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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
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Alaskan Eskimo Education:

A Film Analysis of Cultural

Confrontation in the Schools 

2/Eskimos and White men on the Kuskokwim


My search into the history of the Kuskokwim River Eskimos has been directed toward understanding the continuity that is so essential to the development of any people. In this approach of ethnography and history I share the view that education is a continuing process-out of the past, through the present and into the future. Hence lifeways and sequences of acculturation seem the place to start in considering education for the Native American.

The nature of White contact with Eskimos, or other Native people, holds important clues to education and acculturation. School is a major acculturative experience where Native children, or any children, learn to adjust and cope with the imposing world. For Eskimos, or Indians, Afro-Americans or Puerto Ricans, wherever an ethnic minority confronts a significantly different majority, this movement away from ethnic self is an experience that either can give essential cultural perspective or can assimilate the child into ineffectual oblivion. Blindness to Native history and insensitivity to Native self cut a deep chasm between the White teacher and his Eskimo students, a space that education too often fails to cross. This account of White-Eskimo relationships, past and present, is a description of this gulf that for two centuries has separated White men from Eskimos.

I am concerned specifically with the Eskimos living on the waterways of the Kuskokwim River in West Central Alaska. The material is based on my experiences on the Kuskokwim in the spring of 1969 and on four books that represent source accounts of this isolated Eskimo environment. Early history has been drawn from Lieutenant Zagoskin’s Travels in Russian America, 1842-1844 and from Wendell H. Oswalt’s analysis of the chronicles of the Moravians in the region, Mission of Change in Alaska, supplemented by a missionary’s personal account, Anna B. Schwalbe’s Dayspring on the Kuskokwim. For contemporary ethnography I have drawn from Oswalt’s Napaskiak: An Alaskan Eskimo Community, a detailed study of a Kuskokwim village distinctly comparable to those in which I worked. This range of observation-Russian trader, Moravian missionaries, a modern ethnographer, and finally the contemporary state, mission, and BIA school personnel with whom I talked-gives us a view of Eskimos as seen through White eyes.

Prehistory of the Kuskokwim is barely known, though archeological surveys show contemporary villages were lived in before the first exploring White men. For hundreds of years Yuk-speaking Eskimo have lived in the tundra of the Kuskokwim Basin, fishing for salmon, gathering berries, hunting moose, bear, deer, and small game for food, sharing both dialect and culture with the Eskimos in the southern reaches of the Yukon. Both groups are surprisingly similar to the traditional maritime Eskimos living northward along the Bering Sea. Though the Yuk dialect would not be understood in Kotzebue and Nome, the music, drumming, and dancing are essentially the same. Despite centuries in the Alaskan interior, the Kuskokwim people are still ocean-oriented, with a strong relation to the sea a hundred miles westward. Seal oil and meat are still the “soul foods,” and mukluks are made from seal and walrus skins. Until a decade ago they hunted from traditional walrus skin kayaks, and two decades ago they lived in sod houses similar to dwellings still used along the coast. Their courage, laughter, and philosophy-and their tenacious skill with outboard motors and snowmobiles-are typically Eskimo.

Travelers, explorers, and more recently anthropologists have consistently admired the resourcefulness and survival intelligence of the Eskimos. Their uniqueness built no great architecture; for most traditional Eskimo housing, as seen in White men’s eyes, appeared temporary. Building materials were scarce on the coast and tundra. Though life was migratory in the search for food, with dispersed hunting camps as well as villages, the character of life was social. The wealth of the Eskimo cannot be found in material culture; rather the richness was represented by courageous and skilled performance, intense self-respect and self-determination. Accounts of Eskimo culture throughout the Arctic all tell of severe limitations of life that we today call extreme deprivation. Out of severe limitation and struggle for survival the Eskimo personality was cast and a ceremonial culture was created.

The peoples of the world have always faced ecological challenges of survival- heat, cold, extremes of moisture and aridity. Out of such circumstances were created lifeways of hunting, gathering, fishing, or farming. Values of competition and cooperation, patterns of families and communities, and political, moral, and religious systems were created. When all these climes and circumstances are viewed, it is not clear that men form similar attitudes in response to similar environments. Writers like Ruth Benedict in dealing with personality point out that culture is also arbitrary, a result of choices of how to deal with environmental circumstances. Thus, the Athabascan Indians a hundred miles further inland faced an environment similar to that of the river Eskimos, but these two peoples have very distinct life styles and attitudes. The Kuskokwim people from earliest description have sustained a communal village style of culture. They could have broken down into extended family groups and lived in smaller bands as did the Athabascans, but they chose to be together. From the earliest observation their life has been village-centered, social, and family-involved. This characteristic is as true today as it was 150 years ago.

What was it like on the Kuskokwim in the 1840s? And what is it like today? How has White judgment of Eskimo life changed in the intervening 130 years? The observations of Lieutenant Zagoskin give us a baseline from which to work forward (Michael 1967).

Zagoskin observed that the Eskimos chose a social structure with maximum equality and minimal authority. Though they may have appeared as “children” in Western eyes, they were recognized as considerate with a highly socialized sense of individual well-being. Interpersonal concern was cited many times in Zagoskins writings. Overt criticism or ordering other people to do service was avoided. Oswalt observed instances of this nature in the 1950s. So, in the face of extreme circumstances of limitation and sometimes starvation, the Kuskokwim people built a culture of remarkable sensitivity. Among other primitive” people who are credited with a high degree of interpersonal refinement, we are reminded of Theodora Kroeber’s story of Ishi, and of John Marshall’s films and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s writings on the Kalahari Bushmen.

The center of all ceremony, communication, and general education in the old days was the kashgee or kazhim, a spacious earth-covered structure which was the men’s communal house.1 Describing a twenty-four-day period in an Eskimo community, Zagoskin starts and finishes his account in this central dwelling. The kashgee could be compared to the Southwest kiva, where in archeological times a whole pueblo might gather for special ceremony (for example, the Great Kiva in the ruins at Aztec, New Mexico). In some villages the kashgee could accommodate 500 people, indeed all the villagers and guests from other communities.

