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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Bernice Joseph's Keynote Speech at the 2005 AFN Convention

October 20, 2005

Bernice Joseph

[Opening joke - These two best friends went out hunting. Woody and Albert. As they were setting up camp, they could see a Grizzly moving toward them in the distance. Albert quickly started unlacing his boots and pulled out his tennis shoes out of his bag. Woody asked, "what do you think you're doing? You can't possibly outrun that bear?" Albert answered, I know that, silly, but I can certainly outrun you.]

Do'eent'a? - How are you? - my Athabascan friends?
Neenjit don'cha? - my Gwich'in friends
C'amai - my Yup'ik Friends
Qanuq itpich? - my Iņupiaq friends
Sh yáa awudanéix'i - my Tlingit friends
Aang - my Aleut friends
Aloha - to our visitors

Go esee Nulaghudoh hu ts'in nesyo. Se'ooza' Bernice Joseph
Go esee Si ts'ookal ma' ooza Rita Esmailka
Go esee Si ts'eekaal ma' ooza', Eddie Hildebrand
Go esee Enaa ma' ooza', Edith Nicholas
Go esee sikkuhn ma'ooza, Stewart Joseph
Go esee sigooga Nee/k'ayoodaa/no, tl'ee yagga hokk'a ma'ooza, Alice Joseph

I thank my grandparents, mother and my husband Stewart for providing me with guidance, love and support.

I am honored to be here and would like to thank the Alaska Federation of Natives Board of Directors, staff and Executive Director, Julie Kitka for inviting me to be the keynote for the 2005 Alaska Federation of Natives meeting.

I wish to address the theme "Follow the Lights - Native Ways of Knowing." I will then discuss the importance of education, while maintaining cultural identity, efforts in the development of a curriculum sensitive to our cultures, programs that incorporate indigenous and western values, and honorary degrees that exemplify what our people know, have to offer and can do for our youth.

What are the Native ways of knowing?

I asked this question of my ts'ookaal, my grandmother, what were her thoughts about the Native ways of knowing. She asked whether I wanted to know in English or in her Native language. I said, Gram, you'll have to tell me in your Native language and then translate it. I've taken two semesters of Koyukon, but still only have a limited understanding.

Yoo dona dinaghaneet haghu ghal ts'otl - It was hard for us long time ago.

Grandma's mother, the late Annie Mik'eendootza Ekada taught her how to set snares, how to cook, but she hardly sewed because she trapped, snared and was the sole provider of her kids. Grandma Annie lost her husband in 1937, so she provided to her family by herself.

My grandmother Rita learned to sew, crochet, and knit by watching other people. She learned how to make fur skin boots and fish skin boots by watching her mother.

When my grandmother's mom was out setting snares and trapping, grandma would cook, bring in wood, cook for the dogs and have everything ready for her mother when she got back.

My grandmother spent very little time in the village, as a child. She went home for Christmas and stayed only until the middle of January. During that time she attended the Catholic school in Nulato. She then went back to camp until Easter and stayed in the village for about 2 weeks to attend school. With this schedule, she completed her Western education to the 4th grade.

In 1938, Miss Olson, a nurse at the clinic in Nulato, rounded up four girls from the village to work at the hospital that existed in Nulato. The late Ida Agnes, Edna Stickman, Anita Demoski and my Gram were recruited to help. They attended a basic class for 2 weeks and soon began delivering babies. My grandmother ended up delivering almost all of Nulato along with the late Esther McGinty. Grandma fondly remembers delivering her late brother Henry's daughter Freda, who later became to be known as "Radar" by her friends and family, at their six-mile camp.

Native Ways of Knowing, Grandma continues, is to have the utmost respect for her upbringing and the knowledge she has of the land, animals, beliefs, weather, plants and people around her. She has patience and much love to share with her family and community. Her primary education was at camp where she learned to survive. Her secondary education was to eventually earn her community health aide practitioner's certificate.

I can almost guarantee that if you speak with any elder today, you will hear them speak of their support of Western Education. Most elders I've spoken to, says that is important to have a Western education to be able to compete in the world we live in today. It's important to understand Western business concepts if you are going to operate a successful business. It's important for our kids to be exposed to Western educational opportunities, BUT not at the expense of our cultures.

