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Native Pathways to Education
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Alaskan Eskimo Education:

A Film Analysis of Cultural

Confrontation in the Schools 

5/The classrooms on film


This consolidated elementary and high school is housed under one roof and directed by one superintendent. Although there is a principal of elementary education and a principal of the high school, the joint effect on Eskimo education is genuinely that of one school.

Eighty-five percent of the student body is Eskimo, so in one sense it is an Eskimo extended community school. The other 15 percent, the White students, are largely marginal and migratory. Many are from temporary families involved in Fish and Game, Civil Aeronautics, Public Health, and the BIA. The few more stationary White families with schoolchildren are schoolteachers, ministers, town officials, and storekeepers. The presence of the White students offers us the opportunity to observe White-Eskimo relationships in education and suggests patterns of school integration where Eskimos can interact educationally with White students. It also reveals how teachers respond to both Eskimos and White students. Is there a preferential relationship? Does the small White minority in the student body make this state school appreciably different from a smaller model of a BIA Eskimo community school?

The Community as School

Eskimos are in Bethel for a range of reasons. First, Bethel must be viewed as an acculturation way-point out of Eskimo village culture into the world beyond. Second, Bethel symbolizes Eskimos’ efforts to meet modern economic change in the Arctic and to organize themselves in new associations capable of extending Eskimo solidarity into the economic future. Bethel is the site of the effectual Kuskokwim fishing cooperative. A construction company that builds model homes for Eskimos on the assembly line also has been training Natives in the construction trades under the Manpower Development Training Act.

Eskimos also come to Bethel to pursue education. Traditionally, Bethel has been the educational center for religious training by the Moravian Church. Now families move in from isolated villages so that their children can go through high school without leaving for distant BIA boarding schools.

Bethel has a large, permanent, urban Eskimo population involved in various job occupations and in some businesses. Eskimos work for the city, the BIA, the National Guard, Public Health, OEO, Fish and Game, Alaska Rural Development and VISTA programs, the municipal airport, and in all the various stores and commercial undertakings. One Eskimo family has a Standard Oil sales contract. Finally, Bethel has a blossoming relief community with an authentic Eskimo slum.

But Bethel is an Eskimo community variously affected by Eskimo life styles. Eskimo home clusters have the typical Eskimo bathhouses. A community hall regularly has Eskimo gatherings with Eskimo food and Eskimo drumming, singing, dancing, and mime acting entertainment. There is a large active Eskimo Dog Sled Racing Association, and aggressive membership in the Alaskan Native Association. Eskimo groups also carry out traditional salmon fishing through the summer months. Both the Cooperative and representatives of Seattle canneries buy tons of salmon every season.

The School as the Focal Point of Education

All this community environment in one way or another affects the total education of Bethel’s Eskimo children. But to what extent do all these heterogeneous community activities affect the school and in particular the teachers in the school?

Education as formal schooling was not much affected by Eskimo Bethel, for in so many ways the teachers were as isolated from the community as they were in the villages. Despite the fact that Bethel is a key hub of air transportation in the Arctic, with jet planes roaring in and out all day long; despite the fact that Bethel is an essential defense hub with a large armory that administers a multitude of National Guard centers; and despite the fact that outwardly Bethel is an Eskimo community as were the villages, Bethel is actually a White town administered essentially by and for White people. It is not an integrated community. Far from it. Bethel is broken down into not just one White compound that could be compared with the traditional BIA school compound, but five equally segregated White compounds, each essentially separate from the town of Bethel socially and geographically. The Public Health Hospital has its wholly separate, self-contained compound, an ex-radar site, four miles from town. The Fish and Game Commission and Civil Aeronautics Board each have their compounds three miles out on the tundra. And the school has its trailer-teacher compound behind the school a mile from the town’s commercial center. This means all these White therapeutic, educational, and bureaucratic operations have their walls of isolation from the Eskimo community that can be compared to those of the BIA village school.

Compound culture was constantly reinforced by the growing White specialist population and the nearly complete lack of housing in the town of Bethel. Here conditions spoke of the Alaska frontier with makeshift, unhygienic housing totally inappropriate to the needs of imported teachers, doctors, specialists, and administrators. So, in a sense, there had to be compounds, just as there had to be compounds in the villages, creating the same self-fulfilling isolation of teachers, nurses, and doctors as was observed in the BIA village schools.

Quite symbolically, one major reason not to live in Bethel proper, even when possible, was the town’s liquor store, which was essential to the economic wellbeing of the town through its contribution to taxes and equally essential to the White people in the compounds who needed both the tranquilization and the escape of alcohol. But at the same time “living downtown” was both unpleasant and “dangerous” because “there are so many drunk Eskimos.... Natives just don’t know how to handle liquor!”

Probably the most effectual school in Bethel was the Public Health Maternity Center that was located in the midst of Eskimo Bethel. Eskimo women would stay in this clinic for a few weeks before, as well as after, their babies were born. The home and clinic was a therapeutic-educational community directed by a PH nurse who did associate wholly, professionally, and humanly with Eskimos in this center.

The Bethel school, on the other hand, through numerous intents and defaults, was on the edge of the community. Eskimo children, as in the villages, left their shacks by the river and walked into a wholly contrasting life style designed to educate them for a successful future. But this future was White not Eskimo. There italics are not a value judgment that Eskimo life style is the only right style for Eskimos, but simply to define an alienation-communication problem that can beset the Eskimo child in this well-run and best-taught White school.

We will report on the school as one effort, singling out only special classes that seem to set the dimensions of the culture.


