This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner Home Page About ANKN Publications Academic Programs Curriculum Resources Calendar of Events Announcements Site Index This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner This is part of the ANKN Banner
Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Alaskan Eskimo Education:

A Film Analysis of Cultural

Confrontation in the Schools 

5/The classrooms on film


The flight from Bethel to Anchorage is two hours by jet. As the plane circled away from Bethel, brown tundra was breaking through the thawed May snowpack. The river was nearly clear of ice in channels of black water. But the mountains southward that wall in the Kuskokwim watershed were still locked in the Arctic winter. The journey eastward was over hundreds of miles of Alaska wilderness, for the most part empty of human life, and this wilderness made the city of Anchorage on Cook Inlet shocking in its vast spread of roads and squared property. As we settled into the airport, the White man’s world blotted out the North.

Anchorage is spoken of as the largest Native village in Alaska, but it is a White man’s city, almost completely removed from the Arctic. It contains an effectual public school system with Native children comprising 7 percent of the student body. These figures are deceptive, for some schools in Anchorage have no Native children at all, and many White youngsters grow up here with no contact with Indians, Aleuts, or Eskimos. The Superintendent of Elementary Education was not happy with the Native education in the schools. “We believe only a portion of the Native children are in school. Many children are not even registered. School is so painful to some Native children that they simply stop coming.”

With this discouraging introduction we set out to film the same sample as in the Bethel school: from kindergarten through to tenth grade, with a recording of one Special Education class for the deaf.


In the Head Start class in Kwethluk we filmed a unity and growth in togetherness. In Bethel we filmed compulsive efforts to command learning in kindergarten. In Anchorage we filmed the professionalism of a well-trained teacher conducting a programmed kindergarten where children were directed and gently manipulated into education.

The film opens on a noisy, visually happy kindergarten class scattered around a quadrangle of low tables in a bright, large, well-equipped room-“an enlarged playhouse,” as one researcher noted. The class included four Native children-an Eskimo boy, an Indian boy, and two part-Indian girls who looked more Latin than Indian-plus one Black boy, and twelve very White boys and girls.

The teacher in a clear, attractive voice brings order and calls the roll-an innovation in our Alaskan experience. Then a girl student stands holding the American flag, the class pledges allegiance and sings “My country, ‘tis of thee . . .,” and we know we are back in the United States.

Control, order, and direction set this kindergarten apart from all the other early childhood classes. How does this affect the Native students? The Eskimo boy grins with usual Eskimo enthusiasm. The Indian boy sits wrapped inside himself, docile and obedient. The part-Indian girls seem absorbed into the White community.

The film shows students who keep their seats. There is little wandering around, except for one loner. He drifts off by himself to play house. The teacher moves from one program to another, sing songs about left hand and right hand, and conducts dance games to nursery rhymes she calls out. Students stand on their chairs, revolve their arms, stand on the floor, and wave their arms like birds. Work sheets are passed out. Students begin working with discipline and enthusiasm.

The Eskimo boy stops smiling and begins yawning and turning away from his tasks. The Indian boy is sitting alone in space, no one sitting by him. He smiles feebly, watching others for direction, and finally dropping off, pillows his head on his arms and remains very still. The part-Indian girls also appear out of the group now, one down at the end of a table sitting alone, one centrally seated close to the one Black boy. The Black boy makes many overtures and, not getting reception, begins to bother the part-Indian girl.

Now a group of White children are all sitting together on one side of the table quadrangle with the Eskimo boy seated in their center. In the first part of the filming he seems to be fitting in, works vigorously at his work sheet, and attracts the attention of the teacher. But the longer the class continues, the quieter he becomes. A nursery melody is put on the record player. It is time for recess, and everyone lines up at the door in the conventional, separate, male-female lines.

The film of free-play outside reveals more structured behavior. At first the Eskimo boy is working in the sand hole with four White children. But soon he leaves of his own accord and turns to single play-carrying and throwing large rocks, balancing over a series of planks placed over dried up mud holes. The Indian boy changes his manner entirely. Outside he is still a loner but aggressive, running, chasing White children, finally manually capturing a White girl and forcibly dragging her out of sight around a building wall.