This focal point of sociability and ceremony was also a ceremonial bathhouse for the men. Cleanliness may have been a basic purpose, but more, the bath was a time for men to socialize and to test their endurance for places of prestige. As if in balance with enduring bitter cold, the kashgee was a place to bear unendurable heat. Men of the village gathered round a snapping sprucewood bonfire with choking smoke that filled the kashgee before finding its way out the smoke hole. The room had tiers of benches, and while adolescents crouched on the floor, the strongest men suffered the heat from the highest tier where the smoke and heat were intense. Wads of shredded wood would be held to the mouth to filter out the smoke, and the endurance bath would proceed till, one by one, the men would crawl out or be carried out into the snow.

The kashgee was chiefly a dwelling place for men and boys, and here the mystique of the culture was passed on. Here travelers from afar were given lodging, food, and entertainment. Home was described as elsewhere, in other smaller earth-covered dwellings. Men might bathe, visit, and doze till past midnight, and then slip away to join their wives or keep clandestine rendezvous. The organizing process of the kashgee continued up to the proselytizing of the Moravians, which succeeded finally in undermining its function forever.

Russian enterprise had begun in the Aleutians and Kodiak Island in 1741. In the following century Russia established the fur trade in Alaska and finally as far south as California. The first Russian explorers, fur traders and imperialists, were familiar with the steppes and forested wilderness of Siberia where standards of life were not so different from those of the Eskimos. For sheer survival the Russians had to accept many Eskimo standards, foods, and technology, or perish.

There is little account of Russian women in the early decades in Alaska, and there was a generous intermingling and marriage with Native women. By the time the Russian American Fur Company penetrated the Kuskokwim in the early 1800s, a large part of the company personnel was “Creole,” which in the Alaskan context means Russian mixed with Aleut, Indian, or Eskimo. The most successful manager was himself a Creole. Thus, relations with the Eskimos in this period were far more relaxed for the Russians than for the Moravian missionaries who came later.

The Russian traveler, Lieutenant Lavrentiy Alekseyevich Zagoskin, who came to the Yukon and Kuskokwim on a tour of inspection in 1842, found the Kuskokwim Eskimos living on the edge of hunger and sometimes starving, so severe were the long winters. Leaving marine hunting grounds, where some sea mammals are available year round, may have posed subsistence problems for the river Eskimos. They had come inland because of stable salmon fishing and had learned to exist on fish. But salmon fishing techniques were not so efficient as today. And what happened if the fishing harvest had been small, or if for some reason a cache were destroyed, or if spring were too long in coming? The vast tundra offered little other food that could support a sedentary population. Large animals, moose, bear, and caribou could not be depended upon; they ranged too widely. Caribou herds moved fast and could disappear in the night, and the river Eskimos lacked the technology for inland hunting in winter. Through the long winters and into the spring when fish supplies ran low, there was hunger in the river communities. The winter solstice ceremonies of many northern peoples describe the hardships of winter hunger. So often the legend is the same, whether this be the premedieval Santa Lucia ceremony of Sweden or the winter solstice deer dance of the Pueblo Indians. The village is starving, the snow too deep for hunting, stored foods have run low. Then a miracle saves families from starvation. In Sweden it is a Viking ship coming across the waters loaded with food. In Taos Indian pueblo in New Mexico it is the charming of the deer by two deer mothers who lure the game to the village.

Much of Zagoskin’s account is of mutually shared hardship. The Russian post and the Eskimo villagers together had difficulty surviving on the limited game in the area, particularly through the last terrible weeks of winter, when dried fish supplies were depleted and travel to hunt for game became ever more perilous as spring approached and the river ice grew more rotten. Even today a delayed spring is a lean time as stores run low. The Kuskokwim posts were marginal operations, with only limited support from the Russian American Fur Company whose headquarters were far off at the mouth of the Yukon. Russian traders and Eskimos alike had to exist on occasional birds, rabbits, or other small game, though the Russians with guns could apparently hunt game that the Eskimos were unable to bring down either with snares or bow and arrows. Zagoskin’s journal describes these days:

April 17th. Murky; occasionally fine snow; a fresh north by northeast wind until noon; in the evening a south by southeast wind with light rain squalls.
In the evening one of the returning hunters delighted us. He and the Tungus
{shamans} had succeeded in shooting two deer and in capturing three bear cubs; the she-bear had run away. It is strange that she decided to leave the cubs. The tundra is almost entirely clear of snow. The dogs are exhausted and the loaded sled is stuck in an overflowing draw about 3 miles from the fort. The hunter has come for help. Who would refuse a piece of good meat!

April 18. Murky and a fine snow in the morning; a gentle west wind. Slightly cloudy in the afternoon, gentle north by northeast wind.
Of the 5 puds {pud, a Russian measure weighing 36.11 pounds} and 35 pounds of deer meat, the men at the fort were given 2 puds and 12 pounds. Thus it came about that we helped those who were supposed to help us; praise God, but without a reliable weapon I would have not agreed to survey the Kuskokwim. . .
In place of fresh fish, which has not been caught since the 16th, the natives are cooking dressed sealskin and the bladders, which are empty of fat. Occasionally someone gets a grouse, someone else a duck, the lucky ones a goose. All of this food is given to the children (Michael 1967:257).

There are accounts of Russian ruthlessness and insensitivity to the Natives and their ecology. There are stories of cruelty and massacres of Natives in the Aleutians. But by the time the Russian American Fur Company penetrated the Kuskokwim, the great wilderness and the need of collaboration with Indians and Eskimos greatly modified their behavior. Their dealings with the Kuskokwim Eskimos were inept but friendly. As stated, they “starved together” when hunger stalked the river. The accompanying Orthodox priests were generally benign and made little inroads on the ethnic well-being of the Eskimos. Lieutenant Zagoskin, representing the Czar and the Russian American Fur Company, laid down in his report what might be considered the guidelines of protocol between the traders and the Eskimos.

In conclusion let me repeat that whether our trade flourishes or diminishes in this region depends enormously on the ability and good intentions of the man in charge of the post. The native is very appreciative of kind treatment. He sometimes finds himself in need of certain things for which he is unable to pay, but no credit is extended. But if the man in charge handles his affairs in this way, the take in furs will not cover his expenses. Similarly his profit will be small if he plays the gentleman, as is done, for example, at Fort St. Michael, and does not allow anyone in his room. Lukin has always kept open house; we have often seen a dozen natives in his little room who will wait silently for days at a time until he returns from his work in the woods or at the fish-trap. If guests arrive at meal-time, the piece of yukola {dried fish} and the teapot of “colonial” tea are divided among those present. As he knows their customs well, he never asks who a visitor is or for what purpose he has come (Michael 1967:255).