Film entry into the school was through the kindergarten. Here a career Alaska teacher past middle age directed a class of some twenty Eskimo and part-Eskimo children. Mrs. Kinderbelle was eager that I visit her class: “This is the day an Eskimo always comes and plays for our class so the children can dance.” I opened the door to loud electronic music and found an unsmiling Eskimo playing an electric guitar in front of a group of seated children. The children were separated by sexes, boys in the front row, girls in the back row; throughout the kindergarten filming, boys and girls continued to be separated whether sitting in rows or at tables. This was in contrast to both Head Start and prefirst in Kwethluk. One embarrassed boy was standing and supposedly dancing. To implement this, the teacher rook him forcibly by the shoulders and propelled him through a series of steps, while she-still grasping the boy-stomped and pirouetted to the music. Letting go, the teacher sat down with a little smile while the boy dragged his feet around the floor. His chore Over, he quickly returned to Mrs. Kinderbelle and received a chocolate that was the reward for dancing. Now two small girls were pushed into the room and, sucking fingers sheepishly, shuffled their feet. They, in turn, received the rewarding chocolates. This routine continued while the class sprawled in their seats, pretty much ignoring what was going on. The amplified music continued ceaselessly without any communication between the Eskimo musician, the children, or the teacher.

This routine was broken by recess time. Parkas were grabbed. Boys lined up on one side, girls in another line, ready to leave the room. At this point Mrs. Kinderbelle busied herself in a closet so that her back was turned. Suddenly several girls joined hands and began dancing. On film one can see that their whole bodies are involved, from light springing steps to rocking bodies to faces transfixed with delight. As suddenly as the teacher turned, saw the activity, and raised a finger, the dancing stopped, and the kids were back in line. Now the teacher took a position in front of the boys’ line and opened the gate for the girls to go out first. As if with freedom in sight, the girls literally bounded out of the door dancing and gesturing with delight. This behavior was not picked up by the boys, who shuffled out of the room without expression.

The class returned to a midmorning milk break and as if refreshed by the winter cold of the play yard, sat down with enthusiasm to eat pilot crackers and drink reconstituted milk. Again boys and girls were in separate parts of the room. On the part of the girls this was a refreshing change from the earlier class behavior. They gathered round their tables in congenial groups with much communication bodily and verbally, which seems spontaneous for Eskimo children. There were hugs and whispered messages. Then in a melodic unit one table of girls toasted each other with milk, touching glasses again and again, transformed into an intimate coordinating group reminiscent of Head Start in Kwethluk.

The boys in this class seemed more oppressed than the girls, but for both groups it was vividly clear that these children were turned off and even humiliated by Mrs. Kinderbelle. They were resisting communication between each other whenever the teacher exerted her leadership.

Kindergarten Music

Later the music teacher, director of the Bethel High School band, made his weekly visit to kindergarten to teach singing. Mr. Music was a tall, lanky man who literally towered over the little Eskimos seated on low stools, again in two rows. Mr. Music was a new teacher from the “Lower Forty-Eight,” charged with zeal and enthusiasm. “Old MacDonald had a farm. E-I, E-I, O,” was the theme today. With grimacing face and clowning hands the teacher acted out the words while singing the tune in a high nasal voice. The girls giggled and wagged their hands in response and a few actually carried the tune. The boys were less responsive, yawned, careened around in their chairs, while one boy made clowning grimaces himself, directed at the camera. When this boy wandered from his seat, Mr. Music pounced down from above and placed him solidly where he belonged and continued his “E-I, E-I, 0” routine. The students looked amused but on the whole just mystified.

Next came the alphabet song. Children in turn stood by an alphabet board, and while the group sang the familiar melody, which they seemed to have memorized, they pointed to the “A, B, C, D, E, F, G....” But there is a catch in this rhyme. When the child came to “Q, R, S, and . . .” he would point to the “T.” They knew the melody and the counting process, but they did not yet relate the names of the letters to the actual letters, nor did they realize that “and’ was not a letter name. Each time the teacher forcibly pointed the child’s finger at the right letter, the melody would break, the rhythm would be lost, and the child would complete the cycle in a perfunctory, crestfallen manner.

In this class we were constantly seeing teachers pouncing on the free-style behavior of children, shattering group solidarity and communication. Children were forced into isolated units of one, where they are both embarrassed and thwarted. Children were being forced to do this, forced to do that, and each time they would slump. We cannot forget the Head Start class with its rhythmic nursery rhymes with teacher and students acting out meanings together. Mr. Music was a very warm, well-meaning and dedicated teacher. He liked his job and renewed his contract, but he was unable to set up free two-way communication in this kindergarten. For one thing there was no way for Mr. Music to understand the style of Eskimo childhood and play rhymes, and he approached this class as if oblivious that his students were Eskimo.

Two First Grades

Two classes were filmed, and the contrasting background and performance of the two teachers may hold clues as to the character of teaching that Eskimo children respond to.

One first-grade teacher, Mrs. Bethel, was the wife of the school superintendent. She and her husband are very active in the Moravian Church and live in what used to be the Moravian Mission compound. Mrs. Bethel could be compared with Mrs. Pilot at Tuluksak, for both women approached their classroom with similar professionality, a scheme of teaching that begets orderly behavior, a high level of teacher direction, and a programmed procedure that is perfectible and predictable.

Communication in Mrs. Bethel’s class was freer than in the Tuluksak first grade but equally verbal. Mrs. Bethel did accomplish discipline. Students remained in their seats, and the teacher circulated around to them rather than having the students come freely to her. Much of her class was storytelling by phonograph record and illustrated from a picture book that she held on high and made a great effort for everyone to see. She also read a story and created a more intimate group than the record sequence. The students remained quite motionless before her in this group, of which Mrs. Bethel was physically a part. The group could have communicated to each other by touch but did not, nor did Mrs. Bethel touch the children. There was little body motion, but head focus did suggest listening.