We are all too familiar with the statistics facing Alaska Natives about educational attainment, suicide, alcohol and drug abuse and the number of Alaska Natives in prison.

Education is the key to overcoming many of the barriers Alaska Natives face. Yet, it must be an education that is sensitive to Native Ways of Knowing. Children must be grounded in their cultures and beliefs in order to be successful. Recent studies from indigenous peoples from places such as New Zealand, Canada and Hawaii show that students perform at higher levels when they are provided with contextual or points of reference that they can relate to in a meaningful way.

As a matter of fact, as we become more global in nature and experience a mixture of different cultures, it becomes more difficult for cultural identity and community to survive. Let me provide an example that was written in the Harvard Educational Review. In 1992, a study was done by Keith Osajima documenting the story of a Chinese American student's ambivalence toward and discomfort with issues of racial/ethnic identity that she faced in her daily life. She articulated her position in this way.

"I grew up in a white suburb and my parents are also very Americanized, and spoke mostly English at home, so I don't speak ChineseÄI also grew up trying to identify as much as possible with White people and feeling very inadequate because I would never be like them... I mean, it's constant conflict with me now. I assume it's going to be for the rest of my life... You know either being with White Americans and not feeling I'm like them, or going to the Chinese environment, like Chinatown or something, and not feeling like I fit in there." (Harvard Educational Review, Cambridge: Fall 2003).

This poignant example speaks directly to the question of culture and identity. Imagine how many of our Alaska Native youth must feel with constant uncertainty of their belonging. Let me take you through a small exercise.

I would like you to go through a small exercise. Take a moment to imagine your child's classroom. What does your child's classroom look like? What pictures or artwork hang in the school? Are there pictures and objects that the child can relate to? How are the days of the week, months, and years depicted by the teacher? What kind of literature are the children required to read?

Are there photographs of respected elders? Do elders and parents feel comfortable visiting the school? Is there respect for the subsistence activities and are students given excused or unexcused absences for hunting, trapping or other subsistence activities? Are teachers and administrators aware of the subsistence calendar? What type of homework is your student bringing home on a daily or weekly basis? Are students asked to write papers about manatees or moose? Alligators or beluga whales?

My instincts are that most curricula are Western in nature. As a result, students do not see themselves represented in written materials, texts, movies, videos or literature. From this, is it safe to say that students are learning that it was the Europeans that made history, discovered other lands, shaped the histories of science, the arts, and humanities; and made the important contributions to the world?

Well, we know that's not true.

Take for example, the first things my late great grandmother Martha Joe learned in school. In her biography, she stated that we had big charts hanging on the wall in school. "The first words I learned were 'c-a-t' and 'r-a-t.' Sometimes it was just like a dream." I wonder if she had ever seen a cat at that point in her life. Let's see, cat subsist on rat. Gee, that makes sense.

I believe that this speaks to the need for culturally appropriate curriculum that provides students with a sense of being.

There have been great efforts by teacher organizations around the world, nation and out very own state to change this. There has been work at the K-12 and college level curriculum. Make no mistake, there is much more work to be done as there continues to be a dominant influence of the Eurocentric mono-logical approach. There have been efforts by organizations like the Athabascan Interior Native Educators Association to build curriculum that based upon cultural activities, identification of animals, land, seasons and the subsistence round. The Alaska Native Knowledge Network, in partnership with AFN has been recording and developing curriculum based upon elders' knowledge and input.

The Effie Kokrine Charter School right here in Fairbanks has been a dream and vision for Alaska Native Educators for years. The concept stemmed from the first Education Summit hosted by the First Alaskans Foundation. This Charter School opened their doors at the beginning of this academic year, and I might add, exceeded their enrollment projections. There are many of us that share in the excitement of what they have to offer to Alaska Native students, and non-Native students seeking a new way of learning. This school has over 90% Alaska Native teacher hire. They will make a difference for Alaska Native students, so we must support their efforts 100%.

There has also been recognition by the University of Alaska by honoring elders for their extensive knowledge through time. Several elders and Native Alaskans have been awarded with the prestigious honorary degree, the highest degree that a university can offer.

