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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

SHUNGNAK DAY SCHOOL, 1954 – 1956

We arrived at the village of Shungnak, June, 1954. during a stopover at Kotzebue we were briefed by the Principal of Kotzebue Day School. The Kotzebue Principal was an “unofficial” official assigned to brief us. He told us that the BIA had wanted to get rid of the just-exited Shungnak teacher and that, in order to do so had kept him on a “ Temporary” status during the years he was employed. He warned us that the school might be dirty and generally somewhat run-down. Also, and importantly, one of the two antenna poles for the shortwave radio had blown down during a winter storm and had never been re-erected. Currently, the shortwave radio would not work until the pole was reset.

Since Vinita was to manage village health as a part of her official duties, she had been briefed at the BIA Barrow Hospital, a somewhat humorous but important briefing. The nurses at the Barrow Hospital asked her about her experience with giving shots, i.e., none. The nurses using a grapefruit as the target demonstrated the procedure which she then practiced. Vinita had never been required, officially, to provide health and/or first aid to anyone. This was an intimidating prospect and the shortwave radio was the link between Shungnak and the Kotzebue Hospital which supposedly held a daily 5:00 p.m. open radio so that villages could contact the Kotzebue resident doctor; who as a physician had systematically refused to visit the villages, although he was officially required to so, at least periodically. We were also interested personally in the radio’s workability because of our son who was not yet two years of age.

Eventually, we were informed that the BIA had chartered a Wein bush plane to take us from Kotzebue to Shungnak. We also learned that Shungnak was the next farthest village up the Kobuk River. The village of Kobuk, about ten air miles further east, being the fartherest. Having collected our goods at the Kotzebue Hotel, we walked over to the Wein building, from which we were directed to the dirt landing strip where the pilot, John Cross, and a small Cessna 150 bush plane awaited. We were literally crammed into the heavily loaded plane, bounced down the runway through a very long 4takeoff, and were eventually airborne. We had not flown often and this was our first experience in a small bush plane.

It was a sunny June day and the inside of the plane was quite warm. John Cross had been an active military service pilot in World War I and had ferried planes in World War II. He was an excellent bush pilot and also a very cautious one, although we didn’t know anything about his background at that time.

Soon after taking off John leveled off at about 1,500 feet above sea level. I know because I was seated beside him and could see the altimeter.

Shungnak is 150 air miles from Kotzebue, which meant the flight took just over an hour. Soon after leveling off, which must have been about 15 minutes into the flight, I noticed that John was nodding off, dozing. This was unsettling to an inexperienced bush plane passenger. In time we learned that bush pilots fly 24 hours a day during the continuous light days of the Arctic in summer, and as standard practice, John had learned how to doze, off and on during long flights. Nonetheless, this first bush plane flight, John’s dozing was a problem for me. Finally, John pointed to a large white building on a knoll high above the Kobuk River, Shungnak Day School. He also pointed out the log cabins along the river, Shungnak village. While I could clearly see the school building, I had difficulty locating the village cabins.

It became apparent to me that there was no landing strip. I shouted, “Where will you land?” Remember, we were on wheels, not floats. He pointed to a sandy strip beside the river that, from the air looked to be a sliver of nothing. He zoomed low over the sand bar looking for any impediments. There weren’t any so that he began his approach to the landing. Talk about putting yours and that of your wife and son life or death in another’s hands; this was my first experience with doing so. But, John, with his many decades of experience, made a perfect landing.

We unloaded ourselves and our belongings from the plane and were met by the President of the Village Council, Mr. Joe Sun in his boat. John took off from the sand bar promptly. We later learned that bush pilots flying in the summer use sand bars more often than not for landing and take-off. The sand bars are created when the river goes down after its annual high at break-up. Not all bush pilots were experts at landing on sand bars, primarily because they did not know how to judge them carefully enough as to size and possible obstructions.

Fifteen minutes by motor boat brought us to the village proper. We also learned that summer travel on the beautifully clear but cold Kobuk River can be a chilly experience. We then walked along the path along the middle of the village leading up to the school.

The Shungnak School building was a large two-story structure on a knoll/bluff above the village. Village cabins, except for one, were located at a lower level along the river bank but just high enough to avoid springtime flooding. The school building, constructed in 1934, consisted of two classrooms, an apartment, office, large upstairs area and basement. A subsequent internet search revealed that Congress appropriated $15,000 in 1931-32 for a “School and teacherage for the Alaska village of Shungnak.” This meant that the school would have been actually constructed in 1934. Since the school was constructed of finished lumber this meant that the total materials package had to be transported from Seattle by steamer to Kotzebue and lightered upriver by barge, probably in August-September of 1933. The materials were probably stored during the winter of 1933-34 and actual construction begun in the early spring of 1934. It was a large two-story conventional structure, the only one like it in the upper Kobuk River area in 1934 and 20 years later, in 1954. The school building’s basement was a rarity for that area and time. We learned that the knoll on which the building was situated was sandy with no permafrost. Being a conventional structure of its time, it was not insulated. On very cold days in the winter, one could stand outside and see heat vapor escaping through the cracks. I soon learned it took a lot of stove oil to keep it heated during the Arctic winter.

Situated on a knoll above the river, it became a beacon for airplanes and for all other travelers, not to mention unobstructed winds. Later, we were told by visitors that the enrollment at Shungnak had supported two teachers for quite a few years. My review of BIA enrollment statistics from 1953 –1977 also reflected this fact. The picture and school layout map on the following page illustrates just how large the building was.

Shungnak School

Shungnak School Yard
[click on image for a bigger graphic]

The Principal-Teacher

At first I wondered about the job title of “Principal-Teacher,” as the term “ Principal” indicated administrative responsibilities. Very soon, I learned that being a Principal-Teacher at a BIA day school did indeed involve many administrative responsibilities. Principal-Teacher duties involved at least the following responsibilities:

  • Teach Eskimo children in grades Beginner through eight, all subjects
  • Advise the cooperative village store
  • Advise the Village Council
  • Assist PHS Nurse with village health needs
  • Maintain the school facility
  • Maintain stove oil and gasoline tanks with sufficient fuel to heat the school and run the electric generator
  • Advise the Shungnak Jade Project and provide a room for lapidary equipment
  • Room and board visitors to the school
  • Advise the Mothers Club
  • Operate the shortwave radio including service as a Western Union station
  • Report high flying airplanes to the Air Force Distant Early Warning system
  • Make all school purchases, using Federal Government forms and procedures
  • Be the official government representative for the BIA on all matters pertaining to Alaskan Natives

As can be seen from the above listing there was much, much more to being a BIA Principal-Teacher than just teaching the children. Fortunately, BIA hired the teacher’s spouse as Special Assistant, to the Principal-Teacher. When the village of Kobuk set up its own Territorial school and the Territorial Government supplied a teacher and learning materials, we learned that the teacher taught, only. There were no “Other” administrative duties for Territorial teachers.

A First Look At the Station

We inspected the total school situation as soon as we settled in a bit, we found that:

  • The building was dirty bordering on filthy, in key areas, classrooms and living quarters included.
  • One of the two radio antenna poles was indeed down.
  • There were no-up-to date student records. The latest entries were three years old,
  • The classrooms were not only dirty but were in disarray. They looked as if vandals had recently struck the place,
  • The previous teacher’s house pet, a St. Bernard dog, had left deep scratch marks on the basement door, apparently in its attempts to get into the living quarters. The dog’s claw marks looked like bear claw indentations on the basement side of the door,
  • Recent correspondence, which was difficult to find, seemed in the main to pertain to the petitioning of various government officials for a Shungnak village landing strip,
  • The light plant situation was confusing.
  • Village health and medical records were non-existent,
  • Files of all types were disorganized and poorly housed,
  • The kitchen range had a serious downdraft which filled our living quarters with unhealthy fumes.

Major Problems Needing Immediate Attention

The Shortwave Radio. Each of the above-listed conditions of the station could be considered serious but a few were close to life threatening. An imperative; get the antenna pole erected and the radio working. Three days later the pole was up; another two days were passed in learning how to work the recalcitrant shortwave radio. This was most important as the village was experiencing an ever-increasing number of severe cases of diarrhea among the pre-school children. The details of the task of helping to treat all of the affected children and/or of working with the parents to try to prevent a kind of epidemic of diarrhea was time consuming and more than a little frightening. One death of a four-year-old boy occurred, in spite of everyone’s best efforts. (The radio was essential for communications with the doctor in Kotzebue.)

No Stove Oil. Perhaps the biggest shock came when the annual barge with our personal grocery order for the year from Seattle, as well as the school’s yearly supplies arrived in late August. The tug boat captain informed me that there was no stove oil for Shungnak. I rushed to the radio to contact the Kotzebue Principal. This Principal told me that the leaving teacher had dog-teamed to a long-abandoned Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) station and freighted (via the dog teams) the stove oil left there to Shungnak. Therefore, so it was then thought, Shungnak would not need any new stove oil. As a result of this assurance, BIA gave the entire Shungnak stove oil supply for the year to the Kotzebue FAA. The Principal told me to locate the file purchase order pertaining to stove oil, which I did. Sure enough, there was the record of the turning over of our stove oil to the FAA.

Soon after our arrival I had discovered that most of the FAA barrels of stove oil were very dirty and water-contaminated. I had no way of making this oil clean again so that I had set them aside and planned to use the new supply. I estimated that with conservation and careful use there was, perhaps, enough stove oil to last through February. I had not the relevant experience to be certain that this was a reasonable projection; I would have to wait and see. I have described elsewhere the details of solving this situation (Hopkins and Hopkins, 2003 pp. 118-119).

I soon learned that at Shungnak, it was essential to read carefully all Government documents. Since there was no one else at Shungnak who was experienced in Government procedures and forms, I had a singular responsibility. Because I was determined to keep my primary focus on the teaching situation, we felt an urgent need to keep the non-education responsibilities in their proper secondary place.

After freeze-up, I tried to use the FAA oil. The dirty oil turned to a thick syrupy, gooey mass that would hardly flow much less burn. Without being told, I knew that disposing of this unusable oil was going to be a problem for some future teacher.

Preparing the School and Classroom

It was apparent that the entire summer season would be needed to prepare the school materials and classrooms for the children. I sanded the classroom floor. It was finished with a dark varnish which I removed with a sander the BIA agreed to have flown in. In my view the clear-finished floor with its light wood color would be more suitable for the long, dark winter. The outside of the school building needed painting. I ordered spray paint equipment from a Montgomery Ward catalogue, using it to paint the building, including the roof. We also painted the classroom and a section of the living quarters.