Later an experimental group came from the seventh grade and played teacher. The room was broken down into small groups around upper classmen who directed various number and word games with cards. One ambitious Eskimo girl drew her group closely around her and communicated intensely-verbally and by eye and body signaling. This student-reaching-student situation radically changed the learning structure. Not only were small groups formed, but they tended to get down on the floor to sprawl in convenient perceptive and receptive positions. Space was radically adjusted for ideal communication. Both the student-teachers and the students communicated vividly and appeared excited by this unusual learning situation.

Mrs. Artist, the other first-grade teacher, was a long-rime resident of Alaska and Bethel. Her husband had once been a BIA teacher but was now a state representative from Bethel with a vested interest in Eskimo welfare. The couple had four daughters who had made close friends with Eskimos and who danced Eskimo dances with their Native friends at community gatherings. Mrs. Artist also was interested in art and drew and painted, herself.

It was immediately evident that Mrs. Artist was concerned about communication in her classroom. Desks were all facing each other in rows, presumably to increase the interaction between students in her room. Instead of facing the teacher, they faced each other.

The first minutes of film are not exceptional. The class was relaxed, busy, and responsive to the teacher and each other. But as the film continues a number of exceptional elements appear. One, the teacher rarely stands above her students, but works at eye level, very much the way that Mrs. Kweth worked with her class in Kwethluk. Second, Mrs. Artist rarely teaches to the whole group but rather to units of the class, which puts education not on a one-to-many but rather a one-to-a-few and many times a one-to-one communicating relationship. Third, the class did a lot more individually involved study. This means communication between the student and himself. This was dramatized by the class recess, during which a lone Eskimo boy worked on with pencil and notebook, oblivious of the departure of the class.

In Mrs. Pilot’s class in Tuluksak and in Mrs. Bethel’s first grade here, children were wholly absorbed with the teacher or else daydreaming. In Mrs. Artist’s class many students were wholly absorbed directly with the study at hand. Arid finally, body motion was free, as it was when the upper-grade students acted as teachers in Mrs. Bethel’s class. Body movement was not directionless contortions and fidgeting; body posture was directly related to attention on study tasks or adjusting for better reception. Rodin’s “Thinker” rests hand on chin-a thinking posture. Kids when turned on to tasks seek similar postures that affect circulation and intensity of concentration.

Mrs. Artist and her husband began teaching Eskimos in the villages, and she has retained this character of relationship in her classroom in Bethel.

Three Male Teachers: Two Fifth Grades and a Second Grade

As the proportion of Caucasian students to Eskimos increases, contrasting behavior became more evident. One second-grade and two fifth-grade classes compared also describe basic styles of education that succeed in turning Eskimo students on or turning them off. These three Bethel teachers presented similarities and contrasts that define one major teaching problem-how to relate to Native students. One of these fifth-grade teachers was on his first contract in Alaska, the other on his second, but neither appeared to have solved this challenge as yet. The second-grade teacher, on his third contract, had mastered this relating. He had taught in an Indian community in Southeast Alaska before coming to Bethel.

Mr. Foreman related to his fifth-grade class by assuming an aloof manner that justified distance and could be called “the shop foreman” approach. “Leave them on their own. They have their job to do and I have mine.” But at the same time he expects his workers to turn out perfect parts to specification. Mr. Foreman’s desk is behind his students in one rear corner, as if to say, “Don’t bother me with your personal problems-just get on with the production.” Do his worker-students mistrust him? There is an air of repression which inhibits students from communicating with one another or from peacefully settling down to their work, as if one ear were turned to the foreman and only part of their attention were on their work. Mr. Foreman feels he is a disciplined man who is treating his workers in a fair, realistic manner. Actually his position may have been one of great insecurity. He ran watch the students but they cannot watch him without turning around, which makes his desk a spy vantage point.

Curriculum content during the filming was a barrage of questions fired at the backs of the students: “How is a whale like a man?”-in an effort to elicit the logic of biological typology. Students do not have workbooks in front of them or assigned jobs, so that the teacher’s approach seemed defeating except in offering him a special role. Later, the material shifted to how words are put together- again, an open-ended, highly verbal approach without workbooks. Occasionally Mr. Foreman strolled out from his desk up and down the aisles, inspected the students’ progress, but rarely paused, and always returned to the security of his desk in the back of the room.

The results were chaotic, with a great deal of fidgeting and a very low communication back to the teacher. Because Mr. Foreman was also a disciplinarian, there was no communication or collaboration between students and there was a sense of tension that did not inspire independent student-to-himself thinking. Furthermore, with the high incidence of deafness among Eskimo children and inasmuch as all hard-of-hearing spontaneously lip-read, this behind-the-back supervision must have been a double hardship for some.

This teaching routine avoids the problem of relating to the Eskimo student, and Mr. Foreman appeared very thwarted, for his position made recognizing and communicating personally with his class impossible.

Mr. Professor, the second fifth-grade teacher, faced his class all the time in a standing position at the front of the room. He used a lecture and leading question approach on the subject of the geography and history of the Western Unite States-the last spike on the transcontinental railroad, the use of irrigation in the Imperial Valley, and so on. Though a surprising number of students do answer questions, the data sheets describe a yawning, fidgety class, many always looking down, with signals of very short attention span. Toward the end of class a student got up and left in the middle of the teacher’s question.

