self-concept and identity. This awareness may contribute to a progressive withdrawal of emotional investment and a lessening of desire to learn from the school.

Native youth develop their personal psychological structure of meaning from the same source we all do, i.e., from the world seen about them every day and from their family and community. The “foreign world” they can dimly perceive through the behavior and exhortations of their teachers and the books used in school is not adequate to completely sustain their desire for an explanation of reality and a code to live by. But their home environment is also insufficient to completely provide for their desire to achieve a sense of identity, for it, too, is in a state of flux, with its fundamental patterns becoming progressively more removed from their traditional source and heavily influenced by contemporary economic and technological factors. Even Indian religion has diminished as a source of guidance and community stability as various other faiths have become established in Native communities. Thus, Native students are exposed to two often-conflicting value systems. Although these students attempt to base their personality and identity upon a blending of both, they are unable to rely on this combination of systems to form a coherent personal structure of meaning. In the process they also find it difficult to acquire a basic education sufficient to provide them with avenues to attain the economic resources needed to succeed in the world at large, so their range of options from which to select (or evolve) a lifestyle is severely limited.

Some improvements have been attempted, however, and have taken various forms. Recent developments which involve communities in controlling their own education are progressing, but are facing massive problems on several fronts. Few Native-controlled schools operate on values significantly different from those found in the dominant public school system. Even those schools controlled by Native communities and employing Native teachers have to contend with the methods and values acquired by their staff during their training in the mainstream cultural milieu of urban university-based teacher education programs. Regardless of public statements to the contrary, the implicit goal of most universities’ Native teacher education programs is to help Native students acquire those values and competencies considered the norm on campus. Even Native instructors, then, are likely to conduct their classes in a manner conducive to having students acquire mainstream cultural values, those values which also underline the contemporary economic system. The content of instruction, which is often confined strictly to a curriculum determined by the state authority, rarely relates to helping students make the psychological adjustments faced in coping with the contradictory value systems they deal with in everyday life.

Ambivalence, Accommodation and Values In Education

Native cultures in North America (and traditional cultures throughout the world) are undergoing a major cultural transition, and most Native students and adults have personality characteristics which embody a profoundly ambivalent values base. Many are in the process of slowly establishing a distinctly Native identity which is consistent with the fundamental life-purposes of their forefathers, but which, at the same time, foster harmonious interaction with the contemporary western social system. In this process of progressive accommodation to new forms of articulation of these formerly prevalent and clearly articulated values and principles, individuals often experience a sense of loss, a psychological disorientation that only slowly gains stability and definition as the ambivalence diminishes.

Many Native adults currently active in Indian organizations have told this author that at one time they tried to live in an urban, middle-class lifestyle, adopting those values as their own. After a time they had lost their sense of authenticity. Although they didn’t have a clear idea of how to go about clarifying their confusion and feelings of disorientation, they knew they couldn’t accomplish it in the city. Only by returning to a more familiar environment could they begin to re-establish the tentative roots of a solid identity by reasserting their connection with the culture of their forefathers. Initially, although many weren’t fully accepted by the rest of the community, and didn’t feel quite at home there themselves, over the years they progressively worked through the dualities and contradictions in their own value systems. They slowly developed a sense of belonging, and in the process defined a contemporary Native identity which is consistent with the spiritual and social ideals of their ancestors.

A culturally insensitive or ethnocentric educational process will, however, assume by default that students are firmly established in, and ready to function within, an exclusively mainstream cultural context. This often isn’t so, and systems which don’t have structural means to assist students to work through and attain some sense of continuity with traditional value systems will not be able to attract the whole-hearted participation of these students.

The Native students I’ve worked with have occupied value stances at various stages on a cultural continuum. Some have been very “traditional,” some have completely accommodated themselves to the dominant value system, and others have apparently worked things through and succeeded in achieving a harmonious blending of both cultures. There also are varying degrees of equanimity, security and self-confidence with the current stage of definition of personal ethnicity. Returning to school is sometimes an opportunity (often unanticipated) for the clarification and adjustment of such personal value systems. There has been a marked lack of consensus on this issue with Native groups I’ve encountered, and a great deal of emotional involvement and heated discussion as these issues are worked through to individually acceptable degrees of resolution. The “Who am I, what kind of an Indian am I?” type of question seems to need some sort of adequate response before students can focus their energies on further studies or community projects. Any group of adult Native students is likely to manifest this sort of diversity, and it is the challenging task of an educator to design a learning environment which meets the needs of this broad range of cultural perspectives.

Some work has been done in developing curriculum materials which are based on Native values and which reinforce the validity of traditional culture. Most of this work has been at the elementary school level; exceptions are the University of Alaska’s X-CED Program at Fairbanks (Barnhardt, 1977) and the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College in Saskatoon. The variety and complexity of post-secondary education has made efforts in that area relatively insignificant. The work involved in producing a full range of post-secondary education materials with a Native rather than a mainstream cultural base is overwhelming, especially when one considers the question of which Native culture we wish to address. There are dozens in Canada alone. It is possible to provide relevant and useful instruction in specific course areas, even from a solid ethnocentric mainstream value base, if, at the same time, opportunities are provided for students to work through the cultural ambivalences in themselves and in the group. This process can’t be directed by a non-Native instructor or administrator, but it is possible to incorporate skilled Native staff in the program, and to develop organizational and administrative structures which create conditions to foster this process, It isn’t enough to have a “Native counselor” on staff in a mainstream school run by non-Natives. It is equally insufficient to have Native-control led schools ignore this level of need among students and, as a result, fail to help with the resolution of this issue.