In the meantime, I set up the student records so that they could be kept current. I looked in vain in the folders for something to indicate learning levels, i.e. names of textbooks completed, etc. Since teaching reading at the elementary level is so basic, I assumed that at least the basal readers covered would be so indicated. Nothing was recorded. I was on my own in sorting out the various education levels of the children. At least we would have a clean, newly painted classroom in which to start the school year.

The Community School Concept

It seemed reasonable that the community school concept was appropriate for Shungnak Day School. Though it probably was not deliberate, the total scope of the Principal-Teacher position seemed to reflect the concept of Community Education. Shungnak was a small one-teacher school. All the children lived in the cabins and houses located immediately below the school building along the river bank or adjacent to the school. This being the case, what were reasonable education goals? Here, again, there were no education documents from which education direction might be sought. The BIA did not provide guidance on a regular basis that pertained to Alaska Native education. There was precious little evaluation and research data available to BIA one- teacher schools in 1953 – 56. Essentially, the professionalism of each Principal-Teacher set the educational goals; how these were accomplished was as varied as the teachers and the villages.

It is perhaps apparent by now that teachers in one-teacher schools in the Alaskan bush in 1954 had tremendous scope and independence. Each could teach as if in a multiple-teacher day school under supervision. Or, at the other extreme, each could teach only as and when the mood struck Very few were seriously irresponsible. Based on what we were able to learn informally, most teachers in one and two-teacher schools held regular school sessions during the day and school year. Although some apparently had long coffee breaks in the morning and afternoon; most did not serve a school-prepared hot meal; none supervised the children during recess. We did not learn about the curriculum content or teaching strategies of other schools. We knew first hand what these were in the multiple-teacher school at Barrow, but not in actual practice at the one- and-two-teacher schools, as we had no opportunity to observe directly other Day School programs.

Shungnak village had no formally established village school board or its equivalent. Informally, a Mothers Club helped us to communicate the school program to some of the parents, and to provide some help for us in preparing the morning meal for the students. Essentially, education goals were the province of the teacher. The extent to which they were made publicly evident depended almost entirely upon the teacher and his/her attitude toward the village people. As mentioned earlier, some Principal-Teachers seem to have taken a coffee break regular morning and afternoon and “Authorized” early dismissal of school for a host of unapproved reasons. We were told that most teachers did not have supervised recess and used it as a “Coffee Break,” that would last a minimum of 30 minutes but more nearly 45 minutes to an hour twice a day. For example, when the nurse arrived for her first visitation, she told me that to dismiss school for the several days she would be working. This was apparently common practice in all of the Day Schools. The nurse, insisting that her work with the babies and the elderly people would be “too noisy” for school to continue. I informed her that under no circumstances would school be dismissed during her visit. She must concern herself with the village health needs while I simultaneously taught school. I closed the partition between my classroom and the unused classroom where the nurse worked. Shungnak School was originally built as a two-teacher Day School; demographics no longer requiring two teachers, a spare classroom was utilized for other purposes as need indicated. Incidentally, I supervised recess and provided organized physical education activities, usually in the form of planned games, for the children. I wrote for, and was sent a relevant, helpful book of structured physical education activities from the Austin Public Schools.

Tacit Education Goals

In 1954 we did not develop a written set of education goals for Shungnak Day School. However, we did operate with some clearly held professional principles, which one might call goals. These were:

  • The Primacy of the Teaching of the Children. We were at Shungnak to educate the children. All non-education responsibilities were secondary to the teaching of the children.
  • The Health of the Children as An Education Imperative. For us, the health of the village as a whole was a secondary consideration, the health of the children being the fist one, in terms of time and energy expended. Tuberculosis (TB) was very much in evidence at both Barrow and Shungnak when Indian Health Services were the responsibility of the BIA. U.S. Public Health Services were extended to Alaska Natives for the first time in 1955. Fortunately, TB rapidly declined after the advent of the U. S. Public Service assumed responsibility. But, during our stay at Shungnak, we thought it very important to provide one hot meal each school day. We also set up informal health records on each child. We were supported in this by the Public Health Nurse.
  • The Academic Curriculum. Literacy was a basic goal of the Academic Curriculum. It was our perception that teaching the children to read, write, do arithmetic and to learn to speak English well was imperative. We clearly recognized all the children as speakers of English as a Second Language. We provided the Beginners (the BIA’s first-year students, normally called grade one) with oral English instruction during the first few weeks they were in school. At the beginning of the school day, Vinita instructed the Beginners in oral English using the second classroom as her site of instruction. I remember one visit to the home of a third grade student. The student quickly picked up the Sears catalog, turned to a page and talked with her mother about it. The mother proudly told me her daughter could read to her from the catalog, which the mother could do only with great difficulty.
  • Lifetime Education Goals. While basic literacy was our primary education goal at that time, we were too young and hopeful to have thought of this as a limit to the future education of or for Shungnak students. In fact, we soon learned that two adolescent students, both graduates of the Shungnak school’s eighth grade, were then attending Mt. Edgecumbe Boarding High School, located on one of the islands in the Sitka harbor.

Shungnak Subsistence Economy

The “Outside” work experience of the village people was limited to jobs in the summer at gold mines, generally in the Fairbanks area. In this case, the work was as laborers, i.e, non-technical. The economy of Shungnak was subsistence hunting and fishing, supplemented by cash from the summer employment. During the winter months several men then received unemployment benefits based on their summer work. There were a few older people who received BIA support payments.

The Jade Project was designed to provide year-round employment to the individuals who learned lapidary arts and crafts technology. The level of Jade Project activity waxed and waned, primarily depending on the interest of the teacher. The teacher was not required by the BIA to offer any support or take any interest in the Jade Project. But, considering the fact that this was the only possible year-round employment available to village adults, it was difficult for the teacher to ignore the project altogether. Indeed, the BIA Juneau Office was constantly complaining that school gasoline for the electric generator was being used by the Jade Project. This complaint did not make much sense to a teacher surrounded by a village’s economic basic needs.

Generally, subsistence work of village young and adults involved hunting and gathering. Food stamps were not available. Each family had its dog team and sled. These teams were working dogs, not pets. As such they required significant effort of upkeep, including feeding and training. The men used dog teams to hunt; both men and women used them to gather wood, both basically important to survival. The women seine-fished for salmon and other fish during the summer months. Wild berries, vegetables, and coastal seal oil formed an important part of the diet. The products of fishing were dried and stored for winter food for the family and the dogs. Hunting various animals was also basically important, the primary one being caribou. Caribou trekked through the Baird Mountains north of the village in huge herds visible from the village. Moose were closed to hunting. Bear and rabbits were hunted as were lynx, wolverine, beaver, muskrat and weasels (ermine). We ate bear meat and beaver. Wild birds, including ducks, geese, ptarmigan and spruce hen were hunted extensively. In winter, some of the women set snares for the rabbits. The women also made fur garments and mukluks. No lazy families abided in Shungnak as all worked at their assigned tasks to provide for the subsistence life.

Student Records, Placement and Enrollments

Records. I have mentioned above the poor original condition of student records. The meaning of this fact penetrated all to forcefully during the first day of school. Twenty children showed up, and we began to get acquainted. Their English language capability being limited considerably, influenced greatly our mutual understanding as I spoke no Eskimo. I distributed the various textbooks, asking the children to select those they had studied. It soon became apparent that the children were selecting the books they wanted to study. Usually, this meant colorful and attractive looking books were selected, regardless of the books level of difficulty. Then, there was the newly registered nine- year-old Beginner student who had not previously attended school because the parents had been camped several miles away at a hunting-fishing camp. She did not know her English name. I was told her name by other students, as they helped her to learn her English name.

Placement. At first I took the child selected books at face value and began trying to teach accordingly. Gradually, I deduced the approximate grade level of each child and placed each in books more accurately reflecting his/her true grade level. One of the advantages of the one-teacher classroom is grade level flexibility. Some very young children were soon reading much better than some of the older students. We had mixed age groups in the reading circles. We placed different age groups at different levels of arithmetic. There were three activities which all experienced as a class group. These were music (singing), story-reading time and recess. I was a team member during our recess games, and enjoyed the games as much as the children did.

As soon as the instructional levels were known, I began updating student records.

Enrollments. When Shungnak Day School was constructed in 1934 student demographics justified two teachers. But, by the time we arrived in June of 1954, fewer than 30 students were in attendance justifying only one teacher. I was led to believe that initial enrollment would be limited to about 10 students for the fall of 1954. Though I no longer have the records for those first three or four weeks, I do remember that we began with 10 or 12 students gradually moving up to an attendance of 28 by October. Grade placement varied widely, in which age placement, as stated, was not an important factor. Essentially, I decided upon an ungraded school; placing of students according to individual educational level, regardless of age. For example, beginning reading included students ages, 6 to 8; arithmetic groupings varied even more widely as to age.

The second year, 1955-56, the enrollment on the first day of school was more than 30 children. Enrollment climbed to 35 within a few days, and remained at this number until the end of the school year in May. I was surprised by this, but should not have been because the children stayed in school through to May for the 1954-55 school year as well. This trend upset the traditional late-enrollment and early-leaving existing pattern of previous school years. I like to think the improved level of enrollment could be attributed to the high priority I placed on the primary goal of teaching the children with its strict time limits on recess periods, no coffee breaks for the teacher, and as little time/energy as possible given to non-educational and out-of-school activities, unapproved day dismissals, etc. Incidentally, we did not drink coffee at that time and therefore did not order any. We did drink enormous amounts of hot tea and cocoa to the enjoyment of village friends, as well as the constant stream of bush plane transported outside visitors; but not during school-day tea breaks.

Beginning in February, 1956 I placed the children on a half-day schedule, half in the morning and half in the afternoon. With 36 students, ranging from beginner through the sixth level, thorough teacher planning became difficult-to-impossible in terms of providing each student the needed individual planning and attention. At time we began to serve a hot lunch rather than breakfast.

Recently, from the old BIA publication Statistics Concerning Indian Education, I extracted the following Alaska Native enrollment statistics. The total for all the Alaska schools the BIA administered from 1953 – 1977 will be found on line at the Alaska Native knowledge Network (ANKN). The table below presents enrollment data for Shungnak until it was transferred to the State in 1970.