Mr. Professor’s classroom manner could be compared with that of the eighth-grade teacher in Kwethluk, who also lectured without moving from the front of the room. But there was a difference. In Kwethluk, Mr. Kweth appeared genuinely aware that he was teaching Eskimos, conducted the lessons on their terms, and got a turned-on class. Mr. Professor did not seem aware his students were Eskimos. He was teaching competently about White America as if to White children to whom it was familiar; it is amazing he got the response that he did. The four White children in his geography class seemed reasonably attentive, but he seemed unaware that most of his Eskimo students were distracted, apathetic, and continually yawning. Both these teachers were competent and dedicated. Both faced the same cultural barrier. Mr. Kweth, on his first Alaskan assignment, tried to cross it intellectually. Mr. Professor, who came to Alaska in 1960, appeared in this circumstance to ignore it. So we observe that despite years of teaching of Eskimo children, unless the culture chasm is recognized, it may never be effectually crossed.

What happens when a teacher crosses the frontier back into childhood? The film of Mr. Scout’s second-grade class was a record of teacher and students sharing a world together. An Eskimo world? Or just childhood? In terms of early childhood education it hardly matters. But, of course, the gulf between cultures had to be crossed, or the teacher could not have entered the children’s world.

The sound tape opens with a every high noise volume of children’s voices and the film records a pandemonium of contrasting activities that marks the end of a class period. Mr. Scout is calmly walking through his students to get his parka from the clothes rack. He cups his hands so he can be heard above the din: “Boys and girls, leave everything the way it is, because I have to go out to recess with you!” Winter clothing is put on, fur ruffs pulled about faces, and most of the class follows him out. But various students stay behind, too involved with tasks under way to stop. Also, snacks must be readied; paper cups, napkins, and pilot biscuits, passed around. A busy team is at work, pouring milk, arranging food-very self-contained and self-directed.

A second period begins with students munching pilot biscuits at their desks. “Now I am going to read you a story while you ear.” The story? The Husband Who Was to Mind the House. Mr. Scout settles himself comfortably in a chair at the head of the room to read, with appropriate gestures, this old classic of a husband’s trying to do his wife’s job, while the cow moos and the pig tips over the butter churn. Children munch and listen. Nothing very relevant here? Well, there was nothing particularly relevant in Old Mother Goose in the Kwethluk Head Start either.

In studying Mr. Scout’s class we are observing substance on the further side of relevance. The space surrounding this teacher and his class is closed space that contains both teacher and students.

Apparently there was more order and planning than the observer could pick up readily. After the story the teacher directed students, “Now the violet group may work on their story or stories,” and the class broke down in small units, violet, green, and so on. Each child knew what was expected of him.

There are also single students involved in their own tasks. A long roll of paper is rolled out on the floor and students continue writing and drawing. Mr. Scout moves from individual to individual, from group to group. He leans, over, sits down, touches, corrects, and moves on. Students run to him with papers. He pauses, ponders, gives criticism, settles down by another group of students. Studying the tape it becomes obvious that many projects are under way at various levels. This room feels like an ungraded room with everyone working at his own speed.

The teacher appears very relaxed, speaks in a conversational tone, gets down to eye level, and talks slowly to students. There are no signs of boredom, no yawning. Everyone is busy, and the room appears like a well-oiled machine with multiple parts all moving continuously, but with different functions and speeds.

Examining this class as communication, we find every variant means of communicating taking place. The teacher projects vividly to the whole class, verbally and nonverbally, to units of the class, and to individuals. Student-to-teacher communicating takes place verbally and by physical contact as was observed in Head Starr. The teacher clearly responds. He stops moving, leans down, touches sender, completes message, before he moves on. Students communicate together in study and creativity, sometimes in groups, sometimes one to one. And many students work alone, communicating with themselves, self-contained, oblivious of others.

How does this teacher relate? We observed him directing the Bethel Boy Scouts. Is this an empathetic, culturally determined activity-Boy Scouting? Mr. Scout went through the patriotic routines with dignity, but gently, and in talking scouting made no special concessions to his Eskimo troop for being Eskimo.

But looking deeper, we find that Mr. Scout likes children, and in turn likes Indian and Eskimo children. Their welfare consumes most of his professional and free rime. Mr. Scout was eased out of his first job in the state school system in an Indian community reportedly because he spent too much time with the Natives, often spending the weekend living with Indian family friends. This is very different from collecting harpoons and Eskimo masks. Maybe Mr. Scout does not need to collect these trophies, the main value of which is that they prove that the owner has made it to Alaska.

White Students in Eskimo Classes

There was one seventh-grade general science class that was about half Eskimo and half White. This class is the most confusing in the study, with free projective behavior of students that suggest some concise patterns separating Eskimo boys from White boys and Eskimo girls from White girls.

This class was taught by an empathetic teacher who had served in the Peace Corps and was one of three Bethel teachers who lived down in the village. Mr. Mike’s manner was permissive and relaxed, which added to the spontaneous groupings in this classroom.

The film opens with Mr. Mike preparing to carry out a chemical experiment, his desk at the front of the room but turned toward the right hand sector of the room away from the windows. Three Eskimo boys and one White boy sit on the far left by the windows, where it is literally impossible to watch the experiments at the teacher’s desk. Two other White boys sit ten feet or more away across from the Eskimos on seats near the back of the room. Three White girls and an Eskimo girl sit in rows to the right of the boys, and four Eskimo girls sit together along the wall. There is a lot of shifting around by White boys, but this is the general pattern.

The Eskimos and one White boy appear to have taken seats freely, outside the class, where participation is difficult or impossible. Though the White boy near the window moves during the filming, the Eskimos remain by the window.

The four White boys goof off all through class, shift about, and generally show little interest in the experiment. One White girl shows interest and makes notes, but the other three White girls show no interest at all. One polishes her nails, and one openly reads a sexy paperback novel. All the Eskimo girls seem involved in the experiment, watch the teacher’s lips, and make copious notes. The Eskimos by the window just sit, smile, and look out the window. The teacher ignores their presence and turns all his attention to the girls.