The protocol of the Russian American Fur Company was considerably more formal, but also reflected the human necessity for genuine collaboration with the Eskimos. The very survival of their enterprise depended upon this. Zagoskin reports in his journal the company’s instructions to Lukin, manager of the post on the Kuskokwim:

In the four villages nearest to the Khulitna, as I have designated, inform my friends and acquaintances that I wish them to be toyons {tribal elders, term brought from Siberia; elders from each village who were appointed overseers by Russian American Fur Company were called toyon.} (Michael 1967:332) in those villages, and to have honor and fame from God and our beloved Commander-in-Chief. I beg you to receive them as trusted friends, diligent in the interests of the Company, with their loyal relations and close comrades, and to procure medals for them, and for them to be loyal subjects of our tsar Nicholas Pavlovich (Michael 1967:285).

From the first contact in the 1700s the Russians were involved in educating Native Americans. The White man with his superior sophistication readily assumes the role of teacher to the Native. Zagoskin was no exception, and he made some significant observations on the educational effect of removing Natives from their environment to a role in the larger Russian posts. Zagoskin observed that Creoles growing up in the relatively civilized atmosphere of the posts were not as effective as those living in the bush.

One has to admit that in practical experience all Creoles living in the outlying division far surpass their fellows who have grown up in the principal settlements of our colonies. This is only natural. From the time he is small, the Creole in the hinterland is trained to work and by his native keenness of wit and alertness he develops into a bold hunter who is resourceful in the emergencies that frequently arise (Michael 1967:262).

This observation refers to the Creole, but with Native Eskimos the principle
remains the same. Zagoskin complained that Native girls who married into the
settlements learned to dance European steps and adjusted to a life of relative
leisure, but they gave up their Native skills and ability to work. The ineptness of Native girls gone civilized in the Russian settlements was so disturbing that in 1837 a women’s training school was founded under the auspices of the wife of the
commander-in-chief of the colonies. The goal of the school was “to provide well-brought-up and industrious housewives for the growing generation of Creoles,”
who must have represented the expanding population of Russian America. Zagoskin observed,

At present each pupil learns to sew and to dress birdskins and to make rain-
parkas, to weave various household articles such as mats and others of grass and various roots-all things highly useful to women who intend sharing their husband’s work in their homeland (Michael 1967:301).

This is a far cry from a Home Economics class today in Bethel High School. In 1837 the Russians were willing to skip European academics and elegance for education to live in the Arctic ecology.

Zagoskin as a White teacher was critical of the educational attitude of some of his Russian colleagues. Commenting on company employees who exploited the credulity of the Eskimos to represent advanced technology as magic, Zagoskin says:

In showing them my watch, the compass needle, the force of gunpowder, etc., I tried as much as possible to acquaint the native with the structure and use of these objects. I explained to them that this is all the result of the cleverness of man, and that they too, if they wished, could learn to do likewise (Michael 1967:108, 292).

Zagoskin also observed some of the pathos of the shift from subsistence to trapping for trade goods after watching Upper Kuskokwim Eskimos trade within an hour 164 beaver pelts, 4 otter, 2 deer, and 2 black bear skins for a handful of trinkets.

Each one covered his head with a blue cloth cap with red piping, and laid in a
year’s supply of tobacco, beads, flint, and sealskin thongs for taking deer. . .
The carefree children of the North dressed themselves up and started to dance.

We must recall that a beaver pelt is of no value in the eyes of the native. He kills the heaver for its meat, but only uses the hide as a last resort to make socks, or thongs for deer nooses. We must remember that 10 years ago we found this native with a stone ax, bone needles, in a cold beaver-skin parka, starting a fire by rubbing together two wooden sticks, and without any practical domestic utensils. We must not judge too harshly the fact that he sometimes exchanges what is of no use to himself for something which has little in our eyes. The northern native needs education as does a child; his education depends on us. At the present time his prosperity on earth depends on the possession of a gun and 10 rows of potatoes. This could be achieved with comparative ease (Michael 1967: 269-270). 2

Here White education began. What did the Eskimo need then for survival, and what does the Eskimo need now? Can we say today with any conviction that the problems and the solutions are appreciably different from those the Russian lieutenant analyzed 130 years ago?

The Russian influence, ending in 1867, appeared to have effected little change in Kuskokwim culture in terms of subsistence, technology, or hygiene. The stability of the Eskimo life style in this period is partly explained by the survival balance of fishing. The Russians introduced firearms, which broadened the survival base, and they introduced a trading economy based on currency in the form of beaver pelts. Certainly hunting beaver for trade, trapping for trade goods rather than for food, tipped the Eskimo’s ecological relationships and drastically altered many associations. But apparently these did not disturb the balance of the fishing economy. Salmon was the reason for the Eskimo’s presence on the Kuskokwim, and even today salmon remains the ecological hub of survival. This is in contrast to the experience of inland Eskimos in the Hudson Bay region who died away completely after the Hudson Bay Company lured them away from caribou hunting to trap for the company; then when the fur market collapsed, these Eskimos were technologically unable to return to caribou hunting, and in a short time the group perished.

The Russians were the Eskimos’ first White teachers. Significantly they had made the Kuskokwim Eskimos aware of the surrounding White world with its exotic wares, concepts of improved living conditions, and an image of Christianity. The Russian priests taught the Natives the litany of the Russian Orthodox religion and some aspects of Christian morality. They were permissive teachers; the few demands they made on the Eskimos were essentially ceremonial-that they cross themselves, learn the chants, and attend to the ornate Orthodox calendar. In a real sense the Russian Orthodox missions turned ceremony over to the Eskimos, for so rarely were priests able to visit the villages. When the Russian empire withdrew Orthodoxy remained, mystically absorbed into Eskimo ceremony.


The sale of Alaska to the United States only briefly interrupted the fur trade, since an American receiving company took over the crumbling assets of the Russian American Fur Company. But it was almost two decades before a new and different American influence entered the area: missionaries from the Moravian Church, an Evangelical Protestant sect which had been founded in Bethelem, Pennsylvania, in the early eighteenth century and which had long been active in the mission field among American Indians.

Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian educator and reformer, first drew the attention of the Moravians to the Kuskokwim as a new field worthy of their zeal. Traveling in Alaska in the l870s, Jackson became greatly concerned about conditions of Eskimo life, by poverty and squalor and what he considered moral degeneration, which he attributed to unwholesome White influences. He felt that the encroaching White culture had already destroyed the traditional Eskimo culture and broken down their economy, and that only a major effort of wholesome White influences, namely Christian missionaries, could save them from depravity. It was in direct response to his lectures in the United States that the Moravians decided to go to the Kuskokwim (Oswalt 1963a:16-17).

Yet when we compare Jackson’s account to that of Zagoskin forty years earlier, it seems not unlikely that a large part of Jackson’s reaction was one of extreme culture shock at many normal elements of Eskimo life style-a style that White sensibilities still find upsetting today. The poverty and squalor were reported in almost the same terms by Zagoskin. Hunger has always stalked man in the Arctic. Housing was primevally crowded, and practices of hygiene were (and still are) ecologically restricted.

The Moravian mission came to the Arctic a century later than the Russians. The westward movement of the United States had come much closer to Alaska in that century. Alaska was an extension of the American frontier and the vigorous expansion of western progress. The Moravians came as teachers from the United Stares of the 1880s, representing the good life of technology and material achievement. Despite early frontier hardships, the Moravians were to stay and bring modern White values to the Eskimos. It was a double drive, to bring not only Protestant Christianity but the material values, hygiene, and educational fulfillment of White America as well.

No doubt the missionaries carried in their mind’s eye the orderly image of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the spiritual home of their denomination. What had been in the Russians’ image? The vast wastes of Siberia? The primitive peasant communities everywhere in eighteenth-century Russia? There was far less discrepancy in conditions between Alaska and Russia than between Alaska and the eastern seaboard of the United States a century later. Reasonably the expectations of the Moravians were far different from those of the Russians, who were there to get fur and survive as best they could. The Moravians came as teachers and missionaries to bring “the good life” as well as “the good news” that the Eskimos could enter heaven and be freed from their pagan, poverty-stricken life; they saw it as their calling to endure their hardships until American modernity would come and ease their lot and bring further enlightenment to the river Eskimos.

As teachers they came as outlanders and predictably would return where they came from. The Eskimos had come in such a dim past that they believed they had always been there. The message of the missionaries and other White educators might be stated: “Yes, you have always been here in this dreadful place, but through our teachings you will be liberated to leave.” It is creditable to the zeal of the Moravians that some of them did not leave but stayed on till death came by accident or old age. Nevertheless the Kuskokwim was a place to leave, because of the hardships, the isolation, the intense cold, the summer mosquitoes, and the often revolting life of the Natives, including their Christian converts. This revulsion was no particular fault of the missionaries. They were as a group generous and dedicated, but they were White with customs, values, and styles that made the aboriginal ways of Eskimos unacceptable and shocking. And of course, while many stayed on, others left within a couple of years for medical reasons, for culture shock, or for comfort in their retirement. So despite the continuous residence of many of the mission’s founders, the pattern throughout the mission history was the same as today: to endure with self-sacrificing zeal, but eventually to go home again.

Epigramatically, the very ecology and life style that challenged missionary zeal also quietly became a measure of their fulfillment that ordered life in the states did not offer. Individually, I am sure, the Arctic and the Eskimo entered the missionaries’ psyche, but their Christian programming appeared to keep these involvements out of their teaching. In appreciation of this problem, White teachers today on the Kuskokwim also get deeply involved in the Arctic drama, but as with the Moravians, the drama that lures White teachers to lonely Alaska today only rarely finds its way into the ordered White classrooms.

This brief writing cannot fathom the motivations of Christian missionaries, and members of the White race in general, that send us to the farthest corners of the world to sell our way of life. Humanly we seem to be searching for a challenge our home place does not offer, and many of us find our fulfillment as outlanders in strange places. The compulsion may be both aggression and, on the part of religious missionaries, guilt. Christianity is not the only creed of civilization, but historically Christianity has been territorial. By fire and sword the lands must be wrested from the colored infidels by the White crusaders. Dr. Albert Schweitzer, certainly one of the inspired Western missionaries, could not accept his precocious success as a young professor at the University of Strasbourg, saying, “It struck me as incomprehensible that I should be allowed to lead such a happy life, while I saw so many people around me wrestling with care and suffering” (Schweitzer 1949:84). He tried absolving his guilt in various ways and finally determined to practice medicine in the most difficult and primitive locale in the world, in search of his own salvation; at any rate, Lambarene deeply fulfilled Schweitzer’s need.

Moravian teachers on the Kuskokwim today seem equally fulfilled, friendly, warm people. For the Moravians, of course, the challenge was to save Eskimo souls in the rigors of the Arctic. With exemplary ethnocentrism Christians are prone to feel that other peoples have no concept of the soul-indeed that the soul is lost except through Christian salvation. This suggests that they approach the Eskimo to be converted with the preconceived image of an empty vessel to be filled. The student in the classroom waiting to learn is perceived in the same way. Again, out of appreciation of the cultural stranger, it is questionable whether the White teachers in Alaskan schools today have an appreciably greater respect for cultural difference than did the early pioneer educators of the 1880s. What is this image that is so significant to the goals and content of White education for Eskimos or Native people most anywhere? We suspect the image is drawn with the same chalk whether teachers come to preach Christianity or simply to represent what they feel to be a superior society.

Moravian writings describe vividly their first reactions to the Eskimos. Hartmann and Weinland were the Moravians who first surveyed the Kuskokwim area in 1884 for a possible mission sire. Oswalt summarizes their reports:

They were appalled by what they saw. They regarded the living conditions as filthy beyond description, and the Eskimos were far more backward than they had anticipated. Two things, however, impressed them beyond all else: the mosquitoes and the lice (Oswalt 1963a:19).

