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

ALASKA NATIVE EDUCATION
1953 – 1973
A PROFESSIONAL MEMOIR

BY
TOM (THOMAS) R. HOPKINS
© 2008

BARROW, 1953-54

We cannot claim a moral imperative, as did Sheldon Jackson, for deciding to teach in Alaska in 1953. Rather, we were young, I was a recent Teacher Education graduate, and were looking for new real life experiences. We had applied and been turned down by the Defense Department On-Base schools, and the Panama Canal Zone. Then, one day at Austin’s (Texas) main Post Office, I noticed several Government announcements on a bulletin board. One was a small brochure entitled, “Teach in Alaska.” The teaching assignment involved teaching Alaska Natives in remote, isolated schools. I applied in February of 1952, and soon thereafter we received an offer for both of us to teach at the boarding school located at Wrangell, Alaska. Since Vinita was expecting our first child and I had already signed a contract to teach in Austin during 1952-53, we declined the offer but asked that our names be kept on the list of applicants.

As a first-year teacher I was placed in a third grade at Mathews School in Austin. The Austin Public Schools still held a fairly stereotypical attitude toward the hiring of men teachers in the primary grades. I was placed in a third grade rather than in a first grade because the Central Administration did not think it appropriate for a man to teach first grade, even though my student teaching experience in the first grade had been given an outstanding assessment. Later in the school year (1953), probably March, we received another offer to teach Eskimo children in the very remote village of Barrow. As this was a job offer for both of us, we accepted. Vinita was required to have completed twelve semester hours of Education course work and to have earned at least 30 semester hours of other college course work. She took courses in the summer at the University of Texas to complete the Education course requirements.

We did not know anything about Alaska; we therefore began immediately to locate the relevant books and to read them. We read the Helmerick books, among others, and one by Laura Jones who had taught in bush schools. We found a very short article in National Geographic magazine about the annual voyage of the MS North Star to supply Native villages. The BIA, then referred to as the “Alaska Native Service, ” sent us a one page description of Barrow, which follows.

ROUGH DRAFT (Subject to Revision)
Circular of Information

Subject: BARROW

Location: On the Arctic Ocean about eight miles southwest of Pt. Barrow in the Second Judicial Division lies the village of Barrow which was named in 1826 by a British navy officer in honor of a British geographer. This is an ancient Eskimo settlement.

Climate: The area is about sea level and out lined by many lagoons which run parallel to the sea and beach. The land is rolling tundra with low hills and a few peaks behind the village. perma-frost exists with a thaw of just a few inches in the summer season. The climate is coastal and windy with winter temperatures as low as 40 below and summer temperatures seldom above 65 degrees. Coastal, windy weather prevails and yearly records show as many as 110 clear days with 59 partly cloudy and 197 cloudy.

Population: This is one of the largest Eskimo villages and the farthest north village in Alaska. Approximately five to six hundred people live in the village coming from as far away as the Canadian border and other areas along the north coast. The natives are Pt. Barrow Eskimos living in both modern and Eskimo type dwellings. Sod igloos frame houses and tents exist. There are two trading posts and the office of US Commissioner. Natives trap, hunt, fish and manufacture Arts and crafts for a livelihood There is some driftwood, oil and coal nearby. The reindeer industry has dropped off. Recreation is minimum but there are a few whites living in the village which has an ANS hospital and large school as well as ACS [Alaska Communications System] employees, and US Weather Bureau employees.

Transportation and Communications: The Arctic ice pack moves away from the shore for a very short period each summer and during this time there is a mad rush to bring in supplies from the boats which have been lying off waiting for the pack to move out. One supply trip a year can be made. Freight is lightered in. There are many dog team trails along the coast to other villages. Mail is delivered by plane and dog team. ANS has a radio transmitter and receiver for official business and A-010 has a telegraphic station. The village is far less isolated than it would show because of its far north position. There is much activity all year long and the US Navy has a large oil reserve in the area.