This well-run kindergarten can hardly be called a painful experience for Native children. Yet the two Native boys do express an apartness and behavior that is lonely. The part-Indian girls also were not a part of the larger group. It was amazing to see just the same nursery rhyme gestures that we had seen performed in a small, emotionally related, body-touching group in Kwethluk Head Start acted out here regimentally by all seventeen students. Here was the conforming style of the urban and suburban school. Would the Native children adjust and learn in this different environment?

First Grade

Native children were less visible in first grade than they were in kindergarten. Were they adjusting to the dominant class culture the way White children adjusted to the dominant Eskimo culture in Bethel? Only one Native student appeared having difficulties, and the two Indian girls in the room were ranked as high achievers.

This is a large first grade, twenty-five students taught by an elderly, white-haired woman assisted by a young female aide. There are six Natives in the class-one Eskimo boy, three Indian boys, and two Indian girls. One of the Indian boys is visibly withdrawn from the class, never leaving his desk and unresponsive to communications from seatmates. He is ranked by the teacher as an average student. The Eskimo boy and an Indian boy seated near him are both ranked low by the teacher, but their behavior is neutral-relaxed and outgoing. We assume that personality problems are submerged in first grade, probably also in second and third, and barely visible in fifth grade, as student problems take on definition.

This first grade is a programmed, well-run class, held in order by the professionalism of a seasoned teacher, and it is a class which could have further leveled any behavioral differences. This white-haired teacher gathers her flock around her with much impersonal coaxing, comforting, and habitual gestures of affection. She works with small groups, as does her aide, in reading exercises. The children respond dutifully and attentively, but her teaching is not as directional as in Bethel first grades, and little effort is made to draw out individual students. One gets the impression that there is more order but less learning than observed in Mrs. Artist’s first grade class in Bethel, and compared with Mr. Scout’s second grade this class is just passing time.

Except for the one withdrawn Indian boy, students do circulate freely around the room to join the reading groups of both teachers, but they always return to their seats with minimal interaction with their classmates. Teacher-to-student communications seem to blow over the heads of the class without focus. Behavior is wriggly and full of daydreaming, though one Indian girl is visibly involved, penciling pages, leafing through books, comparing notes with her seatmates-behavior which stands out in this class. This alert Indian girl appears not to be getting any social attention but is just turning on by herself.

Fifth Grade

There were seven Natives in this class of twenty-seven students taught by a motivated male teacher assisted by an uncommunicating female. This room had the congestion one might expect in a city classroom. The class was divided and operated oppositionally by the projections of the two teachers’ personalities. The male teacher was seated on a high stool by the windows, encircled by students sitting at desks, on desks, and in chairs. He appeared to draw his students to him, whereas the female teacher sat stolidly at the front of her desk-seated students and never moved through the filming, nor did students go to her. As identified on the seating diagram, three of the Native students were in the assistant’s section and four, and one Black boy, in the main teacher’s section. But circumstances had moved students around so that most of the Native students were in the head teacher’s group, and only two Natives in the assistant’s section.

We have not identified what the assistant was presenting, but the male teacher was reading the geography of Colorado. The routine was similar to Mr. Native’s General Science class in Bethel. The teacher read from the text and the students read in turn.

Native students sat close to the male teacher, and there was intense eye contact throughout the lesson. The male teacher returned the eye contact, so that there was a strong sense of intragroup relating. After a few minutes the group opened, desks were reoccupied, and the teacher circulated among the individual students, leaning over and sitting by them in person-to-person instruction. He worked intensely with various Native students and a long time with the Black boy in a circumstance reminiscent of Mr. Scout in the second grade in Bethel. But the teacher was harassed. The class was too big, and many students did not get attention. The teacher was concerned, as if he knew he was unable to give the help that was truly needed. Native children knew the head teacher had a listening ear, and there was almost a pathetic eagerness on their part to be heard.

The female assistant gave no visible support to students, and there was the conventional gulf between teacher and class. Here the two Native students responded very differently. The Native boy goofed and downed. The alert Native girl tried to keep in touch, follow the lesson, and keep cool. The White girls around her appeared to accept her. She looked smart, was well dressed and attractive. The Native boy was ignored.

Generally we were impressed how Native children were fitting into the White urban classrooms. But we asked this same question in relation to White students in Bethel-how did they adjust without stress to the dominant Eskimo pace? The White pace in Anchorage in turn dominated the Native students, swept them along in the elementary grades. But was this apparent adjustment obscuring problems that might have to be faced later in circumstances more difficult than first and fifth grade?