After being in the field for nearly two years, Weinland was still very displeased with the Eskimo behavior:

Taken as a class, the Yuutes are decidedly phlegmatic in temperament. They are content to take things as they come, be it threatened starvation or overabundance, be it intense cold or drenching rain, all seem to be regarded as so many phases of life which must necessarily be experienced, & to try to alleviate which they hardly dream. Life is to them one prolonged series of sufferings; such as but few could endure, & yet suicide is unheard of among them. They are deeply rooted in their habits & manner of living, & it is a difficult matter to get them to adopt even the most striking & most evidently necessary changes. White men have been living in their midst for half a century, and yet today their mode of living is rude, uncivilized, filthy. Taken as a class, the Yuutes are dishonest, thievish, and their word cannot be trusted. In trade, they will rarely acknowledge that they are in debt, and it seems to be their highest ambition to defraud the traders. They cannot be called robbers, for they are too cowardly to steal any large articles. But pilfering of small articles under circumstances where detection is difficult, this is common, & to be found out appears to be a greater disgrace than the wrong doing itself (Oswalt 1963a:28).

This observation is a brilliant summing up of Native pragmatism on the one hand and the White man’s ethnocentric concepts of morality on the other. Weinland reflects his feelings in detail in a letter describing the indigenous half-submerged sod house called a barabarrah, that is built with a tunneled entrance to keep out the cold:

Through this tunnel I must crawl every time I go to see my two patients. . .
Emerging from the tunnel, through which you have squeezed past several dogs, groped in the darkness, and raised a curtain of dirty matting, you find yourself in the barabarrah, or house proper. It is about twelve feet square, with matting lying on the ground around the four sides. When I entered this evening, it was dark, and calling for lights, a sight was disclosed, which, alas, is but too common. In this small space, dirty, filthy, and filled with an indescribable stench, were fifteen persons, men women and children, besides several dogs. The space in the centre of the barabarrah is always occupied by buckets of water, dishes of food, slop pails, etc. (Oswalt 1963a:29).

I sympathize with Weinland’s reactions. Indeed it was an extreme step from Pennsylvania to the conditions of the Kuskokwim. For most of us, Christian or not, thrown in this same circumstance, our reactions probably would be the same. Quite aside from moral considerations, White value judgments were then and still are very inflexible toward what we consider hygiene. Filth, overcrowding, stench, and darkness are bound to shock our sensibilities. The culture shock of the Moravians certainly must have blurred the Eskimo personality. Culture shock is blinding and negative and must have made it difficult for the missionary teachers to work with the positive elements of Eskimo life. The missionaries intended to save the Eskimo from his sufferings and despair, even though as Weinland was sensitive enough to note, the conditions he found shocking were of little importance to the Eskimos.

Missionary sentiment is expressed poetically in The Moravian published in June 1895 (Schwalbe 1951:29):

The Cry of the Alaskan Children

Far from the islands of Bering’s dark sea
Comes the sad cry of the children to me,
Help, in the name of the Father of all;
Give to us, starving in body and soul.

Out of our misery gather us in,
Give us a refuge from suffering and sin.

Mrs. John Kilbuck, one of the original group of missionaries, wrote to a New Bedford paper defending the value of the mission work and inviting any doubters to come and see the results, saying, “It requires only about six months of proper Christian influence to change the listless animal-like expression into one of intelligence” (Schwalbe 1951:30). This speaks not only of the academic accomplishment of the mission school but also of the aptness of the Eskimo student to be able in only six months to communicate sensibly with his Christian teachers in ways that allowed them to appreciate that the Eskimos were indeed intelligent and capable of human feelings.

Anna Buxbaum Schwalbe, missionary from 1909 to 1948 and author of the Moravian chronicle Dayspring on the Kuskokwim, observed as did Weinland that the misery of the Eskimo was primarily in the eyes and hearts of the missionaries-which was a major problem in conversion.

In the earliest years high moral standards were entirely lacking. The people seemed to fail to see the enormity of it all, saying that such were their customs and that it had never marred their happiness. Little girls of nine or ten were made prostitutes by their parents. Polygamy was practiced. Women thought nothing of leaving their husbands and vice versa. Men travelling from village to village exchanged wives. Cruelty was common. Nothing was thought of the killing off of unwanted infants, especially girl babies. The missionaries knew of one old woman believed to be a witch or shaman who was said to have caused the death of several children. She was clubbed to death, her joints severed, and she was burned in oil. The dead were wrapped in skins or doubled up into a rude coffin. Sometimes they were placed on scaffolds out of the reach of dogs. More often they were placed on the tundra where they were devoured by the hungry beasts (Schwalbe 1951:30).

Most of these observations are ethnographically sound and similar instances noted by less partisan reporters. But the missionaries were unable to see the reasons and the functions of the manners and morals that so shocked them, nor had they the historical perspective to see an affinity between the witch incident described above and the pillorying, burning, and drowning of witches in their own not too distant European and New England Protestant background.

The Russian traders had to survive by ecological cooperation with the Eskimos. The early Moravian missionaries also had to master many of the Eskimos’ skills and help one another through the long winters. On many levels life may have been even harder for them than for the Russians, for the Moravians came far less prepared to deal with Arctic life and Native values. But despite essential survival interaction with the Eskimos, cultural difference drew the curtain so completely over Eskimo personality that even when circumstance did present the humanism of the Eskimo, and the missionaries acknowledged these breakthroughs, still they were unable to incorporate these insights into their programming.

A number of missionary wives bore children iii Bethel, and there was concern as to whether this was a good addition to the missionaries’ work.

Of one mission family Mrs. Schwalbe writes:

“Christie,” the eldest, ran in and out of the native cabins, speaking the Eskimo language, accepting their friendship and rejoicing greatly over the small boats and the bows and arrows that the old men carved for him and the little boots and other fur garments that the grateful mothers and grandmothers offered in token of their love for the small Cossayagak (little white boy). More often than not, although the mothers on the field view with the greatest concern the possibility of the contaminative influences, children have to be a very real blessing. “Now you are really one of us” is the expression frequently voiced by the native women when the first-born comes to the missionary mother (Schwalbe 1951:74).

We see that Eskimos love children after all and pay homage to the first born, which is in contradiction to earlier missionary observations on the callousness of Eskimo parents about children.

Equally significant, as Schwalbe (1951:87) notes, is the fact that “Christie,” born on the Kuskokwim, in spite of his missionary parents, “ran in and out of the native cabins, speaking the Eskimo language, accepting their friendship. . . ” Apparently Eskimo domestic life that still shocks White teachers today did not bother Christie, even as a missionary child.