The first Alaska Native to be honored with a doctorate degree was Dr. Walter Soboleff, a Tlingit. He was awarded the degree in 1968 and was invited back as the UAF commencement speaker in 2003.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks honored the late Chief Peter John, traditional chief of the Tanana Chiefs region, in 1994. At a summit hosted by Rural Student Services in 1990, Chief Peter John spoke of Troth Yeddha', the hill that UAF now stands on, as an important meeting place for chiefs from the Interior.

At the last meeting of the chiefs, he stated "people from all over the world will come to this great place of learning."

These were the powerful words of our late Chief. He knew that good things would happen on that hill. If you were to visit the "hill" today, you would see people from all over the world coming together to study and learn.

There is important research taking place with scientists and elders. I asked a colleague of mine about examples on the North Slope. He share what he termed a "hallmark" case from the 1970's and 80's. The US Government estimated a dangerously low population of bowhead whales. The International Whaling Commission was about to rule subsistence whaling off-limits to the Iņupiat people. The whalers of the North Slope knew that there were many more whales than the scientist had estimated, and they showed the scientists that over generations the whales migrate through the ice, not just through open water as the scientist had observed. The North Slope Borough hired their scientists, and working together with the Iņupiat elders they developed an internationally respected census method that vindicated the Iņupiat whalers.

There have also been some exciting and successful programs developed that incorporate Western and Indigenous knowledge. The Rural Human Services Certificate Program is built on Alaska Native traditional values. This program developed by Interior-Aleutians Campus Director Clara Johnson with the work of an advisory council made up of grassroots community people validates respective traditions to facilitate healing through the positive blending of Western concepts with Alaska Native traditional values.

The RHS program is thriving and showing continuous improvement since its inception just over 10 years ago. Over 149 RHS counselors and students are working in rural Alaska, achieving the goal of, "a counselor in every village."

As I mentioned earlier, there are great things happening, but there is much more to do. For Alaska Native people to have their place at the policy-making level, and to make bolstering changes, several things must happen.

Alaska Natives must be respected for their knowledge. Alaska Native culture must be as revered as the cultures of the Japanese, Chinese, Russians, and other cultural groups from around the world.

We face a huge challenge with the loss of the Alaska Native languages. Until it is as common for students to choose their own Alaska Native language in the schools as it is for Spanish, Russian, and French, to name a few, we are a long ways from having equity.

We must work together to build a solid telecommunications infrastructure that will allow our rural residents with quality internet access necessary to diversity their economies and access a quality education.

We must work to "grow our own" policy level makers. Our neighbors to the far south of us, the Maori of New Zealand took bold actions to produce 500 Maori PhD's. Under the leadership and guidance of Dr. Graham H. Smith, a Maori, they embraced an impressive plan to grow their own PhD candidates. Dr. Graham Smith is now working on a similar charge with the First Nations people at the University of British Columbia where they have set a target of 250 First Nations people to earn their PhD's. They will have success because there is commitment by the indigenous people to make a stance, and demand that level of commitment by their university. At UAF, we have begun to develop proposals that will move us toward these types of efforts. We have invited Dr. Graham Smith to spend a semester with us to develop a concrete plan for Alaska Native people.

Above all, we must work together to keep rural Alaska a viable place to live. It's going to take our legislators, state and federal government, community leaders and educators to support our communities through municipal funding. There a major mining economic development projects on the horizon near the communities of Illiamna, Bethel and Nome. It is our collective obligation to support these communities in order for the whole state to benefit from the development.

In conclusion, I note that the First Alaskans is making great strides towards building Alaska Native policy makers. They are in the process of building a "think tank" of Alaska Native people. It's all about Native minds shaping our future.

Our people have come a long way from only a few decades of Western education, to developing our own curriculum, to be recognized for traditional knowledge through honorary degrees and be recognized on Commissions, Boards, and now the Effie Kokrine School to further help us to maintain our sense and knowledge of self, while living in a western world, but empowered through cultural identity and cultural presence to stand tall and be counted for all of our contributions to education, health, politics, economics and science. We have done a lot, but we have only just begun.

In closing, I would like to call upon my family and friends to end with a special presentation dedicated to all of our youth, both those that have passed on, but more importantly to those that struggle to find their identity.

Nulato singers, please join me in this special presentation.

Anaa Mas'ee - Thank you so much for having me as your keynote. My warmest wishes for a productive, illustrious and memorable meeting here in Fairbanks.



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Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
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Last modified February 25, 2011