The Native Parent as Teacher in the White School

The principal of this elementary school appeared sophisticated about the challenge facing his Native students, but the school system had no special programs to alleviate this stress. Teachers faced these problems on their own, for help was not offered.

A St. Lawrence Island woman had a son in second grade, and in a gesture of welcome, the principal asked this mother to show her collection of color snapshots and tell the class about life on the islands. Here was a chance to see the response to a Native teaching about a truly relevant Alaskan subject, one of the more isolated Eskimo communities just 30 miles across the Bering Sea from Russia.

The “picture talk” was held in a series of small groups around a table. In this session the principal, a White boy, the Eskimo mother, and an Indian boy sat on one side. At the head of the table sat one more White boy, and across from the mother sat an Indian girl, a Black boy, the mother’s little boy, and another Eskimo boy. The woman had a quiet assured verbal delivery and passed the photographs around slowly, explaining each picture in detail.

The pattern of response was surprising. Reasonably the two Eskimo boys really turned on when together they pored over the snapshots. But the next most involved was the Black boy. He looked very intently at each picture, and at one point his eyes opened wide with wonder. The Indian girl showed perfunctory interest. The White boy at the head of the table showed flashes of interest, then sagged into real boredom. The Indian boy looked intently at the pictures, but frowned and looked depressed and weary. The White boy by the principal handled the pictures but showed no interest.

As a teacher the Eskimo woman was unflagging, thorough, and attentive to each student with focused eye attention as she talked. She set a voice and body rhythm and retained it to the end of the filming. She gave special attention to the White boys, as if they were the culturally deprived ones who deserved special attention. She leaned toward them, speaking and projecting to them with hand motion and eye focus. She demonstrated that a Native teacher can do a controlled clear empathetic assignment in reaching that matches and even betters many professional teachers in the schools.

Did this lesson relate to and support the Native students? It certainly did the two Eskimos. It amazed the Black child (as another “Native”). It moved the Indian boy but puzzled him. It did not appreciably affect the White students, though it certainly informed them.

But the learning situation was excellent-casual, clear, unhurried, and highly personified-and ideal for the disoriented Native student. It is true there was no feedback from the students, except for nonverbal signalling between the two Eskimo boys, but there could have been and would have been, had the teacher shifted her approach. For the Eskimo guest was conventionally aggressive in her style, probably just like some White teacher on St. Lawrence Island. She did not pause long enough in her lecture type presentation for students to express their feelings. After the chaos of crowded and confused students this was still a rewarding moment of relaxed education.

Special Education: A Deaf Class

The culture of education changes abruptly when one enters a Special Education class. In many ways, in terms of Native children, education begins. Here teachers deal directly with children. Each student’s problem becomes the focus of curriculum, and the goals of learning seem directed toward giving confidence and fluency to each child. The goal appears personality fulfillment rather than reaching a conformity of skills. This was as true in the Anchorage Special Ed classes for the deaf as it was in Bethel. We filmed a small class of six students-a Black boy, a White girl, a White boy, and three Indian boys; all between ten and twelve. The White girl appeared to have special problems; she sat smilingly by herself. The rest interacted together in ways very similar to the Bethel deaf class, though this was a more advanced group.

Film opens on a middle-aged White woman communicating orally and nonverbally with a responsive circle of five children gathered around an overhead projector. The lesson is a painfully intense group effort in communication, where students try to move from written symbols to understanding verbal meanings in spoken words. There is no representational material to verbalize around. The teacher asks simple questions, as recorded on tape:

T: What is cooked on the stove?
S: Daddy cooks.

This staggered verbal probing is buttressed by fluent hand talk that is exchanged between all the students.

S: Cook-da.
T: Yes, finished.
S: Cooked.
T: Johnny, what does he cook? What?
Johnny: Feetsh!
T: Fish.

The staggered, nearly blocked communication of the tape is not reflected on the film. Here we see a class communicating intensely to the teacher and with each other. Visually this class signals more intragroup communion than any other class in Anchorage, and with high enthusiasm. The students are asked verbal questions. They try to answer verbally, then write verbal answers legibly on the transparent overhead slate, and read their projected writing. This draws in the concentration of the whole class.