Death came to the missionary children too. In 1901 a whooping cough epidemic carried away many children, including the infant son of a missionary. The natives, full of sorrow and expressing their grief, came to the Weinlick home. It is at such times that one comes to realize fully the sympathetic heart of the Eskimo. Some have pronounced them an apathetic, stoical race of people. It may be that what seems to be a mask of indifference, merely covers a kind of timidity, a hesitancy to show a flood of emotion that once opened could not be controlled. Certain it is that the heart is overflowing with love. Death has been such a frequent visitor, that, schooling themselves against his coming, they have learned a calmness that few of us achieve. They do not say, “We shall die” but rather “We shall cease living,” or “We shall go from this earth” (Schwalbe 1951:87).

This is an important observation about Eskimo compassion gathered from a circumstance that happened in the early decades of the Moravian mission. Reasonably this describes Eskimos prior to extensive Christian teaching. Unless we support the missionary thesis of nigh-instant personality change experienced by Christian conversion, I feel this early record of Eskimo sentiment offers a positive foundation for describing the Eskimo personality as it was before the Moravians opened their first boarding school in Bethel.


The missionaries found the river Eskimos living in organized communities with a fulfilling ceremonial life expressed in the potlatches or giveaway ceremonies3 and other communal activities surrounding the kashgee. As earlier described, this communal male dwelling was a center where the whole village could assemble. For the Eskimo man, day began and ended in the kashgee. It was the hub of all enterprise. For the boys it was also the school and the portal which led into manhood. The missionaries first witnessed the richness of Eskimo culture in the kashgee, and it was within the kashgee that the missionaries first preached their gospel. Weinland described a ceremony he and Kilbuck visited in Napaskiak in 1886, probably a “Boys Dance.”

On entering the kashima, we saw the men hard at work making masks, & finished masks standing around everywhere. We were greeted very cordially, different ones inviting us to their seats on the benches. . . . Before long four drums were brought in, & a practice of the real ekorushka was held. {Ekorushka is a Russian-derived term under which the Moravians lumped most of the Eskimo ceremonies.} A young man, masked, & holding a wood chip in each hand, took his seat on the floor of the kashima. A young man knelt opposite him, & back of this one, stood a woman & young girl. At a given time one of the drummers opened the performance by beating time on his drum, while the masked young man began some peculiar jirations, which were imitated by the young man opposite to him, & by the females standing further back. In a few minutes the other drums joined in, an old man dictated a song, & the entire company joined in singing. Following this came an interlude, during which the singing ceased, while the; drumming & the corresponding jirations continued. Thus six parts were gone through with, the entire performance lasting about fifteen minutes.
. . . The entire performance was not regarded as anything serious, for the more ridiculous it could be made the better it was liked . . . (Oswalt 1963a:59-60).

Two days later they returned for the actual ceremony. This had not yet begun when the missionaries arrived, but they were ushered into the men’s house to wait.

He told us to go to the kashima meanwhile, where we found some of the natives practicing their parts. A large number of masks were hung around the kashima, & my first thought when I entered the place was, “This looks like a fair.” Four male performers, wearing large masks of most wonderful designs, and one female performer, occupied the stage, & were going through peculiar jirations, keeping time with the beating of eight drums, four on each side of the stage. Soon after our arrival an intermission was taken, during which the women & children filed out. This gave me an opportunity to count them, & I found that one hundred & twenty people had been in the kashima....

Near the roof of the kashima hung two representations of birds, the one of an eagle, the other of a sea-gull. On the eagle stood a stuffed representation of a male native & on the seagull that of a female. Upon inquiry I learned that these represented the spirits of deceased natives being borne upward after death. The kashima was cold and draughty, and, as I had wet feet, I began to feel very uncomfortable (Oswalt l963a:60-61).

On first experience the missionaries did not equate religious experience with the kashgee performances because they looked “like a fair” and because “the more ridiculous it could be made the better it was liked.” In their Protestant Christian eyes there could be no mixing of sacred and profane, of religious ceremony and entertainment, so they were unimpressed at any possible religious significance of the performance. It was not until later that the Moravians realized the true significance of the kashgee ceremonies.

A major function of many gatherings was the giving and receiving of gifts. The gift-giving ceremonies described by the Moravians appeared sincerely directed to sharing, despite any social recognition achieved by the host community and the gift-giving individuals.

They play it in this way. They ask the presents of each other. First, the women asked for what presents they wanted of the men; then the men of the women. The women came together, got a long stick, tied strings to it at intervals of about an inch, then passed it around to each woman, who tied something, anything to the end of one of the strings and named what she wanted. The leader took particular note of what she said and the string she tied to. When all the women had asked for something the leaders took the stick to the men and told them what each string called for and whom it belonged to. Each man then took off one or more of the strings and got as nearly as he could what was asked for. When all have their presents ready they meet, and the women also come together. As soon as all have arrived at the place of meeting they begin to sing and dance and present their gifts, with a dish of something to eat along with it. If they are able they give more than was asked of them; if not, it is never noticed. When all is over, the men in like manner ask presents of the women (Oswalt 1963a:61).

Missionary accounts written in these early years continue to describe the splendour and generosity of the ceremonies. Considering how rude and distasteful the missionaries considered the physical level of Eskimo life, no doubt they were baffled and impressed by what they first considered to be merry entertainment to make life more tolerable for the Eskimos. Weinland. considering his first impressions of the kashima programs, made this observation.

We are unanimous in the opinion that so far as these different performances themselves are concerned, there is nothing immoral in them, but that much immorality is carried on under cover. It cannot well be otherwise, where so many uncivilized people are herded together (promiscuously).4

Weinland and the succession of missionaries that followed him certainly expected to find scenes of primitive orgies, and they must have been surprised and relieved at finding lifeways among the Eskimos as well-ordered and civil as they were.

On first contact missionaries did not feel the Kuskokwim Eskimos had a religion, or if they had, it was being forgotten. Young people were unable to discuss the supernatural, and only under great pressure would the old people reveal that they did indeed have a religious system. As in many indigenous societies, Eskimo religion was rightfully the domain of the elders and passed on to the people only by the old people. This circumstance could have misled the missionaries into believing that pagan beliefs were of little threat to Christianizing the Eskimo. Yet Weinland found evidence that the Eskimos had very complex beliefs about the soul, the supernatural, and life after death. Working through an interpreter, he recorded what he felt was the basis of Eskimo religion.