SHUNGNAK DAY SCHOOL
[ENRL = ENROLLMENT | ADA = AVERAGE DAILY ATND]

Fiscal
Year

1953

Grades
Taught

B-8
ENRL 31   Fiscal
Year

1959
Grades
Taught

B-8
ENRL 37   Fiscal
Year

1965
Grades
Taught

B-8
ENRL 36
ADA 26 ADA 29 ADA 35
1954 B-8 ENRL 29 1960 B-8 ENRL 41 1966 B-8 ENRL 44
ADA 23 ADA 34 ADA 42
1955 B-4 ENRL 28 1961 B-8 ENRL 44 1967 B-8 ENRL 40
ADA 23 ADA 35 ADA 36
1956 B-5 ENRL 35 1962 B-8 ENRL 40 1968 B-8 ENRL 54
ADA 30 ADA 36 ADA 52
1957 B-4 ENRL 35 1963 B-8 ENRL 41 1969 B-8 ENRL 57
ADA 32 ADA 36 ADA 54
1958 B-6 ENRL 49 1964 B-8 ENRL 41 1970 B-8 ENRL 50
ADA 39 ADA 38 ADA 49

The above table clearly shows the village school population increase. I can only speculate about the large increase in enrollment, 1957 – 1958. The village-town of Ambler, 30 miles downriver from Shungnak, was established in 1958 by families from Shungnak and Kobuk who chose to move there. It is plausible that the large increase from 57-58, 35 to 49 children, can be attributed to social unrest in the two villages. The Shungnak enrollment decreased by 12 in the 58-59 school year, the year of establishment of Ambler. The 2000 U.S. Census gives population statistics for Shungnak as 256, Kobuk, 106 and Ambler, 309. Both Shungnak and Kobuk remain 92 percent Native while Ambler is 85 percent Native. It is interesting that, according to a National Park Research report, the Shungnak people still depend significantly on subsistence living.

The Curriculum and Learning Materials

Since the goal of basic literacy seemed to be the best approach to curriculum, I looked over the available textbooks to see how well, if at all, they related to Shungnak’s environment. They were the same kinds of textbooks I had used in the Austin Public Schools. Elementary children appreciate colorful textbooks. This fact was reflected in the children’s choice of the books at the beginning of the year as they selected them for color and attractiveness rather with regards to the level of difficulty the books they had studied. There were only three thin locally-published storybooks based on the experiences of Eskimo children. These were the first to be selected by the children. The reading level was easy and those who could read, regardless of age, read and reread these books.

I had been trained to use “Experience Charts” to motivate the children and to provide a lesson based on their own environment and experiences. I made numerous experience charts and placing them on stands and thumb-tacked to the walls so that the children could view and read them, which they did, often. I asked the children to illustrate the charts with their own drawings, which they also took delight in doing; and to help, of course, to compose the content. In developing the experience charts, I tried to incorporate the vocabulary from the basal reading series provided by BIA. The experience charts were especially needed and used, because of the lack of appropriate experience in the textbooks.

The ages of the children ranged from six to fourteen and the estimated grade level from B to 5. I always had four and occasionally five reading circles. Typically, I began the full class on seat work, moving on to a reading circle. After reading circle, I returned to the full class and seat work, repeating this cycle until all of the reading circles were completed. I developed the experience charts as a total class activity so that all of the children could think about words to use.

Planning

The complexity of the education levels required extensive daily planning. I would usually rise at 6:00 am and by 6:20 would be working on my lesson plan for the day. The BIA did not provide a school duplicating machine. I ordered a spirit duplicator with extra spirit and masters from the Montgomery Ward catalog. It was a manual feed machine but became an important feature of making learning materials appropriate to the Shungnak environment. Ironically, the BIA Education Supply Catalog of materials listed the spirit liquid for the duplicating machine but not the machine. I did not want to begin a school day without knowing in thorough detail what I wanted to do with all of the students for that day. Being well-prepared in every respect established a basic routine in which learning could take place and progress be made. I ran a tightly organized classroom wherein the children soon learned the routine. They seemed to like “school”, or so the parents seemed to feel, and certainly we liked them, the students. I did not complete planning for the day until I rang the first school bell at 8:15. I also used the time at the end of the school day to plan, as well.

The Paper Cabinet

The annual barge arrived at Shungnak with a large container for the “ANS Teacher, Shungnak, AK.” The BIA still used the organizational name of “Alaska Native Service”, and addressed all official correspondence and supplies accordingly. Frankly, I did not understand that I worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs until well into our second year at Shungnak. At that time an official letter arrived directing us to drop the ANS designation and to use the acronym BIA in its place.

Back to the large container on the barge: I could not tell what it was from the manifest. It just seemed to be a “gift” from the Juneau Area Office one all of teachers had received. I didn’t bother to open it for a few weeks. Then, one Saturday I decided to open the “gift” package to discover it be a huge paper cabinet on casters. It was too large to include in the classroom and too large to leave in the extra classroom. It was simply an unneeded item, a burden. Later, after having worked for the BIA for a few years as an administrator, I learned about, “year end money.” This is money allocated but not spent when the end of the fiscal year approaches. It was a bureaucratic “sin” to return unspent money. So that, some person in the Juneau office probably bought as many paper cabinets as there were teachers and accordingly paid to have them shipped. As this was a single-line on a purchase order it was a very easy way to spend several thousand dollars. I am confident that this is how Shungnak ended up with a new, brightly-colored useless paper cabinet. And surprise, surprise, no corresponding supply of paper accompanied the cabinet. No doubt it was assumed that each school had plenty of paper and needed this little jewel to help organize its paper storage. In time, I removed the thing to an old light plant house and used it for other storage purposes, i.e. pipe fittings and various other hardware items.

The School Breakfast and/or Lunch

After spending the summer at Shungnak and being thus free to visit in several homes and fish camps, we began to see that it could be appropriate to serve breakfast to the school children, as the school day’s hot meal. We felt that children learn better after having had a hot breakfast; and that this they would not have at home. We discovered early on that the upstairs rooms contained enough food to supply the food for such a breakfast for the children. There were two twenty pound tins of canned bacon, a very large sack of biscuit mix, several large cartons of dried skim milk, and one storeroom contained eight fifty pound sacks of dried kidney beans, surplus from World War II and still in the original sacks. We found cans of juice concentrate in burst cans split open after having been frozen. The mess was just left and never cleaned up. When the village people learned that we were serving a hot breakfast, they contributed fresh meat from their hunts, the Mother’s Club too provided volunteers to help wash dishes.

Vinita prepared the meals using the old coal-wood range in the extra classroom, and our apartment oil-fired stove. We put pots of the kidney beans on our kitchen-oil- fired stove at night and by the next the morning they would be ready to eat in time for breakfast. We usually included some kind of meat in the beans. By the end of the second year all of the kidney beans had been used and a serious dent had been made in the dried milk supply. We were told by outside visitors to Shungnak that the teacher at one day school had declared that the children would not drink milk. The consequence of this belief was a school store room completely filled with stored cartons of dried milk. The dried milk was routinely provided to the schools by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We mixed the milk the night before so that it “rested” during the night. This improved its taste. We had no trouble either at Barrow or at Shungnak in having all the milk we could mix being consumed by the students each day. We did, however, have trouble keeping the milk from freezing when we placed it in the hallways outside the classrooms. Also, we found several sacks of coal left over from several years earlier when the school furnace had burned coal. The sacks were usually in bad shape so that we would have to sift out the dirt and re-sack the coal which we then burned in the extra second classroom range. In time, we also used all of the left-over coal.

Vinita made a health chart listing each child’s name, height and weight on it. She measured and weighed each child monthly. We were concerned about the high incidence of tuberculosis in Shungnak, as the patch test had shown that only two children had not tested positive. Interestingly, the children themselves as well as their mothers, watched at their charts as the school year progressed. They were proud of any positive weight and height changes, to which they would point, usually when entering the classroom in the mornings. No child was newly diagnosed with tuberculosis while we were at Shungnak. Along with the very effective chemotherapy program begun by the U.S. Public Health Service, Indian Health, we liked to think that our school breakfast-lunch program also contributed to the overall improvement of the health of the children.

The Shungnak Jade Project

Soon after our arrival at Shungnak we received a letter from Frank Long of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB). Frank was an accomplished artist and a master of lapidary arts and crafts. He worked for the Interior Department’s IACB which sponsored a major program of promoting arts and crafts among the several Indian tribes and Alaska Natives. He notified us he would be staying with us for two weeks or more. He had initiated the Shungnak Jade Project, the purpose of which was to teach Shungnak men jade lapidary craft, an ancient local craft long forgotten.

The role and function of the teacher was somewhat ambiguous in relation to the operation of the Jade Project. Frank always lived at the school during his worktime in Shungnak, always ate with us. This, we came to understand, would be true for all overnight fly-in visitors to Shungnak. Although we were not at all yet well established at the station, already we were to receive one such visitor. What we didn’t know that summer of 1954 was: Frank and his family would become a lifelong friends. Later, he and his family were to live in Albuquerque where we, too, moved in 1971, and, there Vinita worked with him as an “editor” on two of his published books on lapidary arts and crafts. Frank was also a gifted artist with credit for some of the New Deal’s finest murals.

As Frank was quick to point out, he knew that the participation of the teacher in the operation of Jade Project was optional. However, he had hoped, he told me, we would help with the writing letters and with other minor activities. As noted, we soon learned that the Jade Project was the only available year-round cash work opportunity other than that of the cooperative “Native Store” and the U.S. Post Office. Unfortunately, in the past, the Jade Project had not lived up to expectations. That is, after each time Frank Long left the village, Jade Project production almost completely ceased. At the same time its potential economic importance was never in doubt in so far as we were concerned. But my informal role as an assistant to the Jade Project would have meant “putting in” non-education work time, that is work time with non-students. We felt we must keep our focus, in terms of time and energy spent, on our primary task of teaching children.

The Shortwave Radio

In the 1950’s, as there was no telephone service to the villages, BIA schools’ shortwave radio was the key communication device to the outside world. Those families living along the Kobuk River and its tributaries who had battery-powered radios with shortwave capability routinely listened to the scheduled broadcasts with the Kotzebue Hospital each afternoon at 5:00 p.m. All of the schools in the vicinity of Kotzebue, (seven or so) listened daily. Not every school had “Medical Traffic,” every day. Once, during the summer, we simply did not turn the radio on for a period of two to three weeks. Finally, the Wein pilot of the mail plane asked us to listen in as the Kotzebue Principal was trying to contact us with important information. We did. The information was not important. And so it went by radio, i.e., usually routine.

The teachers were authorized to accept cash for telegrams. During Territorial days, Alaska communications were handled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As the Western Union “official” at the station, this meant my keeping official records as to cash received. As may be imagined, any telegram, sent through the above described system was anything but a private communication between the sender and the addressee. It should be remembered that we could not turn the radio on without starting the gasoline- powered-electric generator. Our electric generating system is yet another saga in the story of life at Shungnak.