We feel the distraction in this room and the peculiar patterned behavior is related to the fifty-fifty Eskimo-White student body. The predominant Eskimo style fell off, and aggressive White male style began to intrude. This in turn affected the behavior of the White girls. The fifty-fifty division totally confused the programming of this class.

Special Education

Special Education for deaf and retarded children makes up a separate unit of the Bethel school. Here is a wholly different view of education that puts these Special Ed classes outside the conventions of White education for Native children.

There are no special opportunities for handicapped children in the villages, and the BIA boards Eskimo children in Bethel to take advantage of a rapidly growing program for handicapped children within the state consolidated school. There are four Special Ed classrooms and plans for immediate enlargement of the program, so great is the demand for such classes. Deafness is a major problem for Eskimo children because of an unexplained high incidence of punctured ear drums. Infections in babyhood are suspected of causing this handicap.

The research team unanimously rated Special Ed classes as the most effectual in the Bethel sample and felt they held significant approaches that could benefit education for all Eskimo children. This is not unrealistic. Attitudes essential in Special Education of the retarded and the deaf are by necessity directed to the welfare of the individual child. His emotional and intellectual welfare is the issue. Other conventional socioeconomic goals so emphasized in public education are of little importance to the disturbed or deaf child. His success as a human being is the achievement of educational development.

With this perspective, Eskimo children in Special Ed get the very attention they commonly fail to get in the regular classroom, where the compulsion to push the Native child into the economic system of the dominant society is so great that in the process the Eskimo child can be destroyed as a successful human being. The class for the deaf and the class for the retarded, each has a character of its own, but both classes seem designed to offer the maximum personality fulfillment of each student.

The Deaf Class Experience

The tape of the deaf class has few verbal communications between teacher and student, but the film shows fluent nonverbal relating that gives this class a rich sense of communication. Ironically there is more two-way communication in this handicapped class than in many of the “normal” classes of the BIA or the Bethel State school.

The teacher clearly stated that self-expression and communication were the goals of her class and that learning to speak English by mechanical phonetic training was not necessarily the most ideal goal accomplishment of her effort. “I want my children to enjoy communication in any medium they can develop.” We will look at the class in this frame of reference.

The room is informally broken up into activity-task areas, where children are pasting, coloring letters, drawing, writing, playing teacher-student in mini-study groups, mastering and using the filmstrip projector, or nursing a sick doll in a crib. The impression is that deaf Eskimo children are the most expressive, communicating, high-spirited children in the Bethel school. We go back to Head Start in Kwethluk to find such free-style, uninhibited interaction. As one researcher notes, “Expressive class with each child handling his own space and learning dexterity with equipment; a very human class with a young female teacher never in the way but available to show the way.”

Why must we go to a deaf class to find uninhibited outgoing Eskimo children? Their abilities appear not to be the result of education, but flowering because there was no formal education. Indeed, child for child they appeared more outgoing and intelligent, and to be creatively using their intelligence.

It was reported that in one deaf Special Ed class a teacher went on brief maternity leave, and the reason for the teacher’s absence was explained to the class. At once the class stopped all other pursuits and tended to the birth of the teacher’s baby. A doll was stuffed under a student’s skirt, she was laid on the floor, birth contractions began, and the baby was delivered. Nothing backward about these kids!

The students meet, the teacher’s goals. They are fulfilled and communicating vividly with one another. They work with the teacher, but are capable of working alone or of teaching each other or studying a phonetic chart under the direction of a fellow student. The teacher works with individual children and with small groups. The sense of instruction primarily seems to be giving momentum to the students and once they are rolling, the teacher moves to another child. Most of the communication is, of course, nonverbal, mixed with cries of pleasure and pain. The ingenuity of signaling must be in itself very educating.

The Retarded Class

The deaf class seemed intent on teaching deaf kids not to be handicapped, humanly and intellectually, by their deafness. The retarded class seemed equally intent on erasing the handicap of retardation. A measure of the teacher’s success was that, on film, the children do not appear retarded. In fact, this class visually expresses more outgoing sensitivity than those in many other classrooms we have filmed in Alaska.

The difference between this class and the class for the deaf is that in the latter there is more push toward objective education in reading, writing, and dexterity. As in the deaf class there is a wide range of age, from first- through third-grade age levels, which means that the teacher moves from an advanced skill level down onto the floor with kindergarten training for younger and severely retarded children.

There is a free flow of communication between students, verbally loud with sounds of glee, satisfaction, and anger, as well as much bodily communication, pulling, pushing, acting out. The teacher communicates verbally in a low tone and only rarely with an order to “stop,” “go,” or “sit down.” like the teacher in the deaf class, she was there when needed but rook a nonaggressive role in the classroom.

The retarded students themselves are more aggressive. There is lots of physical expression, lots of spirited touch, leading and pulling. The class rhythm was subdued at the start, but as the period moved on, activity increased its pace with exuberant action, play and running. Shoes were off; and barefooted or in stocking feet, the children began to flow ever faster around and around the room. The teacher took off her shoes and the class became one dancing-and-running community. There was no sign that the teacher tried to control the pace. Rather, she became part of the pace, so that the class was an exhilarating experience, so necessary maybe for these handicapped youngsters.

It is evident that these Special Ed classes are involved in personality development rather than in a learning conformity that stylized most other elementary schools. We ask: What would happen to learning pace if “normal” Bethel classes were as circulating and free as Special Ed? Would more be learned? Would students develop enthusiasm for school and learning? Of course the normal Bethel class contained up to thirty students while the Special Education classes were smaller. But I feel that the deeper difference lay in differing goals of development.