The conditions necessary to reduce students’ cultural ambiguity require the establishment of institution-wide interpersonal norms which stress trust, honesty, and acceptance of diversity. These must be coupled with early instruction for all students and staff in interpersonal communication and self-awareness skills, as well as exposure to structured group experiences designed to overcome shyness and mistrust. The fields of organization development and cross-cultural group dynamics have theoretical perspectives and competent professionals available for planning and implementing relevant educational systems with these characteristics.

Thus far in this section I have commented on the cultural factors implicit in instructional design and demonstrated that the characteristics of Native students require that the learning process be structured to provide opportunities for culture change factors to be worked through. While a bicultural approach to all factors in an instructional design process is preferable, success is possible with ethnocentric instruction if the context of education provides opportunities for students to clarify their personal structures of meaning and to work out their own cultural ambiguities in an atmosphere of trust, mutual support, and cooperation. Many other factors relate to this complex issue -- two of these follow.

The Legacy of Colonialism and Poverty

Some related factors influencing Native education arise from students’ families having spent generations in a colonized society and in a poverty-ridden environment. The attributes of a colonized people are well described in the literature and need not be elaborated here (Freire, 1970; Goode, 1963, 1970). It is important for success in educational programming for this population that planners are aware of the stages a people go through in the transition from colonialism to self-determination, and that programs be devised which meet the needs of students at the position they currently occupy on that continuum. This will vary from one student group to another and in various Native communities.

The atmosphere of chronic economic depression prevalent in many Native communities complicates matters still further. Attitudes toward work and financial affairs have been shaped over the years by a hopeless inadequacy of financial resources and generations of reliance on an external economic system. Critics of adult education have long claimed that the profession seems congenitally incapable of providing services to this sector of the population, the people who probably are most in need of such education. Experiments with guaranteed family income projects seem to show that education must be coupled with concrete financial improvements if these chronic economic conditions are to change.

Education, Ethnocentrism, and Social Policy

Native people aren’t the only group in Canadian society experiencing difficulty in gaining access to education and other services. The rising chorus of dissent from other so-called disadvantaged groups, the disabled, the blind, single parents, and others, indicates that the social policy in this country tends to serve some sectors of the population better than others. Our legislators and senior civil servants typically come from the affluent middle-class sector of the population. They, like their cultural counterparts, businessmen, see the world through the perceptual frameworks provided by their culture. They inevitably draft policy to conform with these norms, and as a result often fail to accommodate the needs (or perceptions) of those with different needs or points of view. However, the calling of various commissions of inquiry into Native well-being indicates that those in power are interested in the needs of this disadvantaged sector. This is laudable, but is in itself not enough to ensure that the peoples’ needs are adequately met by new policies. Representatives of groups not usually represented should have mandated positions at the policy-making and decision-making levels of government or public service for that sector. Regardless of the good intentions of traditional policymakers, unless meaningful involvement of these representatives from other groups is secured at all levels, the ethnocentrism inherent in current practices is not likely to diminish.

Enriching the Community

It seems inevitable that the massive influx of economic activity foreseen for the north will irrevocably alter the value systems and lifestyles of its inhabitants. Industrial jobs will become available, and those who have long been unemployed will seek them. If they are to succeed in obtaining and retaining jobs, they’ll have to acquire “attitudes conducive to employment,” or, in other words, undergo cultural change. Education systems should prepare people to live and work in this environment. They also should attempt to provide a broad basis for lifestyle and personality development which is based on the strengths and the richness of students’ traditions and heritage. This will subsequently broaden the range of options from which to choose a way of life.

Even a trades-oriented education system can embody a world- view more extensive than the specific job that lies ahead. We must build into our planning a perspective wide enough to avoid the mindlessness and soul-deadening job-focus seen in so many northern factory towns and mining camps. If we assist the student in a reconciliation of both new and old perspectives in a new structure of meaning, and address a range of human need beyond purely utilitarian and practical job-related aspects, we stand a chance of having northern communities with color and diversity. But if these aspects aren’t addressed, the lowest common denominators of society will surface as prevalent community norms, and the quality of life in the north will suffer irrevocable damage as a result of economic development projects.


Barnhardt, Ray, ed. Cross-Cultural Issues in Alaskan Education. Fairbanks: University of Alaska, Center for Northern Educational Research, 1977.
Bryde, John F. The Indian Student -- A Study of Scholastic Failure and Personality Conflict. Vermillion; South Dakota Dakota Press, 1970.
Freire, Paulo. Cultural Action for Freedom. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Educational Review, 1970.
Goode, William J. World Revolution and Family Patterns. New York: Free Press, 1963, 1970.
Goodenough, Ward H. Cooperation in Change. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1963.
Hall, Edward T. Beyond Culture. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1977.
Ogbu, John U. “Social Stratification and the Socialization of Competence,” in Anthropology and Education Quarterly, Vol XH I pp. 3-20, 1979.
Marris, Peter. Loss and Change. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1975.
Schumacher, E. F. Small is Beautiful. London: Abacus, 1974.
Spindler, George D. Education and Culture - Anthropological Approaches. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963.
Wilding, Paul, & George, Vic. “Social Values and Social Policy,” in Journal of Social Policy, 4, 4. 373-390.





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Last modified October 14, 2008