Shungnak Day School is located the farthest distance from Kotzebue of any of the area BIA schools. Consequently we were given the most powerful radio. Often, while we could be heard in Kotzebue, we could not hear the Kotzebue radio transmission. Once we were made aware of this fact, we often “sent In the Blind,” fully confident that Kotzebue would “hear” our transmission. The BIA, in its infinite wisdom, provided a new radio during our second year. A nice, slick-looking unit, but a much less powerful transmitter. The receiver was excellent and we often listened to Radio Moscow and the Armed Forces Radio Network. But we seldom used the new radio for medical traffic as the transmitter was too under-powered. We continued to use our old “HT-9”.

Another interesting story is associated with the new BIA shortwave radio. As I sat at our dining room table one Saturday morning, a man suddenly appeared. He was wearing a body length fur coat and hat, looked to be about 5’10, wore round, black- framed glasses, and his face was largely hidden by the fur cap, its ear flaps, and his glasses. I had not heard a plane motor or knock at our door. How could it happen that, at this remote school, a man could appear, unannounced, in our apartment dining room. I asked, “Who the hell are you?” This question seemed to take him aback, and he immediately introduced himself as Howard Berker, the BIA Area Radio Specialist. He said, “Didn’t you get a letter saying you were to get a new radio?” I answered, “No.” Berker had come to Alaska as a teacher in the late 1920’s. Later he had mastered radio technology so that BIA had made him its radio specialist, stationed in Anchorage. As “ visitors” will, Howard chatted as he worked explaining that his coat was made of his dogteam’s skins. When he left village life and teaching, he told us, he killed his dog team, skinned the dogs, had the skins tanned and made into the floor-length coat and matching hat which he wore. In the Alaskan Arctic of those years, one not only encountered one’s share of tragic occurrences, but a not uncommon number of “ eccentric” personalities.

Nothing in the Texas University Teacher Education programs prepared me for being a shortwave radio operator. Further, the BIA orientation and my one year-long teaching experience in Barrow provided no such training. As noted, the Kotzebue Principal simply told us that one of the Shungnak antenna poles was down and that we should see to its repair as soon as possible. Beyond this admonition, nothing serious was amiss as far as we learned. A new teacher learned shortwave operation by way of trial and error. If the teacher was unsuccessful, he simply had to wait for a knowledgeable visitor to arrive or a member of the village with “know-how” to instruct him. I had to erect an antenna pole which was directional and hope it worked. Then I had to operate the radio and maintain regular contact with the Kotzebue Hospital. Kotzebue also informed me that Shungnak School needed a new electric generator rather badly inasmuch as the school was dependent for its power on a World War II surplus one with a worn-out Jeep engine.

Past Teachers

At the time, a rather colorful story existed based on the alleged behavior of previous Shungnak teachers. Shortly after World War II, one of these teachers ordered a huge quantity of dried fruit. It seems he was making his own wine. The story is that, during his tenure visiting BIA officials were seen dancing on his kitchen table and that school children volunteering to clean the classrooms returned home inebriated. He was fired, so the story went.

During the tenure of one other teaching couple, the man serving as the Special Assistant, spent a winter building a seventeen foot skiff in the second classroom, the one we use for student meals. He finished the boat at about the time of river break-up only to discover it would not fit through any of the windows. He was forced to remove two windows and the wooden section between them in order to take the boat out of the classroom. We can testify, however, as to its quality for we utilized it for our 1955 summer river journey to Kotzebue.

Of course, we heard the most about the teacher whose tenure predated our arrival. He was not well-liked by outside visitors or by the village people. He complained often about the students’ lack of English competence. He thought the best approach to correcting the problem was through music and B movies from the 30’s and 40’s. He taught students the words and music to Broadway musicals, e.g. “Oklahoma.” Visitors said that often when approaching the school they heard the peals of children singing “ Oklahoma.” He also used Jade Project cash to buy a used 16 mm projector, subsequently ordering rental movies from Anchorage. He showed the movies in the evening charging the attendees a fee rendering the fee to the Jade Project. We continued this practice, but we learned from the Indian Arts and Crafts Board representative, that he had no legal authority to use Jade Project money for this purpose. He evidently was also much concerned with getting a year-round landing strip for the village. A landing strip was needed, but it was not his responsibility, or business, to pursue. Insofar as we could learn, based on file records, and the academic behavior of the students, he did not do much focused teaching. The BIA, though without any supervisory reports critical of the teacher, decided they did not want him to remain at the school as its teacher. BIA simple denied him Career Civil Service status, which is analogous to denying tenure and procedural due process. He wrote complaining about the Conditional status only to be told arbitrarily that he would not receive Career status. He then resigned. Suffice to say, the school plant condition ranged from dirty to filthy, and most of the basic infrastructure of the school was minimally operational; and e.g. as a comment upon the academic situation, one student a nine year-old girl of normal intelligence (or above average) who exhibited good behavior patterns and a willingness to learn, could not read the beginning reader at the first grade level. This, after three years of school attendance.

Visiting Nurse and Village Health

When we arrived in Alaska in 1953 the health services of Alaska Natives was in the hands of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. All doctors and nurses were employed by the BIA. We were told that doctors could be hired directly upon Medical School graduation, without their having served their hospital internships. One such was the Doctor at Kotzebue. Apparently he had been at Kotzebue as soon as he had graduated med school with a M.D. degree. He did not visit the villages but did maintain daily radio contact with the teachers (villages). When medical cases were serious, the doctor chartered a plane and had the patient flown to the Kotzebue hospital.

The Visiting Nurse. Esther Schaubel, the registered nurse who visited Shungnak twice a year was a gem of a person as well as a thoroughly experienced Nurse. At her first visit, she explained to us that her job was being transferred to the U.S. Public Health Service, Indian Health Division, that, in other words, the BIA would no longer be responsible for the health of Alaska Natives. Esther informed and taught Vinita about the major and minor village health problems. Esther performed health examinations once a year. She also did the screening of special health problems. For example, she gave a T.B. patch test to each school child. Since it needed a few days for the patch to incubate after she had left, she asked that I look at the arms of the children and to record the redness, or rash, which was a positive response. This first year, all but two of the children recorded a positive response to the T.B. patch. This meant that T.B. was latent in their systems and that, without proper medical supervision, it might mature fully.

I have mentioned elsewhere that, upon first arrival, Esther told me to dismiss school while she worked and that I, in turn said I would not do so. Instead, I simply closed the partition between the two classrooms. We left the partition partly open in the morning so the children could enter the second classroom for their meal. Esther used the extra classroom and after the children finished eating, I closed the partition completely. We were hardly aware of Esther’s work next door as I had known would be the case. Esther was suggesting only that I do what other Day Schools did routinely, i.e., take a teaching holiday while the nurse worked at the school. With the normally routine exiting of the children in early spring before river breakup in order that they and their families could be in the family fish camps immediately after river breakup, and their late return after river freeze-up, all possible days of instruction, I felt, must be, fully utilized. I could not afford to have the students miss as many as five days of instruction within the school year.

Tuberculosis (TB). One of the first of many beneficial acts of the Public Health Service, Division of Indian Health, was to provide a full chemotherapy program to all Alaska Natives. Boxes of bottles of the chemotherapy tablets were sent to the village. Esther identified the people who should have chemotherapy medication. Vinita kept careful records for each patient and dispensed medication. Each patient had to take an enormous quantity of medication for an extended period of time. The results were remarkable, and within a few years, T.B. was not a serious threat in Alaska. We were privileged to have been in at the grassroots level of the PHS defeat of T.B. in Alaska, and were very happy to have had a small share in this effort.

Before the beginning of the PHS effort, The TB hospital at Mt. Edgecumbe in 1953 was filled to capacity. Sometimes students in our classrooms in Barrow were mandated for bedrest in their homes because they tested positive for TB. These students were placed on a waiting list for a vacancy in a TB hospital unit. One of our Shungnak students had spent most of his early years on the TB unit at Mt. Edgecumbe recovering from TB of the spine. Some of Shungnak’s adults suffered from the disease and were forced to live a less active life than the lifeways of the village required. Fortunately, so far as we could learn from BIA personnel, only one Arctic Alaska teacher had ever contracted TB while in a village.

Venereal Disease (VD). VD was common among a few of the young male adults. Consequently, occasionally, a young woman would evidence infection, too. One young man seemed to take considerable pride in the number of times he reported himself infected with gonorrhea. Vinita always administered the requisite penicillin shots. Once when he again reported for treatment to discover that the school “clinic” was out of penicillin, and that, therefore, he was to be placed on a sulfa drug routine he became extremely disgruntled. The two-week long oral sulfa drug treatment was too much “ trouble;” but not enough trouble to cause him to give up his wayward ways. Ironically, a sixty year-old reported herself has having contracted gonorrhea at the annual Friends Church Conference. (Her husband had stayed at home!) Vinita’s after-comment: “She is a bawdy old lady whom I have always especially liked, and I like her still.” I did not report Vinita to the local Friends missionary, a non-Shungnak Eskimo couple of an extremely amiable, kindly and upright disposition.

The Well Child Clinic. Three months into the school year Vinita created the “Well-Child Clinic.” The Clinic was open once each month. Each village mother was encouraged to come to the Clinic where baby and pre-school children were weighed, measured and a record made. Nurse Schaubel was an enthusiastic supporter of the Clinic. Even though attendance was, of course, voluntary, all mothers attended regularly. Vinita appointed the older school girls, those in their early teens, as aides. She fashioned a smock for them and they were very able assistants at the clinic. Other purposes of the clinic extended to the continuing of DPT vaccinations for newborns begun by the PHS visiting nurse, furthering the education of the mothers regarding the cure and prevention of diarrhea and impetigo.

Serious Health Problems and Tragedies. I have recounted above the death of a four-year old soon after our arrival. Diarrhea was always a serious threat and was treated as such. Impetigo was a serious affliction during our first and part of our second year; and its treatment was painful one. The elimination impetigo was part of the main focus of the educational effort by the Special Assistant, the Well-Child Clinic and the Mothers Club. With the consistent support and assistance of the Mother’s Club, the U.S.P.H.S Nurse and through an educational and proactive curative effort, by the end of our second year impetigo had been eliminated in Shungnak. Not so, with diarrhea: sadly it remained a mitigated and on-going health problem.

Returning Boarding School Students

During our Barrow experience we had heard of Mt. Edgecumbe Boarding High School and Wrangell Boarding School. Some of our eighth grade graduates planned to attend the high school and one planned to go to Sheldon Jackson High School located in the same area. We had not given a lot of thought to the idea of boarding school for our students until we learned that a one-time student had returned to Shungnak from Mt. Edgecumbe. His parents had paid for his transportation to the Boarding High School which he had attended for two years. His parents could no longer wait to see and visit with him, and had chosen to pay for his return to Shungnak. Unfortunately, the parents could not pay for his return to the High School, so he remained in Shungnak, and is today a leading citizen of the village, having completed at least those two years of high school.