Bethel High School

The style of the Bethel High School is even more relaxed than the elementary school. There are poor, average, and a few outstanding classes-fewer really excellent classes than in elementary, but this is partly compensated for by a general cooperativeness of pleasant survival in the classroom. The often low expertise of the teachers is forgiven by the students, and the often low achievement of the students is equally forgiven by the teachers. Together they create an ideal climate for one type of development. This is true for the 85 percent Eskimo student body, for Eskimo students are given an opportunity to achieve in the White curriculum simply because stress is low and personality well-being and fulfillment high. We stress the relaxation because conventionally students in high school have more stress physiologically than in elementary school. Adolescent stress is barely visible in the Bethel High School classes. In Anchorage this situation is reversed.

The White students are swept along on this relaxed rhythm but often with benign boredom and only occasionally do they express their distaste for the provincialism of their Eskimo classmates. After all, most of the White students are as impermanent as the rest of the itinerant White population of Bethel. Many have come from academically superior schools and soon will be going out to the dominant school patterns of the “Lower Forty-Eight.”

This view is not simply an empirical impression but recognition of fluent visual patterns of behavior. Body relaxation is very general on the part of both students and teachers. Physical movements of the teacher at his desk or away from his desk are casual. Students come in and go out freely. Interpersonal communication in classrooms, student to student, is open and uninhibited, and even when interruptive causes no noticeable stress in most teachers. Students ignore lessons and busy themselves at other tasks shamelessly and happily. Even when classes are essentially negative, students sit peacefully. There are few facial signals of irritation, few overt signals of hostility. To us this symbolizes a receptive situation with minimal rejection, which may mean the school has in a nondirectional way developed a hospitable school culture. Is this the result of a studied scheme, a concrete philosophy? Or the result of a series of circumstances ushered together by the environment of Bethel? Certainly there were no bitter competitive ethnic conflicts. Forces conflicting with Eskimo well-being are so vast as to be abstract. The White population, broken down in its five compounds, is fed from without, directed from without. This makes its interaction in the Bethel community aloof or amused, and by default tolerant. Only the Moravian Church exerts objective pressure on the Bethel Eskimos, and this is barely reflected in the school.

A General Business Class

Mr. Business is representative of the relaxed Bethel High School faculty. I am sure he finds his tour of teaching in Alaska an amusing interlude but one likely to end soon. His cordial manner on film certainly reveals that he likes his students. His manner is leisurely and friendly in the classroom. His curriculum seems well organized and task-oriented, with texts and quizzes on his subject, General Business.

The film opens with Mr. Business seated comfortably talking about transportation and the highway system of California. He likens the California smog created by cars to smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. He gives the statistics of traffic death rolls. “Very heavy accidents take place just twenty-five miles from home.” He sketches the function of the American Automobile Association, how to read road maps, how not to park in a tow-away zone- “That will cost you twenty dollars!” Parking is very difficult in the business section. “How much do you suppose people pay to park in a lot for an hour? Ten dollars? Three dollars? Two dollars? Wrong. It costs 25¢ an hour! Now, study the California road map. How many gallons would it take to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles?” The tape is not entirely clear, but this is the drift.

The research team describes the class as sleepy and half-responding, though some do respond and ask questions. The verbal approach is given with a light touch, and such an approach might go over great with California boys and girls. Amazingly it did move the students to look at road maps, to measure, and to calculate. Mr. Business was a reasonable, communicating, well-meaning teacher. The. class accepted him and were unthreatened when they found the subject incomprehensible or just boring. They would simply yawn and converse with each other.

What might have happened in the class if air-miles to Kuskokwim villages, or gas-miles by snowmobile to Napaskiak, to Akiak, or to Akiachak were calculated? Or jet fuel between Bethel and Anchorage, and Anchorage and Seattle?

When Mr. Business stops lecturing, students appear more oriented to the learning task before them. Students group together, compare notes, communicate generally, and then bring papers directly to the teacher. Sometimes three or four students are at his desk. The scene is better. The teacher communicates, and students’ faces show renewed interest. Then the class curriculum shifts to mathematics, and the students work from prepared study material, again making occasional journeys to the teacher’s desk. The students seem far more involved in the math than in the AAA or roads in California. When Mr. Business demonstrates math on the board the students really give him attention.

General Science and Chemistry: An Eskimo Teacher

Does an Eskimo teacher change the pace of learning in the high school? Bethel High had one Eskimo teacher, a native of Bethel. Mr. Native is a smartly dressed slender man, looking very un-Eskimo in his business suit, dark-rimmed glasses and crew cut.

In his ninth-grade General Science class, Mr. Native sits at the head of a long table. One White girl, one Eskimo boy, and four Eskimo girls are grouped around the table as if in a seminar. Ten feet away is a second table with two White boys and one Eskimo boy. They appear detached from the activities of the larger group. The teacher reads from a text, first seated, then leaning over the book and resting on his arms, and finally stand, book in hand, as if addressing himself to the whole room.

The tape records Mr. Native reading monotonously from a text on vulcanology. As one researcher noted, he read “all the big words distinctly but as if he didn’t understand them.” Mr. Native was a university man, but he did have difficulty making this text alive, since he was just reading it. Lack of intonation and expressive pace made the text hard to understand, but each student was reading from his own identical text, as if the learning were putting the book to memory. After a bit, the students read in turn from the text in the monotonous manner so common in obligatory text recitation. Only the White girl appeared to relate to the subject matter and, with fluid hand gestures, enlarge on the account. No one else in the class had anything to add beyond the letter of the text, or any feeling to release about the creation of the earth. However, this is a universal theme, and certainly Eskimos have legends of creation, too.

At the other table all the boys are fashioning large drawings that consume the whole class period. Is the subject matter related ro the class subject, or are they just doodling? At one point, one of the boys also reads aloud from his text, but on finishing returns to his drawing. Mr. Native walks over and observes the activities, asks a few questions, and returns to his seminar group. He seems unconcerned what is going on at the table with one Eskimo and two White boys.