School and Quarters: There are two school buildings: one has four classrooms, hot water heat and a principal’s quarters downstairs. These quarters include a living room,, kitchen and one bedroom. There are two shops and an office upstairs in this building. The new building on which construction should be completed in 1950., will have four classrooms, a diet kitchen, quarters of one bedroom., bath, living room and kitchen and a principal's office. There will be hot water heat and partial plumbing. Employees must supply own food but Quarters are completely furnished with the exception of bedding, linen,, etc.., and such electrical appliances as toasters, irons and percolators. No personal radio is provided and if one is desired it should be both short and long wave with battery current since the light plants provide some interference for plug in radios.

Clothing: Fur parkas, mukluks and mittens are necessary here in winter and no summer clothing is needed. Barrow has two months of fairly hot weather but there always is a cool wind from the ice-covered sea. Indoor clothing should be of an informal type that would be worn under similar conditions in the States. In addition to slacks, sweaters, ski pants, etc., leather boots will be found useful and a pair of shoepacs, will be necessary during breakup, when underfoot conditions. get rather unpleasant.

Medical Facility: Alaska Native Service has a fine hospital at Barrow with doctor and nurses. The nearest dentist is at Nome. Eyes should be examined before leaving and teeth should be examined and all repair work done.

Church; The Presbyterian mission has a resident minister at Barrow.

In late August, Tom, Vinita and our ten-month old son, Christopher, boarded the train in Austin to begin the first leg of our journey to Barrow. Within two weeks, we had traveled from the hot, humid summer temperatures of Austin, Texas to the Arctic climate of Barrow, arriving there in a light, wet snow on September 5th.

In 1981 and 1982 a two volume set taken from the Alaska Sportsman and Alaska Magazine, the “From Ketchikan to Barrow,” section was published (Alaska Northwest Publishing. 1981 and 1982). These volumes contain brief articles describing the history of the Territory of Alaska we experienced. The Alaska social and geographic situation were very different from the Texas we knew. We wanted a new experience and we got it. One may read about lost hunters, bear attacks, lost and killed bush pilots, art, Alaska Natives, dog teams, etc. We were dropped suddenly (our choice) into a strange new world for which our imaginations could not have prepared us.

The BIA routed us through Juneau where we visited the Juneau Area Office Education officials. Mr. Crites, the Assistant to the Education Director, briefed us on Government procedures, as did the Area Personnel Officer. We received no orientation as to the teaching of the culturally and linguistically different Eskimo children.

Arriving At Barrow and BIA Orientation to Teach Eskimos, 1953 and Other Things

After arriving late in the evening-night, early the next morning we met with the Principal and his wife. The Principal was disgruntled because we arrived a week after the annual supply boat, MS North Star; apparently because we had not been there to help unload the supplies for the year. They gave us an orientation relative to the teaching situation. One of the first statements was; “When these children dummy up on you and try to convince you they don’t speak or understand English, don’t you believe it. They are just trying to gain the upper hand with new teachers. All of them understand and speak English.” We were puzzled by this as no one had said a word about the children being speakers of English as a Second Language. Another; “Be careful about letting the children speak Eskimo. They do this to aggravate the teacher.” And the Principal to Vinita; (about her sixth graders) “The children in your room are hell raisers. They ran off an experienced man teacher last year. Did this at mid-year. They tore up a full set of classroom furniture. And classroom discipline is your problem. Don’t bring discipline problems to me as it will only weaken your classroom control.” With this sage advice about teaching Eskimo children ringing in our ears, we returned to our apartment somewhat bemused and bewildered. Somehow, ultimately, we were not intimidated by the ‘orientation’ we received from the Principal and his wife, probably because we were very young and correspondingly confident and optimistic.

Interestingly, the basic structure of the teaching program in Austin, Texas could be applied to the school at Barrow, Alaska. By basic structure we mean: The instructional program was divided into grades; the classrooms were self-contained in that that the teacher taught all curriculum areas; curriculum materials were about the same as in Austin; report cards were issued by teachers; the classrooms looked about the same as those in Austin, with student movable desks and a larger teacher desk at the front of the classroom; chalkboards were standard, black in the old school (our classrooms) and green in a newer school; an exception being that paper and pencils were freely provided by the school, as there was no place for the children to buy paper and pencils even if they wanted to or could have afforded to do so.