Soon after our arrival, a young girl came to see us. Mt. Edgecumbe High School had sent her home to Shungnak at Government expense. Apparently she had broken school rules by drinking alcohol, or so she said. She had done so once too often so that the school felt compelled to send her home. She had been at Mt. Edgecumbe three years without having returned home, the granddaughter of an elderly couple who had paid for her transportation to Mt. Edgecumbe. The grandparents were very traditional, living in a small log cabin. Tearfully, the girl told us that she could not live in the conditions obtaining in her grandparent’s cabin. She implored us to let her live at the school with us. We were stunned by this request but were moved by the girl’s tears. On the other hand, we simply could not allow her to live with us. Vinita spent some hours talking to the girl, explaining to her that her grandparents were decent, good people and that she would have to adjust to the reality of their lives. We invited her to spend the night in the upstairs bedroom; sending her back to her grandparent’s home the next morning. She did readjust to village life with her grandparents, and soon began attended the Saturday night dances we held at the school.

Advisory Duties

I have listed above the various non-education duties of the “Principal Teacher” in an effort to elucidate the “Community School” reality. One of the primary advisory duties of the Principal Teacher is to respond to and initiate correspondence for the Native Store, the Village Council and The Jade project. In some instances, the Manager of each of these various groups wrote some of the relevant letters but the most important ones were written by the teacher. It seemed to me that each of these groups should operate as independently of the teacher’s influence as possible. They convened their evening meetings at the school, therefore I sat in at the opening of each meeting retiring shortly thereafter to the school office with the comment, “I’ll be in the office if you need me.” As I was an official of the Federal Government, my presence might exert undue or unwelcome influence, or so I thought. Each group was organized differently and each served very different functions.

The Shungnak Village Council. I had been told of the Village Council’s existence but was not informed of its function. Actually, and legally, it served as the local government entity. It was organized under the Indian Reorganization Act(s) (IRA). The IRA was a New Deal program which provided a legal foundation within the Federal structure for American Indian governments. Until the IRA enactment, there was no legal foundation for local Natives to organize themselves for self-government. In reality, organizing as an IRA village meant very little in terms of functioning self-governance. Even at Barrow, which was IRA, local government hardly functioned. At Shungnak, it was even less well-organized. I was told that the school stored Village Council documents. This proved to be true. I discovered a small cardboard box of documents and papers in an upstairs storage room, near the sacks of kidney beans. After rummaging around in it for a while, I found the, original IRA organizational document. The Village of Shungnak approved a “Corporate Charter” June 18, 1946 by a vote of 62 to 2 to become an IRA village. The document was signed by George Cleveland. This was a mimeographed, fill-in-the-blanks-and-sign form. In order to organize all the villages under the IRA, the teachers were sent the mimeographed forms and instructed to fill in the blanks and get them signed, which they did. To my knowledge, Village Council members received no training concerning their status or responsibilities. The Village Council had an elected President, Vice President and Secretary, each performing appropriate duties at meetings, which were irregular, to say the least.. With no real, felt responsibilities, the meetings were held only when the Council was asked to respond to a request for a particular sort of action.

One such time arrived; the Village Council responded appropriately. In this instance, they needed my advice and involvement. During the summer, 1955, a young imaginative boy, age 13, broke into the village Native Store, making off with a few cans of fruit and some other small items. The Store Manager knew that this boy was the one who had robbed the store and subsequently confronted him. The boy confessed. As his teacher, I was called in merely to confirm a stern warning to be boy as to his future “ better behavior” from the Council President and the store manager.

There were also two other events which ultimately impinged upon this particular situation. The local U.S. Post Office was due a visit from a U.S. Postal Inspector. The Shungnak Post Office was actually located in a corner area of the Postmaster’s log cabin home. He had constructed a “cage”, complete with a “screen” between himself and his postal customers. In order to better prepare for the Inspector the Postmaster had not only cleaned the cage area but had also painted the cabin floor so that all would be in apple-pie order for his visitor’s perusal. Unfortunately, our boy decided to rob the Post Office, too, which he did. He pried open a window, entering the cabin-Post Office, which was emptied of people/family so the painted floor could dry. Having walked across the wet paint the boy took some money from the Post Office cash box and left. Reading the boy’s tracks accurately, the Postmaster knew immediately who had taken the money. He contacted the Village Council President; the Council jailed the boy in a vacant cabin . The impending visit of the Inspector added urgency to the situation.

All of this having occurred during the summer months, I had taken the opportunity to make jade prospecting trip with Robert N. Cleveland, a local villager. Robert owned a claim on the Shungnak River, a tributary to the Kobuk Ricer, and had invited me to go along. The Shungnak River is a clear-running stream, and jade taken from its bed is of the highest gem quality in North America. We had camped, and had one day of jade prospecting, when we heard two rifle reports. Robert explained that these reports meant someone was trying to contact us. Robert replied with two answering shots. Shortly, two men came into camp to say that I was needed immediately in the village. They explained the situation about the boy, and that the Village Council required my advice as to necessary further action to be taken With the two men as guides, we walked directly cross-country (tundra) to Shungnak.

The situation was made urgent by the immanent arrival of the Postal Inspector. The Village Council did not want to be seen as incompetent as to the handling of a village Postal crime. We convened a “court” in an upstairs room of the school building. The young man was tried thereby and found to be guilty by the “found” hard evidence. The Council then sent a telegram to the Territorial Commissioner at Kotzebue asking him to have the boy arrested, which he did. The boy was taken to Nome, where eventually all charges were dropped. He subsequently returned to the village. While in Nome, he received long-overdue medical attention to correct a debilitating eye condition. At the time, it seemed appropriate to send the boy away especially since he had robbed the village store, and undeterred by the stern warning, moved on to the robbing of the Post Office. In retrospect all worked out felicitously for the student as the charges were dropped and a debilitating birth generated eye condition was corrected.

The Store Council. The BIA had established a Cooperative Organization which allowed each village to establish a Cooperative Store. The Cooperative Organization was headquartered in Seattle. The Seattle headquarters bought stock for the stores on an annual basis. The Store Manager would discuss the order with the Store Council. The Council had to approve the annual order. Unfortunately, the Store burned to the ground January 1, 1956 the first of our second and last year in Shungnak. The village was forced thereafter to shop in Kobuk village for groceries and other needs.

Occasionally special issues arose requiring Store Council action. One such involved two wolf hunters from Wisconsin. They arrived in a Piper Cub during the winter, 1955. We allowed them to sleep in an upstairs room, but we refused to provide meals to them. They were bad guests in several ways, and did not offer to pay for their U.S. Government lodging. Ultimately, they killed, from the air, 65 wolves, transporting the hides back to Shungnak. The hunters wanted the Store Council to buy all of the hides. The manager of the store was eager to do so but I intervened, advising against the idea. There was simply no way for the Shungnak Store to market so many wolf hides. I wrote out a consignment agreement between the Store Council and the hunters whereby the store would pay the hunters for each hide sold, and for no more. Further, the store would take no responsibility for the storing and upkeep of the hides. The hunters had deposited the hides on the bank of the Kobuk River nearby to the store. There they remained and, in time rotted, so that they were trashed. The store sold no more than five or six of the hides for which hides (only) the hunters were paid. (The hunters had received a cash bounty from the Territory for each wolf killed.)

The Shungnak Jade Project. The Jade Project had a Manager but no Council. Nonetheless, in typical communal manner, decisions were made among the men who produced the jewelry. One event important in getting the men to work as a group was an annual party held at the school. Vinita made a huge bowl of salmon salad from canned Salmon. We ordered bread from a store in Kotzebue, serving salmon salad sandwiches and dessert, with Kool Aid to drink.. As the evening’s entertainment activity was penny ante poker, which all the men enjoyed immensely I think the parties were a factor in getting the men to work more cooperatively and productively. Christmas, 1955 was the highlight of the Jade Project. By that time orders were being received in the mail from around the U.S.; not in massive number, but in numbers large enough to have the project net several hundred dollars, all of which monies went to the jewelry producers themselves, most of whom were fathers of our school children, or pre-schoolers.

Since the jade project during the winter used a room in the school basement, I asked if two of the older boys could serve as apprentices. The men agreed and from time to time the two boys would learn how to make jade jewelry.

The Kobuk Territorial School

For many years, the village of Kobuk, located fifteen river miles up river from Shungnak, had wanted their own school. Kobuk’s children had boarded with Shungnak families in order to attend school. The Territorial Government policy was straight- forward: “The village or town provides the school facility and upkeep, and the Territory will provide a teacher and learning materials”. The trader at Kobuk, Mr. Brown, had one daughter, a son-in-law, and grandchildren. The grandchildren were approaching school age and he agreed to help finance a new log cabin school facility. The village men assisted with the labor; Mr. Brown provided such extra things as an oil stove, and caulking material. The Territory provided the school a longtime bush teacher, Agnes Schlosser. Agnes was a legend “in her time”. She arrived with her own dog team and sled, setting up housekeeping in one end of the school building, separated from the classroom by a head-high partition. She also set up a woodstove and, using her dogs, provided firewood for a smaller woodstove. She sawed and chopped her own firewood. The Territory provided textbooks, usually ones cast-off from other schools. Agnes was a dedicated professional having taught in several other Territorial schools. She looked upon the Kobuk School as a special challenge – and the Kobuk people were indeed fortunate to have had her as their assigned teacher. The Kobuk School began in September of 1955.

We sojourned to Kobuk in order to meet Agnes. Eventually, in the spring, 1956, the two schools had an “Academic Competition Day”. At the end of the school year, after river breakup, I loaded all of the Shungnak students into two boats and we motored off to Kobuk. We held the competition in the Kobuk School, and, as the saying goes, much fun was had by all. We arranged for competition in spelling, arithmetic and in other activities for all of the learning levels. All together it was an enjoyable, exciting and rewarding interschool activity as it provided each of the children an opportunity to demonstrate to themselves and others something of what they had learned. The approvals, safety requirements, etc. now required would have made the activity difficult, even probably impossible. All that was needed at that time was the willingness of the two teachers involved to do it.

Throughout this narrative many of the non-teaching Governmental responsibilities of a teacher have been described. A major difference between responsibilities of the Territorial teachers and BIA teachers pertained to these non-teaching ones. The BIA perceived the teachers as Government officials responsible at least partially, for the village’s human environment, educational and non-educational. The Territorial teacher had teaching responsibilities, only.

Community Social Activities

It should be remembered that in 1954 the village of Shungnak had no television, electricity, running water, or sewer system, only minimal formalized village government; no city hall or community building. The large school building served many community purposes not ordinarily thought appropriate to a school facility. The various village enterprises (Village Council, Store Council, Mothers Club, Jade Project) all held meetings at the school during the evening hours. The teacher was considered to be an ex- officio advisor to all of these enterprises.