They believed in both a good & an evil spirit. The good spirit was in the higher regions where the crow flies, & hence, they named him “Crow.” They did not worship the crow itself as an image of that god, they did not pray to the good deity, nor did they sacrifice to him. They simply felt instinctively that there was a higher being who was creator & preserver of the world, & they taught their children “Do not do anything bad, for He sees you.
The evil spirit existed, but they had no name for him, & do not seem to have concerned themselves any further about him.
They believe that death does not put an end to existence-that there is something beyond this world. The departed descends to the lower regions by several stages. At their provision houses they have a ladder with four steps cut out of a log. A similar stairway with four steps mark the four daily stages in the journey to the other world. On the first day the departed gets as far as the first step, where he must wait one day, the second day he reaches the second stage, & so on for four days. Ar the bottom of this ladder are three rivers. Arrived at the first river, the departed spends one day in cleansing himself in this river, the second day he reaches the second river, the third day he reaches the third river, where he must remain a long time, cleansing and purifying himself in its waters. Finally, his friends who have preceded him, come to him & examine him to see whether he is entirely pure. He has by this time become almost or entirely transparent. If they find that he is entirely pure from all earth-stains, they rake him along to the realms of the happy; if not, he is allowed to remain or drift down the stream, & no more notice is taken of him (Oswalt 1963a:73-74).

Weinland may have projected his own beliefs into this account; he was working through the trader and the trader’s Russian-speaking interpreter. If indeed this is an adequate description of the Eskimo belief system, then the Eskimo’s psyche does not seem so far removed from the Christian spirit. The complexity of Eskimo culture must have baffled the Moravians and allowed them at first to take a benign view of the kashgee.

Nevertheless, their initial tolerance gave way to severe rejection when they recognized that the Eskimo system of good and evil and the shamans who personified it were standing in the way of the Moravian conversion process. Weinland, his wife, and their Alaskan born baby had a great deal of sickness, and after two years on the Kuskokwim they returned to the States. For a year John and Edith Kilbuck were the only Moravians in Bethel. Kilbuck was a Delaware Indian and, though a third generation Christian, may have had more awareness of cultural realities than the other missionaries. Though many missionaries worked at it, he was the first to master the Yuk dialect. As Mrs. Schwalbe puts it:

Then he began to encounter the shamans who opposed the work of the missionaries. Even as he gained a deeper knowledge of the language there came with it a fuller revelation of the powers of darkness and the superstition which held the people in its grip (Schwalbe 1951:17).

Kilbuck recognized realistically that the kashgee programs were indeed religious ceremonies, and hence he felt the kashgee and all its functions should be destroyed. Functionally he saw the kashgee as a religious center outside the Moravian power and that the kashgee would have to be replaced by the Christian church as the center of all community life in order to bring the Moravian Christian faith to the Eskimos. In a letter to Weinland in 1890 he wrote:

You remember the masquerades. At the time we could not condemn them, because we were unacquainted with their nature. Now, however, that we know that they are no more than heathen rites, the one grand religious ceremony of the year, we have condemned them, and seek to suppress them (Oswalt 1963a:76).

From then on the Moravians took a firm stand against all Eskimo ceremony, recreational or religious, and every Eskimo rite became an orgy in their eyes. The Native dance-dramas, upon which so much of the Eskimo social life and prestige depended, were anathema to the missionaries and forbidden to their converts. Mrs. Schwalbe recounts from a missionary’s diary one such “dance for the dead” held in 1898.

The necessity for some form of amusement is present with people everywhere, and the Eskimo with his inherent dramatic instincts, his desire to move across the stage before his fellows, pursued his creative ability in an interesting style of self-expression. But in this he all too often followed the lust of the flesh and allowed himself to be drawn deeper and deeper into the intemperate practices of superstition. . .
The dancers are usually girls and women in costume, wearing elaborate head dresses and carrying dancing fans. The dancing is actually genuflections of the knees and a co-ordinated movement of the body muscles as they endeavor to interpret the song in pantomime. It is often very skillfully done. Several persons occupy the floor at once but dancing alone. The body may sway, but the dancer does not move about on the floor. The muscles of the arms ripple and then jerk as they manipulate their fans. When the body sways and bends, then suddenly comes upright again, these body muscles seem to flow along with those of the arms. . . . During and after the dances, the gifts were brought into the kashige, and one or more of the chiefs made the distribution, being careful to observe certain social codes. Such was the kind of orgy that took place in the isolated village of Ougavik that winter.
The Helmichs were perplexed and naturally discouraged. Mrs. Helmich’s diary states that during the rime the skies were dark and lowering, and their hearts were dark and heavy too ... (Schwalbe 1951:77-79).

After the condemning of the kashgee ceremonies, the missionaries attacked ceremonialism at every level. The goal of change was to substitute the Moravian church as the community center, to strip the shaman of his leadership position, and to replace him with the missionary preacher and later the Native lay Christian leader in each village.

Circumstances and cultural functions may have made this change from kashgee to church reasonable. A potent force for change was of course the unswerving conviction of the Moravians that fulfillment and salvation could come only through Christian conversion. Later we may observe secular White teachers among the Eskimo teaching with the same consistent zeal that the “good life” can come only through conversion to White values, which basically are supported by Christian conventions. The kashgee as a community center, the Eskimos’ own mystical belief in good and bad spirits, their belief in afterlife, all appeared, at least superficially, not to be in conflict with Christianity.

One major difference between the two systems was the position of women. The kashgee ceremonialism and Eskimo mystique in general reinforced a subordinate position of women. The Moravians on the other hand offered women an equal or at least coordinate role in religious ceremony and sanctions. The Moravian women whether married or single women, were missionaries in their own right. A reflection of this can be seen today in the village churches; women and children often make up the backbone of the congregation and men may come infrequently or only on special occasions of celebration. So Moravian Christianity, reversing the situation of the pagan kashgee, supported the women’s role and criticized the men’s role. This applied significantly to the separation of the sexes. The kashgee was essentially the separate dwelling place of men. Here they gathered for relaxation and sought strength and status in the heat baths. The kashgee was the men’s house, and women entered only to bring the men food and on invitation to take part in general ceremonies; the rest of the time the women stayed in their own dwellings waiting for the men to come to them. The Moravians considered this morally wrong. In the eyes of the Moravians the family should live together as a unit and the Eskimo dwelling was not a home until it contained the Christian family unit of husband, wife, and children. Of course anything less than lifetime marital fidelity was proscribed as sin.