Similar basic structures notwithstanding, the huge difference between the Austin Public Schools and the one in Barrow was the dramatic cultural and language difference between the students of the two school systems. The reality of the culture and language differences was obvious, so much so that the accuracy of the Principal’s ‘orientation’ evaporated by the end of the first hour of teaching. All of the children were speakers of English as a Second Language. Almost all had learned their English at school. The language of the village was Eskimo, not English. A student’s reluctance to discuss in the classroom was directly related to his/her understanding of spoken English and to the student’s confidence in the teacher. Only the missionaries’ daughter, a non-native, was a ready responder. She was at home in the classroom whereas all the rest of the children were not confident in an English speaking environment. Now, 50 years later, with most Native American children speaking English as a first language, classrooms have a different ambiance.

In 1953 there was no general professional recognition of English as a Second Language (ESL) and certainly no BIA structured language pedagogy. Later, we learned from BIA literature, which was available in 1953 but not brought to our attention, that there was a definite awareness of Indians and Natives as ESL students. Somehow, there was a clear disconnect between BIA Washington/Juneau leadership and the school at Barrow. However, the disconnect was not a complete one: The Principal’s wife pointed us in the direction of the school library’s copy of a BIA curriculum guide entitled, Minimum Essential Goals for Indian Children. We soon realized that this guide was designed for teachers of Indian students in the “lower forty-eight.” It was genteel in spirit with plenty of instructions to the teacher to teach nose wiping (don’t let the children’s noses drip when a roll of toilet tissue is handy); scraping mud off your feet, (difficult to teach this when the ground is snow-covered from the start of school until its ending in May; and, heelless mukluks are difficult to scrape mud from), washing your hands, washing clothes (difficult when much of the clothing, including foot wear, is made of animal skins and running water is non-existent). We found it to be little or no help to us in teaching Eskimo children in Barrow.

Successful teachers of the culturally different see their students simply as children who happen to have been blessed with cultural as well as individual differences. The teacher of culturally different children should be an especially good listener and have an extra dollop of the usual patience every teacher needs. Not every teacher is well- equipped to teach the culturally different. We began our on-the-job training in 1953. Now, 50 years later, we think we are better at the job but we are still learning.

Willard Beatty (1944 and 1953), the head of BIA Education, Washington, D. C., 1953, was a “Progressive” educator who advocated a policy of the fully trained professional teacher in every classroom. A fully trained qualified professional teacher is a good and necessary beginning. But, learning to teach the culturally different requires more. The two volumes Beatty edited were taken from the BIA biweekly publication Indian Education to which Education employees throughout the system could submit articles. I suggest that these articles could have provided a substantial foundation for a workable pedagogy for the teaching of thr culturally different Alaska Natives and American Indians.

Please take note that I use the term, “Culturally Different.” There are meaningful cultural differences among the various American Indian and Alaskan Native groups (Tribes). There is, of course, no single American Indian culture as such. Each cultural group has its own language and cultural differences and among the larger groups, i.e. Eskimo, there are meaningful linguistic and sub-cultural differences. Ironically, only recently, in 2006, a major education publication, The Phi Delta Kappan journal, published several articles on Indian Education, one of which the lead article, by Starnes (2006), actually states what we and others have known for so long that there is no one American Indian culture but, rather, many tribal cultures and sub-cultures.

As a teacher of the sixth grade in Barrow in 1953, Vinita adapted and had a rewarding if challenging school year. I experienced culture shock and came into my own only after Christmas. I had always enjoyed teaching younger children more than mid- school students, and looked for an opportunity to teach at the elementary level.

Given the above general description of the teaching situation at Barrow in 1953, I add other experiences important to our story.

During our first month in Barrow the chief Education Administrator visited Barrow. We had all taught a full day; a faculty meeting began at 4:00 pm. The Principal introduced our visitor from Juneau. He was smug, pompous and seemed wholly unfamiliar with ordinary correct English language usage. In our experience, no professional education administrator or teacher ever chose to so carelessly ignore correct English language usage. Not only did this Administrator appear to be marginally English literate orally, but his “orientation” lecture was essentially a two-hour monologue about his experiences as a teacher of Apaches and other stateside Indians. At 5:30 Vinita left to relieve our baby sitter. I remained to listen to our visiting Educator drone on until 6:00 pm. Admittedly, we were more than a little taken aback by this Educator’s English language usage and by his idea of an appropriate lecture to this group at this place and time. I later learned that the visiting Administrator had performed sterling work in transforming the Naval base across from Sitka, Alaska into the Mt. Edgecumbe Boarding High School. His reward for having completed this difficult task was the directorship of the Juneau Area Education Program.