We cannot really judge the sense of the questions and answers because so much interlocking meaning is hand talk and general nonverbal communication. But it is our hunch that curriculum is minimal and skill in speech therapy very high. The teacher is very motivating in her efforts to help the students speak and communicate verbally. But as in Bethel this enthusiasm is directed more intensely toward the abstract goal of communication rather than toward particular goals within communication. Method is to focus learning directly on the individual rather than generally to the class, and the result is that students with grave problems are enthusiastic learners.

In this learning environment there were no differences between Native and White or Black students. Their common hardships and equal class recognition welded them into one close group. The research team all rated this class the most educationally fulfilling class in Anchorage.

Junior High School: Eighth Grade Math

Education changes severely between fifth grade in elementary and eighth grade in junior high. The fifth-grade teacher taught individuals. Even within the overcrowded chaos he made a great effort to retain a teacher-to-student relationship.

The opening film of eighth grade is a shock. Class size has grown to eighty-five students. The teacher no longer sits with his students but stands on a platform above them. He is speaking to the class crowd, never to an individual. Communication is verbal or nonverbal by blackboard demonstration. There is no teacher-to-student eye communication, rarely any student-to-student communication. Everyone seems well disciplined to watch the board and to listen. Somewhere between fifth grade and eighth grade, classroom culture has changed completely.

The film opens with an alert, verbally fluent young teacher lecturing from a raised dais. He turns from notes to writing figures on the blackboard-answers to problems from a past lesson. Then he introduces the next challenge-mathematical probability. He outlines a series of problems, and then gives the class time to work them out. At one point he interrupts his lecture to say, “You kids in the back of the room, quiet down!”

The final high point of the session is a practical demonstration of probability, with each of the students tossing coins and recording the heads-or-tails results. The class suddenly springs to life, with students tossing coins wildly. The teacher interjects, “You don’t have to flip them up to the ceiling to get results!” The teacher leaves the front of the room and watches the class from his desk located at one side of the room, and the students settle down to compute probability.

There are eight Natives scattered through this large class. In the early minutes of film all of them seem adjusting to this impersonal circumstance. There is no appreciable difference in their behavior, though the camera was unable to record clearly some of these students. One Native student did stand out immediately because of an extremely self-conscious manner. He was listening, but at the same time showed anxiety with a stiff posture and eyes that looked searchingly about him, as if in confusion or distraction.

General class behavior with the beginning of the coin tossing was social with joking and goofing. But as the problem deepened, students became increasingly absorbed. Heads dropped lower and body positions shifted to postures of absorbed thought and quandry. The Native students held on with no visible signs of lagging, except for the Indian boy at the back of the room. His head dropped lower and lower. His pencil hand was moving. He was struggling. Now his head dropped all the way in his arms and stayed there a long rime. When he straightened there was a noticeable change in expression. His face was angry, and after a bit his head sank down on his desk again.

A White boy next to this Indian at the far back of the room presented an extreme contrast in study behavior. This student had pushed his desk out and propped his feet up on another empty desk and settled himself in a half-reclining position, designed to give both comfort and a more absorbing approach to his copybook problem. He chewed his pencil, erased, chewed, scribbled, and gave an appearance of enthusiastic absorption with his mathematical riddle.

The Indian boy sat rigidly, not enjoying the situation, and when he did participate, it was with extreme effort as his body signaled slow defeat, finally sinking completely down on his desk. Indeed, this is a sample of one, but maybe it does describe how a Native student gives up.

Ninth Grade English

Ninth grade was held in the same room as eighth grade. It was appreciably smaller, about fifty-five students. Even more importantly, the challenge was very different. This class was not the intensely achieving circumstance that was observed in eighth-grade math. The subject was a technical review in grammatical construction and was demonstrational with a lowered demand on both concentration and cognition.

Film opens with the teacher not on a dias but speaking from a podium on the floor. This was not the regular teacher. The challenge for the class is chalked on the board: “The umpire insisting that his eye sight was excellent declined to reverse his decision-this to be punctuated, requiring an analysis of the various modifying words, phrases, and clauses. The teacher proceeds to ask questions about the sentence structure. There are answers from the floor and lots of apparent note taking.

A second challenge: “The filling mashed potatoes soaked in olive oil was not very tasty” More questions and answers, though this one was more complicated. It would appear that if your English had a weak structural background this lesson would have very little significance. On film the subject had little significance to anyone. Hence there was a general distraction and shared boredom that made recognition of Native behavior difficult.