Three times the teacher left the room abruptly, and there was a slight change behavior: more talking together and the like. One of the boys who was drawing shouted across to the long table. Suddenly the teacher returned. Again there was little change. Noise tapered off slowly into the leisurely, contained pace that characterized this class and possibly many classes in Bethel High.

Data sheets on this class are confusing. There was a question as to what really was happening. Researchers are not in agreement over the function of the class.

A second film, of Mr. Native teaching a tenth-grade chemistry class, is also enigmatic. One data sheet stares, “This is an elite class that needs the barest of direction.” Another: “Motivated to study because they need this course to get into college.” Compared to the general science class, we see many of the same features. The students relate to their teacher humanly, and are disciplined in their behavior. But Mr. Native gives very little of himself. There seems a wall of quiet around the teacher that is hard to penetrate.

The film opens on what is essentially a study period. Students are writing up notes and personally asking the teacher about elements of their written assignments. There are three groups, two standing clustered around circular laboratory stands and one-a group of four girls-working at a table. There are two White boys at the central table and one White girl. Mr. Native is at his desk looking through papers. The students are all quietly involved in their tasks, writing in their notebooks, discussing freely with one another, presumably talking about the experiments. One writes, moves to the teacher’s desk, and talks a long time with the teacher. An Eskimo boy joins him. The teacher follows the White boy back to his table, moves on over to the four girls, briefly pauses; and returns to his desk.

Now the teacher leaves the room again and a level of free association begins to develop. The girls at the table begin talking animatedly not about chemistry. The boys at the table move around, and a very relaxed and social air filled the room. The teacher returns, but the general animation continues. Mr. Native smiles on the students sympathetically, opens a text book for a questioning student, and the repetitious round of behavior continues to the end of the session.

Considering our proposition that education takes place within communication both of Mr. Native’s classes had free-flowing student-to-student communication. And certainly the boys’ free drawing could have been a communication with self. Hence, one level of education could have been going well in these classes. Mr. Native did free the classes for their own style of involvement. But what did the teacher contribute beyond this freedom? On film we observed no intense one-to-many or one-to-one teacher communication, as was observed so richly in Mr. Scout’s second-grade class. There did not appear to be any special social relationship between Mr. Native and his Eskimo students. In fact, his longest communication was with a White student.

Possibly Mr. Native was very self-conscious at being filmed, though there seemed to be little change in his general mien before and after the filming. Close study of the film reveals a certain ambivalence, possibly relating to his role as a Native-born Eskimo teacher instructing in his own hometown. Mr. Native did not renew his contract in Bethel and sought assignment elsewhere. In our conclusions we will consider further this phenomenon of the “Native teacher.”

Beyond the teacher’s performance, we have an equally significant performance of ninth- and tenth-grade Eskimo and White students interacting with one another. There was literally little difference among these ethnic groups. Eskimo and White blended together in one classroom culture, which further illustrates the openness of the Bethel High School, where Eskimo pace appeared to dominate the atmosphere.

Two English Classes

Miss Vista teaches freshman English, Mr. Poet teaches tenth-grade English. Between them they span a wide range of teaching styles in the Bethel High School.

Miss Vista had come to the Kuskokwim for VISTA and spent a year at the tundra village of Akiachak. When her tour of duty was over, she accepted a job at Bethel High. Her class was held in the same room as that of General Business, which is set up for teaching typing and not for a circulating classroom with flowing interpersonal communication.

The film opens with Miss Vista talking by her desk to a subdued classroom. Her theme: Words-what they are and how to use them. Students are directed to create dramas in the class to check the use of words. “Give your attention to the people acting just the way you would like them to listen to you!”

With this introduction there is much moving around, students forming a group in a corner, and the general behavior of the class changes radically. Students sit forward. Eyes are brought in focus, and there is a sense of expectancy. A series of dramas unfold-rather wild, much running in from the wings, as it were, and hilarious responses from the class. Miss Vista takes a stand to one side of the class, as if turning the period over to the students. Her communications are lowered to a direction here and there, whereas student-to-student communication greatly increases. The students were nonverbally grasping the conceptual verbal character of words, probably an approach that should have been used in first and second grade. The class has five or more White students, and they appear equally drawn into the learning action. Had a year in Akiachak village sharpened Miss Vista’s approach? Later we filmed a large grammar class in Anchorage where no one was drawn into the learning action.

In contrast to this class is the tenth-grade English class taught by Mr. Poetry. Figuratively, and perhaps actually, this is a film revealing the gap between the White teacher and the Eskimo students. The striking character of this class is its use of space. The teacher sits alone on a chair at the front of the room. Two Eskimo girls sit alone in the far left corner. Two Eskimo boys and one White boy sit centrally in the back. Two White boys and one Eskimo sit by the window on the far right. Thus, all the eight students are seated against the wall at the back of the room or directly along the window at one side. “Sitting by the windows,” we have observed in Bethel and elsewhere, is one way to withdraw, as if out the window.

Here is a class with only eight students, a small, conversational, group opportunity. But the teacher’s approach to the space is as if he had a large class sitting in the rows of empty chairs. Is he unaware that he had only eight students? Is the small group a challenge that can be avoided here only by retaining a safety belt of space between himself and his students? Whatever the reason, what appears as an elite, small, upper-class seminar is run like a large, impersonal class.

The subject of discussion is the symbolic meaning of an English poem-a proper seminar subject-over the 20-foot gap of the empty chairs. Questions are not directed to individuals but toward all the empty chairs. Intimacy of communication is avoided completely. The film records very little communication from the class. The tape records responses given, but apparently these are given so impersonally as to be almost invisible on the film. The two Eskimo girls are silent throughout. One Eskimo boy in the middle communicates visibly. One White boy by the window communicates visibly. Interaction in the class is a racial balance of boredom.