Two Eskimo teachers at Barrow Day School were themselves Eskimo, Flossie Connery, taught “Beginners” and, Fred Ipalook, taught 2nd grade. Fred Ipalook, we learned, was a former student and eighth grade graduate of Barrow Day School.

Later when I was writing my dissertation at George Washington University I began the preface with a reference to Fred, as follows (Hopkins 1971):

The subject of this study has long been a point of curiosity for the author. It all started the first time he walked into a classroom of seventh and eighth grade Eskimo students at Barrow, Alaska, in September of 1953. The students were bright, happy, and different from the teacher. In fact, it took almost the entire year for the teacher to feel he was communicating with the youngsters. There was empathy and trust but something was missing. However, the communication that was weak or missing with the non-Eskimo teacher wasn't missing in Mr. Ipalook's classroom. Mr. Ipalook, an Eskimo teacher who had never been outside of Barrow, didn't have any trouble communicating easily and effectively with the students. This was encouraging and in time the non-Eskimo teacher achieved some measure of the quality of Mr. Ipalook's classroom. Since then, it has always been a point of wonder as to what it was that Mr. Ipalook had that I didn't have. Hopefully, this study explores some of what the differences may have been.

In 1953 Fred was preparing for retirement by teaching himself watch and clock repair. He had repaired all of the non-working clocks in and around the school. As no regular clock repair service was available in Barrow in those days, a classroom clock not quit working was simply laid aside and a new one placed on a given classroom wall. With Fred’s diligent effort, all of the non-electric clocks became working clocks again.

My last contact with Fred was in 1969 in Montreal at, “The First International Conference on Cross-Cultural Education in the Circumpolar Nations.” (Darnell,1972) Darnell lists participants. Fred was still employed by the Barrow Day School and I by the BIA Washington, D. C. Office where I was a Division Chief in Curriculum and Evaluation. Fred wanted to go to what remained of the Montreal Worlds Fair so he and I took the subway to the fair grounds. He was still a strong vital man and full of his usual intellectual curiosity about the world.

Teaching the Seventh and Eighth Grades

I was briefed by the Principal, his wife, and other fellow teachers and non- teachers about what to expect in the classroom. I was told that the initial enrollment would be large, about 25, but that this enrollment would decline rapidly during the first six weeks of school. This happened. The students were mostly overage by a year or two. And then, there were the two or three very bright students who were actually under age. At this time I did not understand about the very large normal school dropout of Native children, or the several causes of these dropouts. There were no dropout research studies until later when Professor Charles K. Ray (1962) at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, commissioned Seymore Parker to conduct a first ethnographic dropout study. I met Parker when I was an administrator at Mt. Edgecumbe. We discussed the fact that our student body was a select one. He described the very large numbers of Native children who left the school well before the eighth grade. While 25 students began the school year at Barrow, there were probably double this number who could have been in the seventh and eighth grades. As predicted, by the middle of October the number of students in the combined seventh and eighth grade was 15.

Standardized Tests at Barrow

In 1953 standardized tests were not a requirement for a BIA school or for teachers. They were used primarily to provide some measure of academic achievement but not to drive curriculum content or assessment. Some of us used the “California Achievement Test.” We got together and shared the costs of the tests. Primarily, they were used to help make the decision on double promoting a few of the students in grades four, five and six. No one at the school discussed standardized tests in terms of their basic cultural unfairness. They were one tool to assist in decision making and were used as such.

The Peterson (1948) evaluation study book was available when we were at Barrow in 1953. I am sure there were copies of the book at the school but we were not made aware of them or his very professional evaluation. In addition, the Anderson, et. al (1953) evaluation was completed and the book on this evaluation was at the press. It is also interesting that Ralph Tyler was head of the Education Department at the University of Chicago in 1944-45 when the Peterson work started. Tyler has an introductory statement in the Peterson book. Hilda Gubba was a staff member on the evaluation team. This first of four major evaluation activities of the BIA Education Program was contracted to the University of Chicago in 1944. The BIA national office was located in Chicago until about 1946 or 47 when it was moved to Washington, D.C.