But there were patterns in the room. The fifteen Native students were bunched together in twos and threes with at least two Natives sitting alone in the midst of White students. Native behavior was goofing around. Two Indian boys in the front row were handling the circumstance humorously, sharing jokes with their nearby White companions. Two Native girls in the far back rows conversed with each other, appeared as nonparticipants, and remained aloof from their surrounding White schoolmates. One Indian boy near the front on the far right responded with frowns that could be interpreted both as stress and disapproval, but doggedly held onto the lesson and was one of the most applied members of the class. A lone Indian girl dutifully made notes and listened intently with a calm look that might mean tolerance as well as boredom. At the end of the class time she walked slowly through the room with composure and dignity, avoiding and ignoring the students around her.

The teacher pushed his traditional grammar lesson hard and responded, when kids were overtly misbehaving, “I would like you to move up next to Momont, Mr. Christiansen, so you won’t have to worry about what’s going on outside!” At other times when responding or asking questions he called students by first name. In both classes teachers were laboring under established school culture, class size, and curriculum. They taught intensely but in the case of the grammar lesson, with futility. Nevertheless, these were typical circumstances that Native children must face when leaving the villages for congested city schools.

High School: Tenth Grade History

This was the end of our sample curve and our final opportunity to observe the welfare of Native students in White schools. The tenth grade was as contrasting to junior high as eighth grade was to elementary school, and offered us new perspectives. This tenth-grade world history class was held in the smallest room filmed anywhere in our survey, 30 feet by 30 feet, with an unusually small class of six Native and nine White students. There were two Indian girls and four Indian boys; the remainder were male Caucasians.

The teacher was friendly, outgoing, and self-confident and appeared responsive to her students. The subject of discussion was the Second World War. This should have been a conversational class, but it seemed to fall into the conventions already established in the schools at large: the teacher speaker, the student listener-despite efforts made to overcome this convention.

The film opens with a pleasant faced middle-aged woman standing in front of her desk answering students’ questions about the ending of the film they had been showed the day before.

“What happened at the end?”

“You mean yesterday?”


“Well, the British continued to resist. They didn’t give up. . . .”

By size and seating this class is ideal for give-and-take conversation. It is a question and answer class, and the tape records continuous talk by teacher and students. But when the film is viewed we see some students sitting silently throughout the session. A few vocal White students are doing most of the responding. On film, many hands are raised, wagged enthusiastically, but unrecognized, till arms would drop and bodies settle back into seats. Is the teacher preferential? Or simply unable to handle this rush of two-way communication?

The Indian girls never raised their hands. Many White boys raised theirs, though often they simply spoke without asking. Two Indian boys raised their hands but were not called on. One Indian boy in the front row did speak out eloquently without raising his hand, but his facial expression was angry, and his physical manner expressed defeat. He shook his head while speaking, then pursed his lips, and dropped his arms leadenly.

Not all the White students were involved. There were individuals who appeared as negative as any of the Indians. It was important that there were White “Natives” as well as Red Natives in this class. The Whites were covert in their rejection, with rigid, sometimes angry or simply blank expressions, and gave no visible signs of involvement. Their withdrawal was from school, whereas the Indians’ withdrawal was also from the White world that is the school; hence their frustration was more bitter.

The Indians began the class with a resigned restraint that the girls carried through to the end. But as the period lengthened the Indian boys’ expressed increased discomfort, and their resignation changed to overt resentment. Their manner fitted Harry Wolcott’s descriptive concept of the Indian child as a prisoner of war held captive in the classroom (Wolcott 1969). What can a prisoner of war learn from the enemy, the teacher? The Indian boys in the front row did not give up. They did not put their heads down on the desk like the boy in the eighth-grade math class. Their withdrawal was anger and militant distaste.

The view of the Anchorage schools gave perspective to the tundra school in Bethel with its relaxed pace and unthreatening curriculum. Intense effort went into the Anchorage high school. The achieving drive, the pressure of crowded space with its dominating White pace could be an extreme hardship for the Native student-and an insurmountable stress for many of them.

Were Native children suffering because of inferior educational foundations? Or were we observing an erosive process more pervasive than the schools themselves? Could education offset this assault on personality? Or was education the fatal agent that brought the destruction? Our thoughts go back to the tundra villages for educational renewal. What might avert the Native failures suggested in the urban school?



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
Questions or comments?
Last modified November 21, 2008