The church did not sponsor community activities other than its regular Sunday Services and certain special day occasions, understandable inasmuch as the heating and lighting of the church during the long, cold and dark winters became difficult. The church did not own a gasoline or diesel-powered generator. Heat for the church was generated in a large, 100-gallon steel drum fashioned into a wood-burning stove. On Sundays church members lighted a wood fire in the stove early in the morning so that by church-time the stove was red hot, the building moderately warm.

We did not sponsor any social activities until we had been at Shungnak for a few months. We wanted school-sponsored activities to be extremely appropriate, and we were too new to the area to be able to as yet make this judgment. The first activity which it seemed to us fairly reasonable to continue was showing of the movies sponsored by the Jade Project, remembering that our predecessor had used Jade Project funds to purchase a used, 16 mm projector. He had ordered mostly “B” “Western” movies from a rental business in Anchorage. A small admission was charged to cover expenses. Jade Project men handled the admission fee collection, and the running of the projector.

Somehow the attendees managed to find the cash admission fee, and the movie attendance was usually strong. We showed three or four movies per month.

The annual Christmas Program we staged each Christmas we were in Shungnak became a highlight at the school. Vinita handled this program. There were individual student recitations, and songs including the singing of “Jingle Belles” in Eskimo; a play, and dancing. Santa came, in the person of a costumed Robert N. Cleveland, Village Elder, and good friend.

I won’t go into the details on how Robert played Santa, but I will say that he was a born actor and enjoyed the role. He always had been the village’s favorite Santa. One of his favorite ”acts” was a Athapascan caricature. (Historically, certain antagonisms had abided between Shungnak Eskimos and nearby Athabascas.) We were told that Robert would not play Santa for teachers he did not especially like. I made a special trip to his cabin to ask him to play Santa, which he had then agreed to do. A copy of the 1955 Christmas program follows on the next page.

In time, we sponsored folk and pair dances for the young adults and teenagers. We owned a record player and appropriate folk music records. We announced the dance for a specific Saturday, giving sufficient advance notice so that Kobuk villagers would hear of it, too. Usually, several young people from Kobuk village attended our dances. Vinita and I enjoyed our dances and the dancing itself as much as the rest of the village did until the 10:00 p.m. cut-off time.

Sadly or so we thought the Shungnak village people, unlike those at Barrow, had not retained the practice of their traditional Eskimo dances. We were told that, in earlier years, the local Christian missionaries had persuaded the villagers that these dances as “ sinful”.

CHRISTMAS PROGRAM – SHUNGNAK DAY SCHOOL 1955

A Christmas Greeting
- A Recitation -
Sally Lee
Our Christmas Servants
- A Choral Reading -
Eddie Lee,
Daniel Sun,
Oscar Griest,
Myra Lee,
Wynite Wood
An Old Christmas Greeting
- Recitation -
Polly Sheldon
We Don’t Let Santa Down
- A Choral-Pantomime-
Harold Berry,
Frank Commack,
Lena Commack
Helena Lee
Jingle Bells
- A Song -
Mercy Cleveland
Barbara Cleveland
I’ll Not Play Jokes on Santa
- A Reading -
Nellie Sun
Santa’s Names
- A Reading -
Aggie Jack
Christmas Song
- A Choral Reading -
Doris Lee,
Pauline Custer
Sing A Song of Christmas
- A Recitation -
Mimi Cleveland
Christmas Day
- A Song -
Susie Lee
Yuletide
- A Choral Reading -
Lulu Lee,
Nancy Cleveland,
Mary Griest
Molly Griest,
Lottie Sheldon
Genevieve Douglas,
Ella Sun
The Holy Family of St. Francis
- A Pantomime -
 
Characters:
St. Francis – Walter Gray
Joseph – Eli Commack
 
Inkeeper – Frank Cleveland
Mary, the Mother of Jesus-
Roseland Cleveland
 
Inkeeper’s Wife – Blanche Sun
A Shepherd –
Frank Johnson
 
An Angel – Molly Griest
Wise Men – Stanley Custer
(2 more Wise Men Who Do
Not Speak – Harold Berry
and Frank Commack
 
The Reader – Katherine Cleveland
Excerpts –
A Visit from St. Nicholas
- A Poem -
Rita Thomas
Jennie Jenkins
- A Song with Guitar -
The 4-H Club Girls
Put Your Little Foot
- A Folk Dance -
The 4-H Club Girls
Little Brown Jug
- A Folk Dance -
The 4-H Club Girls
Assisted by Stanley
Custer in both dances
Hark the Herald Angels Sing
- A Carol -
The 4-H Club Girls
The First Noel
- A Carol -
The 4-H Club Girls

 

SANTA COMES !!!

Refreshments

Folk Dancing for all who wish to stay.

Other Duties As Assigned

It would have been helpful to us if someone in the BIA administrative system had explained or discussed with us in detail the meaning of the position descriptions of “ Principal-Teacher” and “Special Assistant.” At the time I wanted to teach in a one- teacher day school. Originally, the BIA had recruited us from Austin as teachers at the multi-teacher Barrow Day School. Subsequently they then, at our request, transferred us to a one-teacher day school of our choice. In reality, the position title of Principal-Teacher was an accurate reflection of the BIA’s version of a day-school teacher’s duties. The reader can glean from the above narrative how accurately the Principal-Teacher’s real-time duties reflected a community school concept. Because the reality was materially different from that described in the Position Description given to us, I was, for example, indifferent to the amount of gasoline we used at Shungnak. This, even though we were told, as a criticism, that it was the highest of that of any one-teacher day school, and than that of most two-teacher day schools. The Jade Project, and other community activities required that we operate our electric generator several more hours per day than most other day school’s generators operated .

We wrote letters for the Jade Project, Store Council, and Village Councils. We maintained daily contact via shortwave radio with the Kotzebue Hospital. Frequently, correspondence related to the health problems of the village was required. I did not send too many telegrams but each one required official financial management procedures and forms. In the midst of some of these duties, I sometimes found myself envious of the Kobuk village school teacher, who had the one responsibility, that of teaching her students; although I did not envy her rugged personal living conditions, her meager teaching materials and the very limited classroom facility.

During the remaining months of our stay in Shungnak, 1956, the BIA Juneau Area Director sent a letter to all day school teachers to encourage and assist village members in laying out and formalizing “Hunting Sites”. At that time, Native people could lay out a hunting site of about 200 acres or more. This was a legal land claim meant especially for Native people. The only hunting site which had been laid out by a Shungnak person was one by of Robert N. Cleveland in the Black River area. Robert had been paying Territorial taxes on the site. As the Alaska Native Claims Act was not in force during Territorial days, Alaska Natives could claim “Hunting Sites,” but, Robert was the only person who had already, in fact, claimed an officially, legalized hunting site.

This official assignment, Spring, 1956, was at first difficult to understand. Historically, teachers had been the instruments of Federal policy implementation, ranging from that of reindeer herding to gardening, and, “now”, it seemed, to hunting sites. The BIA had sent along some cursory instructions about the surveying of land. This was helpful but hardly sufficient. I could not see myself visiting all of the hunting sites potentially available. I notified the village people through council meetings and informal discussions. Before we left in June, 1956, the two Douglas brothers were the only individuals who had come forward asking to lay out a site. They were very enterprising men who had purchased sawmill equipment which they wanted to install near the river so they could float timber and sawn lumber to the potential buyers. I instructed them as to how to measure a site with tape, or “by stepping it off”, and told them to use only permanent landmarks such as large immovable rocks or boulders, etc.. I assume that they eventually completed the application, which was to have included a site map, though I can’t be sure it was formalized after we had left Shungnak.

Important Non-Education Issues

A Landing Strip for Shungnak. Village gossip reflected current happenings as well as those of a “historical” nature. We heard soon after our arrival of the previous teacher’s effort to effect the construction of a landing strip at Shungnak. Shungnak needed a landing strip because the landing options for small plane landings were sand bars (for wheel plane landings), the river (for float planes), and the fully iced-over river, or lake (for ski-equipped planes). There were days, often extending into weeks, during the Fall and Spring when the mail plane could not land because there was no completely ice free river water or visible sand bar. In the Fall near, complete river-freeze-up time, but before the ice was thick enough to support the weight of a plane on skis, once again, no mail delivery. A year-round landing strip would have been a boon to the village. But taking the lead on obtaining funds for the strip was a major task, and therefore not one for a teacher to attempt. Definitely, this could not be any part of his Position Description or a BIA priority.

A Kobuk Native (Indian) Reservation. On the other hand, as described above, there were “historically” assigned tasks or duties. One of these pertained to the New Deal’s efforts to establish “Native Reservations” in the Territory of Alaska, like the ones in the “South 48.” At the time, the issue of a “Kobuk Native Reservation” divided opinion in Shungnak between the “pros” and “cons”. Consideration of this divisive issue on a Native Reservation for the Shungnak “Area” took place during the 1940s, finally reaching the voting stage around 1947, at which voting session the antis won.

Robert N. Cleveland, a Shungnak resident, who was for the Reservations told us about the period of “debate” during several hour-long conversations. It went something like this. There was an official vote on the issue. Outside speakers, notably Tom Brower of Barrow, one of Barrow’s prominent “Eskimo” business men, came to Shungnak to talk against the Reservation. Among other descriptions, according to Robert, the speakers described a probable reservation in terms of the Army’s raping of women and the Government’s forcibly preventing Shungnak village people from leaving the village. One of the major “anti” voices in the local community was the “White” trader at Kobuk. Unfounded scare tactics were used by the “anti” forces, according to what Robert and other villagers told us. An official visitor later told us that, at the time, the Shungnak teachers were told to take no part in the discussion. If asked about the issue, the teacher was, told, officially, to refrain from commenting, to remain absolutely neutral.

The establishing Native Reservations was part of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (IRA). IRA policies strongly supported Indian Self-Determination. As such, the issue of Native Reservations was a politically favored policy in the 1930s. However, by the time the Kobuk Native Reservation issue was resolved, in the late 1940s, the political climate in Washington was already changing.

The Shungnak Village Council still exists and does so according to:

Whereas a group of Eskimos having a common bond of living together in Shungnak, Territory of Alaska, seek to organize under sections 16 and 17 of the act of June 18, 1934, and section 1 of the act of May 1, 1936, by adoption of the Constitution and By-laws approved by the Secretary of Interior.

The above quote is the first paragraph of the Shungnak Village Council IRA “Federal Corporation Charter.” In other words, the village of Shungnak is incorporated under the IRA.