The Reprobate Teacher

The Bethel High School had its rebel, Mr. Flash, the bearded Algebra teacher. Mr. Flash came from the “Lower Forty-Eight” charged with rebellion and at once sand-bagged his classroom, ready for attack. The principal of the high school was a disciplined, orderly man who liked control. Mr. Flash disrupted the calm of the principal’s life. Mr. Flash despised the compounds and lived by the river with a VISTA worker; his quarters were frequently full of both Eskimo and White students.

Mr. Flash believes in total educational freedom and considers the Bethel High School a prison destroying young minds. Flash set forth to free the prisoners. I am sure the school superintendent also was upset by Flash’s war on education, but he harbored as well a secret admiration for dissent and always stopped short of firing him.

Here was Summerhill on the Kuskokwim. What could the most revolutionary educational approach do for the Eskimo student? Mr. Flash runs his classroom on a one-to-one level. He despises lecturing in any form and feels students should be free to reject the curriculum at any time and leave the room. No attendance is asked. All that he seeks from his students is integrity of self-possession.

The film opens on a class predominantly Eskimo. Fifteen students are scattered about the room, hunched over papers and books. Mr. Flash is demonstrating a mathematical process to interested students, his back turned to the class at large. During this chalk-talk, three students get up and leave the room after signing their names on the blackboard. They have left for study in the library. Now Mr. Flash leaves the board and leans over a lone Eskimo working on a problem at his desk. The communication is intense. In the meantime more students sign their names and leave.

Now Mr. Flash moves over to a group by the window, and the camera records the most intense teacher-to-student communication in the whole high school sample. Students are equally communicating with the teacher and the conversation is totally about mathematics. More students leave for the library. Finally the room is half empty, but those who are left are not gossiping with one another but are wholly and individually absorbed in algebra.

Surprisingly Mr. Flash turns out to be classical in his approach to his subject, mathematics, and he communicates this field with enthusiasm to his students. But all communications are about math. After from half to two thirds of his students have been cleared out, the camera records the most subject-involved, intense class in the school. Communication from the teacher is on an intensely personal level and mature in content. He expects his students to be turned on by algebra, and those who stay are. One of our data sheets reads, “The teacher is into math, and the students are going into it too.” The teacher’s concentration and interest in his subject have this effect. Students have freedom, but with a purpose-as traditional as this may sound.

Apparently the students do respond to motivation. Mr. Flash carried the students beyond relaxation, and a few genuinely accepted the disciplined challenge of mathematics. But Mr. Flash was not rehired for the next year. . . .

Postscript: A Visit of Students from St. Mary’s High School on the Yukon

One educational event gave perspective on the Bethel High School and helped define both its weakness and its potential. This event was the homeward-bound visit of a group of high school seniors from St. Mary’s High School, fifteen air-minutes west of Bethel on the lower Yukon.

St. Mary’s is a Catholic school with about a hundred students and has been established for some rime, but in the last few years it has apparently undergone major changes that are having reverberations in the Eskimo community of Bethel. The best Native dancers traditionally come from the Yukon, and the area is spoken of as having a special vitality of Eskimo culture. A French Franciscan priest recently took over the superintendency of St. Mary’s, and whether it was because of the high cultural vitality of the Yukon or because this priest realized the value of increasing Native cultural energy, the school was reorganized around Eskimo cultural determination.

Maybe there is a conflict and competition here in religious proselytization and zeal by differing groups, such as is seen in our southwestern states, where the Catholic Church sees its anchor to be in Indian ceremonialism, in opposition to the more fundamentalist Protestant groups who feel all Indian religious culture is heathenish and the tool of the devil. The Moravian missions made a strong stand on this latter belief and have largely stamped out Native ceremonial culture in the Kuskokwim villages. The Catholic priest saw zeal and religious strength in Native culture and proceeded to introduce bilingualism and biculturalism into his school. Eskimo dancing was taught in the high school by Native teachers. Anthropology was taught on all grade levels through assistance from the University of Alaska.

Now the St. Mary’s seniors came to Bethel to entertain the Bethel High School classes. The event was the triumphal return of the senior class from a visit to Juneau, where they had danced for the governor of Alaska. Their visit to Bethel was to give an account of this cultural mission to educate the governor in the cultural vitality of the Yukon Eskimos.

The film opens on a double classroom that is commonly used for such large gatherings. Every high school student is there, White and Eskimo, and all the high school teachers are there to note the progress of the St. Mary’s students. The first observation shows that White students are sitting in a loose group to one side. The rest of the room is occupied by Eskimo students, while the teachers stand by the doors. The St. Mary’s students are seated around one long table near the window; there is considerable open space around them that puts them “on stage.”

One by one, speaking through a mike, the students address the whole assembly in clear, spirited English with accounts that send the Bethel Eskimos into roars of laughter and bring mystified looks to many of the Bethel teachers. As one teacher was heard to say, “These kids have had an education! We can’t get our boys to speak like that!” Both boys and girls from St. Mary’s spoke out fluently with beaming and confident faces. The miracle of education has come to Bethel, and apparently we are seeing the practical effects of a culturally determined school that is trying to build on the very foundations that the Kuskokwim schools are either ignoring, educating away from or educating against.

This occasion also measured the results of a culturally relevant curriculum. While the Bethel Eskimo seniors were responding so positively to the St. Mary’s students, the few White students formed a bored clique. There were aggressive signals of rejection, yawns, hand signals of distaste, and open ignoring of the program by reading American hot-rod magazines.



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Last modified November 21, 2008