Speaking of the press, the BIA had its own printing press and Government publishing capabilities at the Haskell Institute Print Shop and Chilocco Agricultural School. Haskell, a vocational school, had a printing program where Indian students were taught linotype and print press skills. The books were set up and printed by Indian students. Madison Coombs, the BIA’s major education research and evaluation professional was stationed at Haskell in 1953 and was managing the contracts for evaluation of the BIA’s Education Program. The books were free to all BIA schools and were distributed to them upon completion of printing at Haskell.

Willard Beatty, Director of BIA Education from about 1935 through 1953, was interested in social engineering and wanted to prove that Federal Indian schools were equal to or, hopefully, superior to public schools that enrolled Indians. Standardized tests were used in the evaluation studies along with other evaluation variables. However, the Peterson evaluation was different in that it constructed tests based on a BIA curriculum which apparently did not exist in 1953. Or, based on our experiences, it was not brought to our attention. The 1953 evaluation and later evaluations, used commercial standardized tests. Nonetheless, Coombs continued for 20 years to test and compare Federal schools with public schools. After 20 years Coombs designed and contracted the Bass (1972) study which was longitudinal and controlled for student background characteristics. The Bass study was done at the secondary level. Not surprisingly, when background characteristics were controlled, there were no significant differences between Federal and public schools. But, standardized tests were the major measurement instrument from 1950 through to 1970.

Recently I conducted my own review of the Indian Education (including Alaska Native) literature pertaining to the evaluation of Indian Education (Hopkins, 2003). As early as the 1920’s higher education professionals were researching the education of American Indians. A major education research publication of the 1930’s was conducted by Stanford University professors and pertained exclusively to Alaska Natives (Anderson and Eels, 1935).

The Educational Disconnect: Washington, Juneau and the Villages

As can be seen from the above discussion on the use of standardized tests for education evaluation purposes, there was a serious disconnect between bush schools and the national headquarters or, even, the schools and the Juneau Area Office (I mentioned the disconnect briefly above). The teachers were not informed about the existence of the evaluation efforts that had been began at the University of Chicago as World War II wound down. Nor were we made aware of the Anderson study that was available in 1953, when we began teaching at Barrow. It would have been interesting if the Juneau administrator who talked “at” us at the Faculty meeting had devoted his time to these or other evaluation activities. These were quality education evaluation reports and each, in its own way; discussed the importance of the particular Indian language, and cultural differences. Incidentally, neither the Peterson or the Anderson data included Alaskan Natives. Nonetheless, the discussion of the relevance of language and cultural differences could have been applied in principle to the education of Alaska Natives. As far as we were concerned at Barrow in the fall of 1953, the need for relevant and/or effective leadership and individual professionalism were the key factors to the successful education of Alaska Natives.

In retrospect it is apparent that the local BIA Education leadership was not capable of using the evaluation studies to the benefit of the Native children and youth. Eventually, after serving for fifteen years at the Washington Office national level of the BIA Education program, I learned that evaluation studies were not intended to improve instruction. They were intended to respond to needs related to dealing with Congressional and national education policy making. Even so, the studies were of sufficient professional quality and interest so that some use could have been made of them at the local level, especially with regard to teacher interpretation and relevant use of standardized tests. Another pertinent use of these studies at the local level would have been to improve the individual teacher’s understanding of the significance of culture and language differences. Unfortunately, large scale education evaluations seldom relate strongly to classroom teaching strategies. This was certainly the case with the BIA evaluations in 1953 at Barrow.

In late October a doctor visited the hospital at Barrow, and the Principal’s wife visited him. The doctor recommended that she fly immediately to Oklahoma City in her home state for a more complete examination. She did so; shortly thereafter terminal cancer was diagnosed. In November the principal left Barrow to be with his wife. Afterwards, the teachers ran the school, Planning the annual Christmas program for the children. Everything went along well, perhaps better than usual. Just before Christmas, the principal appeared, unannounced, on a Friday afternoon.