Christian Churches, Missionaries. Historically, Christian missionaries have played an important role in the education of Alaska Natives. This was especially the case between the years 1867 and 1910 but less true after this time. In the 1950s, almost every village had its Christian missionaries. Fortunately, Shungnak had only one church, that of a conservative branch of the Quakers. The Church building was a frame structure large enough to accommodate the entire village population. When we arrived there was no resident missionary, but soon thereafter a missionary couple arrived. He, his wife and adopted daughter were Eskimos from Buckland, an English speaking village. The missionary conducted all services in local dialect of the Eskimo language. The mission Church was a thoroughly accepted part of village life.

During the summer of 1955 we learned that the Seventh Day Adventists were exploring the possibility of establishing a second church in Shungnak. Based on discussions with some interested village adults we also learned that this was a possibility that would divide the village along religious lines in a socially unhealthy way. After all, given Shungnak demographics, i.e. an approximate a total population of 165, its support of two Christian churches would seem to have been somewhat problematic. One day the Seventh Day Adventist missionary came to the school to visit during the school day, he having apparently discovered, while visiting village adults that we were acceptably liked in the village, therefore decided that perhaps he should visit with us as well. Since I was in class, he necessarily visited with my wife. She told him, responding to his questions, that she did not feel that, given Shungnak’s population, it could support two Christian churches, and that, in fact it would cause serious social dissention among the people; and further that, if asked by Shungnak adults, we would not support such an establishment. Of course, officially, we had no right to take such a position and could have gotten into serious trouble with the Juneau Area Office had the missionary reported us; officially we were required to remain absolutely neutral, but both of us had observed, first hand, in Kotzebue the cynicism and social divisiveness among villagers created by the plethora (nine) of Christian mission churches competing for members in a small village. The Adventist did not establish a church in Shungnak, fortunately in our point of view, nor did he seem to have “reported” us to Juneau.

The new church at the Kobuk village was another matter altogether. No church existed in Kobuk village. The Baptist missionary in Kotzebue visited Kobuk (and us in Shungnak) and explained that if the village would construct a church building he would provide a pastor. Subsequently, the village adults constructed a log cabin building, one which was beautiful on the inside. After having been instructed by the Kotzebue missionary a local resident became pastor. The church soon became an integral part of the life of the village of Kobuk.

Visitors. Over the two years we spent at Shungnak there were a fairly constant stream of visitors who roomed and boarded at the school. These ranged from the very considerate guests: Frank Long of the Jade Project, and to the RN, Esther Schaubel to the, boorish Sergeant Butcher of the Air Force Distant Early Warning (DEW) program. We actually officially reported Sergeant Butcher for sexual harassment, and for his having brought a prostitute to stay with him on one of his visits to Shungnak. After our report to the Juneau Area Office was transmitted to his superiors in the Air Force, he made a special extraordinary visit to Shungnak to offer an official apology.

On one occasion, the Game Wardens had found three village men with a dead moose carcass near Shungnak in the closed moose hunting area. The Territorial Commissioner (Judge) at Kotzebue flew in. On that day, the Territorial Commissioner, two Game Wardens, Frank Long, and two Army Officers were visiting the local National Guard unit. Except for Frank, none stayed the night, but all ate lunch with us. After the visit the Commissioner sent us a leg of caribou as a token of his appreciation. We were equally surprised and gratified. We heard no word from the Game Wardens, or from the Army officers, a usual occurrence as U.S. Government factors are taken for granted by its other Civil Servants and citizens. When the Commissioner requested the use the school room as a court room, I gave a conditional “Yes.” The condition: the children must be allowed to attend the session. I later used the experience to teach a lesson about our court system.

The White House Conference on Children

In the fall of 1955 the BIA sent its schools a letter requesting each submit a report to be forwarded to a to be convened White House Conference on Children. A review the request made obvious the fact that we would need to conduct a village survey of some sort in order to answer the questions used to structure the report. The “Study” we conducted was apparently Shungnak’s first experience of education Self-Determination. For the first time, village adults were asked what they wanted their school to accomplish. The school had existed at Shungnak since about 1909, and this was the first time anyone had thought it appropriate to ask the people of Shungnak what they expected their school to achieve. Because of the subsequent importance of “Indian and Alaska Native Self Determination”, the entire report is included.

The Mothers Club was an important organization in the village. Vinita worked with the elected President of the Club to arrange its meetings and to set an agenda. We found, that in lieu of a School Board or PTA, the Mothers Club served as an excellent forum at which to have school issues explained and discussed. After some discussion, Vinita thought the Mother’s Club would be the best larger organization with which discuss the topic, “What do you want your children to learn in school?” Mothers Club Meetings were held and everyone worked hard to develop the information which was then reported to the Juneau Area Office. We made carbon copies of correspondence, and have kept these copies in our files. The following White House Report is from one of the carbon copies of our submission to Juneau.

Shungnak, Alaska
September 24, 1955

Area Director
Alaska Native Service
Juneau, Alaska

Dear Mr. Olsen:

Subject: White House Conference on Education – Alaska Participation

Enclosed is the typewritten report on the results of the local study in connection with the subject of this letter.

The information contained in the report was obtained in three ways: (1) From notes taken by the teacher during a personal conference with (a) the President of the local “ School Board” and (b) the Vice-president of the Village Council. (The local “School Board” is composed of six villagers who meet once annually to set up a week-by- week schedule for dishwashing for the women who receive ADC checks and who therefore help with the school lunchroom program by washing the breakfast dishes, beginning in October.) (2) From notes taken by the Chairman of a special committee appointed by the teacher to study the Citizens workbook and formulate some answers to the questions therein. The committee members included a village councilman, a store Councilman, two “School Board” members, two young, unmarried people, a mother, an elderly person, and the pastor of the local Friends Mission and his wife (both of them are Eskimos). (3) From notes taken by the Chairman of a general village meeting. The group gathered was not large as many people will not return from summer fish camps until around October 15. However, the special committee and this group worked diligently and seriously in trying to understand and answer these questions and it is felt that the answers would have been altered very little had the whole village been involved. The groups, though small, were representative.

The teacher attempted to lay the groundwork for the committee meeting and the general meeting in three ways: (1) By talking to two literate and interested men (“School Board” President and Village Council Vice-president) individually and in detail about the nature of the White House Conference and the significance of the local study and by going over with them every pertinent question in the Workbook. Both of these men then took an active part in the special committee meeting. The teacher made every effort to avoid "putting answers into the mouths” of these men and emphasized that the right answers are their expressed thoughts on the subject and nothing more. (2) By talking with the Chairman of the special committee before the committee meeting in the same way explained above. The questions had, in both cases, to be re-phrased, simplified, and related to the local situation only. It was found that the people had no background for considering the questions in relation to the Territory as a whole or to the Nation. The questions were exceedingly difficult even for the most enlightened and literate of them to answer because, in most instances, apparently, they had never before had occasion to ponder such questions. As a matter of fact, it is felt that this survey has been very stimulating to the people and the teacher and that the resulting constructive thought and expression may possibly generate some creative action which will effect perhaps minor but much needed changes in village-school relationships. (3) By mimeographing a paper giving a short explanation of the White House Conference, the reason for the local study and the Workbook questions, and the answers worked out by the special committee and distributing this paper to every adult in the village before the general meeting. It was felt that this might serve to make the questions more comprehensible to stimulate thought.

General information about (a) Indian School minimum essential goals for the grade levels, (b) school finances here as compared with school finance in the States and elsewhere in the Territory, (c) the approximate cost of maintaining this school, and (d) enrollment trends in this school was also given to the .special committee and the privately interviewed individuals for dissemination to the larger group.

After making a short introductory talk the teacher turned the meeting over to the chairperson of both the general meeting and the committee meeting and left the room as it was felt the discussions might be inhibited somewhat by his presence. In Shungnak all such meetings are oral expressions in Eskimo so that note-taking is a difficult task

The people of the village were very cooperative and the task was at times a tedious one for all concerned but everyone persevered to the very end and all seemed to feel happy with the results of the effort.

Yours very truly,

Tom R. Hopkins

Enclosures 1

Results of the Local Study

What Should Our Schools Accomplish?

Here are some things we would like for the school to teach our children before they graduate from Shungnak Day School: To read, write and speak English, arithmetic, homemaking, craft skills like carpentry and jade craftsmanship and training in making their own native products like sleds and baskets, public speaking, health education, some business arithmetic and business management. Learning the English language is very important because until they learn that well it is hard for them to learn anything else because they cannot read well or understand their teachers especially when they go away to high school. Craft work in the jade is important because if they learn that they can make a good living without leaving Shungnak. The children should be taught some music. They should be taught to be kind and honest and they should he taught good manners. We want our children to learn new ways and new ideas that are good and useful but we do not want them to be taught to forget native ways that are good and useful.

In the home we should teach our children neatness, orderliness, how to clean up, to cook, to sew and mend things, to make fish nets, to knit, and some carpentry work, to eat regular meals, sleep regular hours, to keep their clothes clean, to bathe regularly and use as much English as we can.

The Church should teach the children the Bible in Sunday School, music, religious leadership, how to keep records, ushering, to tithe.

The Village should teach children the importance of keeping the village clean, to respect the village and territorial laws, by-laws and regulations, how to be good citizens and how to assist in business management.

We would like to say that we need a high school closer to Shungnak because of the cost of transportation to Sitka. We believe more students would want to finish here and go to high school if they did not have to go so far. Also, in a place which is so different from our village students sometimes lose interest in our village and are dissatisfied when they return. If they went to Kotzebue, for example, they could still learn and yet like their own village when they would come home. Parents feel as if they have wasted their money when the student stays only one year and is unable to go back for more learning because transportation costs. The students don’t seem to learn very much in just one year.

In What Ways Can We Organize Our Schools More Efficiently and Economically?

Perhaps this could be done by spending more money on education but less on buildings and labor. Voluntary labor from the village would help. It is hard for us to say for you to put in less money because it is not our money and we don’t understand about how to spend so much money. In the wintertime it is hard for us to give voluntary labor because our living is so much harder.

How Can We Get Enough Good Teachers and Keep Them?

A good teacher is a person who is honestly interested in his work. A good teacher teaches the basic requirements of the Department of Education of A. N. S. A good teacher is one with understanding of the children. For example, one who always remembers that some of the children do not understand English very well and cannot know what the teacher means when he explains something once or twice, therefore the teacher does not get angry easily and scold but explains again and again patiently. A good teacher knows when to scold and when to be patient. Sometimes kids need to he scolded. A good teacher is friendly to the people and honest and treats all people equally. Also, a good teacher loves to help old people.

We tell, our children to do their best in school so that they may go on to high school. and college and then teach our people themselves.

The village people can help to keep a good teacher in the village by being friendly cooperative and helpful where possible. By treating them like one of us instead of seeing them as different people. By writing to Juneau and telling the Department of Education why we like them.

We expect our teacher to help with the village health problems; to explain things to us that we do not understand like forms that have to be filled out, for example, and other things we do know about or can’t read very well; to treat us as good friends; to use movies properly, that is, to show only educational movies that are good for us; but the most important thing we want him to do is to teach our children.

How Can We obtain a Continuing Public Interest in Education?

We like our school and show it by being friendly and kind to the teacher and by cooperating in helping to solve the school problems. To show that we like the school we can keep our children clean when they go there and we can bring them to the village to school when school starts, if possible. If anyone gets a bad feeling toward the school that feeling might be made into a good one if we discuss the problem together.

We could organize a Mothers’ Club to work with the school on education for this village. We could also help organize a 4-H Club for the young people. Those young people back from Mt. Edgecumbe could help a lot on this Club. They could take over the monthly Baby Clinic for a project.

We would like to hear more over the radio about education in this 2nd Division.

Overall, this was a time-consuming and difficult task for the village people, but they responded admirably and responsibly. Please note the use of the quotation marks around the term “School Board”:, as well as its definition in the Report. As mentioned earlier, Shungnak had no regularly functioning School Board in the usual meaning of the term.

No adult person living in Shungnak at this time, except the teacher and Special Assistant had graduated high school. The adult literacy level in Shungnak in 1955 was probably at grade four or five, if that. Some of the elderly people were not literate and no one was literate in the Eskimo language. Yet, when asked, Shungnak adults knew what they thought a good teacher should do. They wanted the primary job of the teacher to be to teach the children. They did not mention the teacher’s non-educational duties as being basic but they did mention those duties as a part of the teacher’s responsibilities. (The BIA’s Position Description, “Principal-Teacher”, is reflected in the report.) By this I mean certain village health responsibilities, the completing of official forms for people, as examples.

I have always remembered the “White House Conference” survey because it taught me that parents, regardless of their ethnicity, economic status or education level, usually know what they want in a “Good Teacher.” Not surprisingly, a significant part of their definition of a “Good Teacher” has to do with moral rectitude, as they see it.

Juneau Education Administrators Meeting, January 1956

In December of 1955, I received a letter inviting me to a meeting of BIA Education Administrators to be held in Juneau. The BIA Juneau Area Office Education Program convened this meeting each year in January though previously I had not known this. It was considered as a special recognition for a one-teacher Day School Principal-Teacher to be invited to the meeting. I learned that of the many one-teacher day school Principals only two of us were invited to the meeting.

Why the meeting always was held in January at the peak time winter darkness, and when the Arctic cold is extreme, I never understood. The decision to attend was not an easy one for me to make. (1) At the time, I didn’t understand the meeting was a prestigious one; (2) what was I to do about my teaching duties while I was away for a week?; what about the school plant at this very cold time of the year? My attendance at such a far-away meeting seemed to be an impossible inconvenience for us.

The other one-teacher day school principal contacted us to discuss the situation. He was very excited to have been invited, an excitement I did not share. Vinita and I discussed our situation at length, finally deciding I should attend. Vinita would teach during my absence. We contacted several of the village men, discussing with them school plant needs i.e., the filling of the stove oil tanks and the light plant tank, etc..

I boarded the mail plane on a Saturday, flying to Kotzebue where I spent the night, thence to Fairbanks, where I spent another night. From Fairbanks we took a Pan American flight to Juneau. I remember the flight to Juneau because the other attendees to the meeting were on board, and each of us especially enjoyed drinking several containers of fresh milk and fresh orange juice. I sat beside one of the young men, who was going to the meeting, Warren Tiffany. He explained that he was teaching a second grade at Fort Yukon, but that school was to be transferred to the Territory of Alaska at the end of the present school year. He was to become the Education Specialist at the BIA Nome Office. For the first time ever, the BIA would staff Regional Offices with Education Specialists in order to provide monitoring and technical assistance to bush schools. Warren and I became lifelong colleagues and friends.

The program of the meeting included a discussion of village school problems as well as initiatives from the Washington and Juneau offices. My most pleasant memories are of the camaraderie that developed spontaneously among the village school administrators. Charles Richmond from Unalakleet, Bill Jackson from a large Bethel area school, Kenneth Crites of the Area Office as well as Warren Tiffany, were attendees and all ultimately played important roles in the BIA and in my own career therein.

A bizarre incident occurred at a meeting between Ken Crites and me; it began with this discussion of the high consumption of gasoline at Shungnak. His complaint was that the school was supplying gasoline to the Jade Project. The Indian Arts and Crafts Board was supposed to provide electricity for the Jade Project. I explained that, at the village level, the entity proving electricity for the Jade Project was not the important issue. Rather, the important issue was: The Jade Project was a very basic economic enterprise within the Shungnak community. To deprive the Jade Project of electricity would have an important negative impact on the village economy and therefore upon the lives of the people and subsequently upon the lives of the children whom BIA was trying to educate. Witness, I said, the White House Conference on Children Report wherein the Jade Project was mentioned as being of both economic and educational importance. I simply told Ken that I was not going to stop supplying electricity to the Jade Project and the Jade Project had no other power source available. He did not offer to press formal charges against me for this defiance of the Juneau Area Office; we left the situation at that.

Following the discussion of the Jade Project’s “electricity problem”, the so-called complexity of the bizarre funding situation at the school was explained. It seems that the oil-fired stove in the living room of the apartment accurately “demonstrated” this complexity. The oil tank on the outside of the facility was the responsibility of Plant Maintenance. The line running underneath the school facility to the stove was the responsibility of Education. The oil stove’s carburetor was the responsibility of Plant Maintenance. The oil line from the carburetor to the fire pot was the responsibility of Education. The stove’s fire pot was the responsibility of Plant Maintenance. The stove pipe leading to the chimney was the responsibility of Education. The chimney was the responsibility of Plant Maintenance. I was dazzled by this explanation and decided, that taking it seriously might require me to teach half days so that I might utilize the rest of my time unraveling the bureaucratic demarcations of the school plant.

At the level of operations, the responsibility was mine and mine alone. For example, when we arrived at Shungnak, the kitchen range chimney would not “draw” freely. Rather, it filled the apartment with dangerous fumes. It never occurred for me to call in someone from Nome to fix it. I fixed it myself, it worked well from that point until we left, June, 1956.

The meeting in Juneau was not especially memorable for its Education content. It did teach me that administrative meetings seldom do concern themselves with the content of the Education program, i.e., English as a Second Language; cultural differences between the suggested curriculum and the needs of the students; cultural differences between the teacher and the children, culturally relevant curriculum materials, etc. Usually, the content of administrative meetings concerned the budget; interestingly, the budget was determined without much of any discussion of the Educational program’s content. During my entire BIA career, I always was alone when I suggested that any budget discussion should begin with a description of the Education program the budget was meant to support. This never happened. The budget alone always dominated the discussions.

Overall, it was a congenial meeting in the sense that, at least, the individuals attending became comfortable with one another. This comfortable feeling among bush teachers was important and something to cherish, as it was only those of us involved in this unique teaching situation who possessed a common understanding on which to base our professional discussions.

I subsequently learned that the BIA Alaska Education operations of the 1950’s and 1960’s did not relate well to BIA operations in the “South Forty-Eight.” For example, when we attended an administrators’ meeting at Intermountain Indian School during the summer of 1963, Warren Tiffany arrived at the meeting, having sailed his boat from Juneau to Seattle. For those of us teaching in Alaska a boat was as ordinary a mode of transportation as a car in the South 48. But the BIA had no recognized official way for Warren to claim boat mileage. The same difficulty applied when I hired a dog team to take me to the village of Kobuk to buy stove oil. All too often we were forced to pay for such expenditures ourselves. And what of the Kwingillingok school classroom which sank several feet during the summer because of a permafrost upheaval beneath the poorly constructed school building? Or, of the new school materials never reaching school up the Yukon because the barge on which they were being transported hit a snag and sank? These delays of the beginning of a new school term for reasons seemingly strikingly unusual to outsiders, were known to be common enough by most Alaska bush teachers. Bush teachers developed a kind of professional patience which I later found to be the exception among non Alaska BIA teachers.

My return from Juneau to Shungnak was not unusual with one major difference, the temperature in the Kobuk area. We flew in a Norseman plane from Kotzebue to Shungnak. We left Kotzebue at -30° Fahrenheit, stopped at the villages of Noorvik and Deering, touching down at Shungnak two hours later at -45°. The Norseman had a heater, i.e. its engine heat, but this source made virtually no impact on the plane’s cabin. By the time I arrived in Shungnak I had never been so cold in all of my life. I shivered my way to the school building, turned up the kitchen range to its highest level, standing by it for a full hour before I stopped shaking. Winter travel in a mostly unheated small airplane during the height of the Arctic winter is not recommended.

At the time of the Juneau meeting, I did not realize that it represented a kind of benchmark for my BIA career.

Going Back to Austin

When Vinita and I went to the Arctic, we did so for a kind of grassroots realtime education experience, never suspecting, at the time, that it would the beginning of a life- long experience of teaching and administering Alaska Native and American Indian schools. We decided, March, 1956 to return to Austin: (1) I wanted to finish the work I had begun on the Master of Education Degree at the University of Texas (2) We were expecting a child, and were seriously considering Austin, Texas as a good place to live permanently. We sent our letter of resignation to Juneau in March.

The two school years in Austin, 1956 – 1958 were important for my professional development. My Master’s work at the University of Texas was pertinent and important in a number of ways, as was my teaching of a fifth grade at Brykerwoods Elementary School under the outstanding principal, J. G. Perkins. My academic studies at the University in School Administration were reinforced and expanded daily by my practical experience under J.G Perkins. Under Mr. Perkins’ tutelage, I learned the details of school administration, including the observing and evaluating of teachers, the administering and use of standardized tests, and perhaps most important, meeting the curricular needs of the broad scope of academic abilities reflected among the students.

In the fall, 1957, I wrote to the Juneau Area Office and inquired about returning to Alaska to teach in a day school. The response was a very positive one; Personnel assured me that BIA would get back to me in the spring at which time specific vacancies would be known. Accordingly, the BIA sent a letter in April saying that Atka was the only day school available, but as Atka was far out on the Aleutian chain of islands, I accepted a proffered Science Teacher’s position at the Mt. Edgecumbe Boarding School located across the ship’s channel from Sitka. Our two children ages five years and 18 months made Atka out of the question, we felt.

Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and educational institution and is a part of the University of Alaska system.

 


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 March 17, 2008