Early on the Monday morning following the principal’s return, there was a knock on my classroom door. I went into the hallway separating our living quarters from the classrooms; there stood Mr. Custer, the visiting Maintenance Supervisor from Nome. He explained to me that he was staying in the school guest room in the New School Building. At about 5:00 a.m., he heard a whimpering noise, one which he attributed to loose dogs under the school, the building having been built on pilings above the permafrost. He investigated, and subsequently knocked on the Principal’s apartment door. Presently, the Principal came to the door looking very ill. Mr. Custer then explained that he, the Principal, had apparently brought several bottles of whiskey with him when he returned, and, since Friday had consumed all of this liquor. The Principal, a reformed alcoholic, had suffered an alcoholic relapse caused by his wife’s illness.

The principal, half undressed, sat bowed over the kitchen table. He had been smoking, and there were two large blisters between the fingers holding cigarettes. He, unfeelingly, had allowed lighted cigarettes to burn through his fingers. His apartment was in a chaotic state. We called the hospital head nurse for medical assistance. (The hospital did not have a doctor regularly present on the staff.) He was ill for two more days before returning to work. His wife, an exceptionally disciplined person, returned to Barrow in late March to finish the school year as the fourth grade teacher. She died in the fall of 1954. In 1954 the Principal was transferred to Nome as Education Specialist, thusly becoming our supervisor when we moved to Shungnak Day School in June of 1954. He visited Shungnak to return to Nome once more a relapsed alcoholic thereafter to be put on one time administrative leave. On leave, he went to Oklahoma, and a few months later died of alcoholic poisoning.

I mention this tragic situation only in order to iterate that tragedies were not uncommon in the Alaskan Arctic. The tragedies happened all too often and impinged equally often on the teaching situation in several ways. A Teacher could seldom do much about them and was well advised to keep his/her mind on the job at hand, teaching. The teacher who could not do so usually left the Arctic at the earliest opportunity.

Extra Curricular Activities

Co-curricular or extra curricular activities were important at Barrow. We were teaching teenage children in grades six through eight. Also, the Texas University Teacher Education program taught that schools are an integral part of the community in which they are placed. We learned very early on at Barrow that the school did not sponsor extra-curricular activities. We also learned that very limited community facilities in which such activities could take place existed. We have described elsewhere experiences at Barrow regarding the use of the community quonset hut for school purposes (Hopkins and Hopkins, 2004, pp. 13-19). We learned soon enough civil government at Barrow had not been formally organized. The Territorial Commissioner, who resided at the near-by decommissioned Naval base responsible for maintaining local law and order. A meeting with the Commissioner, left one with the impression that here in Territorial Barrow we were faced with a form of “law and order” usually encountered in isolated frontier communities, that is one from of potential social anarchy (op. cit. p. 34) in fact. In other words, the “old order” village tribal control was seriously “out of joint;” a “new order,” e.g. a mayoral system etc. was not in place. Under these circumstances, we improvised: We sponsored evening dancing in our old school building. The two classrooms had a removable partition between the rooms. We removed this partition, moved the desks back, and had a few dances for the children. We also learned that the school did not sponsor graduation ceremonies for eighth grade graduates. This motivated us to sponsor a dinner at the school honoring the eighth grade graduates. As nearly as we could determine, this was a first. Vinita sponsored and trained girls’ basketball for sixth, seventh and eighth girls in the village quonset hut. As the darkness of winter nights increased we opened the classrooms for after school board games and reading.

Leaving Barrow

We had a good year at Barrow, but I wanted to be assigned to a one-teacher day school. Originally, we were told that the BIA wanted its personnel at one-teacher day schools to have experience in larger multiple-teacher day schools first. Now, we had had this experience, and I officially requested a one-teacher day school. In the early part of May we received an offer of positions at the Shungnak Day School. We had discussed the various day schools with long-time Alaska resident teachers and had been told that Shungnak topped the list as a best place to be. We were excited to receive the offer, and we accepted forthwith. Meantime, a delayed official letter arrived offering us King Island. King Island is located in the mid Bering Sea. It is an isolated place during the school year, its mail mostly air-dropped to the teachers. With a young son to think of, we obviously would not have considered King Island. We later learned that when the BIA Juneau Personnel did not want to agree with a teacher’s request, it would offer a position something like the one on King Island fully confident the offer would be declined. Since we had already accepted Shungnak, we didn’t bother to respond to the King Island offer. We left Barrow the middle of June, 1954.

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Last modified March 19, 2008