Over the years the church came to replace the kashgee, both as a building and as a community gathering place; the house became a home, a family dwelling place; and the heat baths of the kashgee were replaced by the smaller private steam bath houses, adopted from the banjas of the Russian traders. Here parts of the kashgee functions were carried on. Men continued to be avid bathers, and the banjas are still a major focus of sociability; with the changing status of women achieved through Christian communization, the banjas today are used by both men and women.

Within the kashgee the block to change was the shaman. Despite the division between male and female roles, some of the shamans were women. Kilbuck saw the shamans as frauds, as well as agents of the devil, because they used tricks to cteate magic. Shamans frequently claimed they made trips to the moon, when actually all they did was sir on top of the kashgee. Kilbucks attack on them was to unmask them as frauds, again striking at the very heart of Eskimo mystique and wisdom.

Priests of many religions-Navajo singers, Zuni priests, medicine men of many tribes-indulge in ceremonial acts technically involving tricks; so, it might be said, does the Catholic priest conducting the Mass. What missionaries label as trickery often may be acts of symbolism by which the religious needs of the group may be fulfilled. It is a question whether the magical tricks of the Eskimo shamans were not understood by the Eskimos themselves as religious charades and accepted nonetheless as symbolic. The tricks as observed by the missionaries were also ritual, and ritual formalizes the style of the culture. Medicine men, shamans, religious leaders in general, are usually intellectual leaders among their people with keen mystical and psychological insights invaluable to the group and with practical functions as well, such as keeping track of the seasons and predicting the weather. Hence attacking the shamans as frauds also insulted the intellectual integrity of village leaders, possibly leading to significant deterioration in the effectiveness of Native leadership.

The Moravians, though strangers to the life and death balance of the Arctic environment, figuratively took over the role of the shaman. The question that must be answered in terms of the modern well-being of the Eskimos is: Have the Christian ministers realistically been able to lead the Eskimos into a fruitful harmonious existence with their ecology as did the Native spiritual leaders? As significantly we must also question whether the White schoolhouse has adequately replaced the kashgee as a school for a fulfilled survival in the Arctic village and ecology. Moravian White education offered the Eskimos survival by technologically mastering nature and environment whereas the Native shaman offered survival by achieving an equilibrium with the forces of nature. Hence White schools are oppositional to Eskimo mystical as well as technological relationship to his environment. The school has replaced the kashgee, but does not offer Eskimos a life center that this communal gathering place offered the traditional village.

Certainly the missionaries were dedicated teachers, willing to risk their lives to bring their conception of enlightenment to the Eskimos. John Kilbuck, by kayak and dog sled, visited the most remote villages. His generosity, friendliness, and also practical medical skills made him welcome wherever he went. Yet the missionaries’ progress was discouragingly slow, in part because the Moravians did not consider conversion an easy process. Where the Russian Orthodox had been content with immediate baptism, the Moravians required of the communicants a high degree of conscientious instruction in Christian precepts and commitment. In the third year eight Eskimos were admitted into full membership in the church. All of these had been baptized earlier in the Orthodox church, yet Kilbuck held them off for a year after they had first asked for membership, testing their consciences and preparing them for this important step. Kilbuck wanted complete conversion and complete rejection of pagan Eskimo self and also “a profession of faith in the Triune God,” for interpretation of the doctrine of the trinity was a major point of theological difference between Orthodox and European Protestant beliefs (Oswalt 1963a:75).

The Moravians appeared as disturbed by some aspects of Russian Orthodoxy and Catholicism as they were of outright paganism. In the eyes of the mission they may have looked the same, and understandably so. Eskimo paganism was deeply rooted in animism, mystery, and the forces of nature. Russian Orthodoxy built irs strength on pageantry and mystery and was able to align itself harmoniously with the nature worship of the Eskimos. This has its counterpart in the Catholic missions in the American Southwest that have also related peacefully across the mysteries of Pueblo Indian nature-oriented worship. The Moravian’s insistence on total surrender of Eskimo self slowed the conversion of the Eskimos, for the Eskimo personality was inexplicably bound up with their total relationship to their natural surroundings.

The Kilbucks must have felt the cultural wall between the missionaries and the Native self. The Eskimos came to the mission friendly and grateful, accepted Christian kindness, and then retreated into the pagan darkness of the villages. How could the Gospel carry across this gulf? One method was the initiation of the “helper” program, enlisting the dedication of converted Eskimos to carry Christianity into their own villages. The first two helpers were consecrated by the Moravian bishop on his visit to the mission field in 1891. Several villages had been singled out for intensive proselytizing, and to each of these a helper was appointed. These men aided in the church services and influenced fellow villagers to accept the Christian teachings. They became the eyes and the ears of the missionaries, reporting every strength and weakness, who was ready for conversion, and who was slipping away. The missionaries would then make personal visits to these members. The helpers worked right alongside Kilbuck in his preaching, supporting the lesson of the sermon wherever his command of the Eskimo language broke down. This innovation greatly accelerated Christian education and opened the door to sweeping changes within the villages. For example, the village of Kwethluk, under the pressure of a vigorous religious helper, was persuaded to burn all their ceremonial masks. The Moravians would indeed have been slow in reaching the Eskimo heart without the aid of the religious helpers. Several Eskimos were ordained as ministers in the early years. Today Native assistants who are called lay pastors are still the core of church strength in the villages.

A high point of success came when the son of a famous shaman, trained to follow in his father’s power, joined the helper program. Helper Neck appeared to be an exceptional example of a Native who did move from a leader role in Eskimo culture to leadership and responsibility within the Christian value system without losing the integrity and effectiveness of his Eskimo personality. He retained his special position of insight and influence and dedicated himself to overthrowing the shamans’ power, fighting fire with fire. The missionaries referred to him as “the Apostle to the Eskimo.” Helper Neck devised his own intricate system of writing to present Christian teachings in the Eskimo language and taught the system to his co-workers. He was the earliest and probably the most outstanding Native teacher among the Kuskokwim Eskimos.

The Moravians seized upon the value of Native teachers to spread the Gospel, but they did not reason from there that Natives could also be instructors in their White schools as well. We have no record of Natives being used in the classroom in the effective way that the Eskimo helpers were used to carry out grassroots Christian education in the villages. We appreciate that from the beginning schooling centered around teaching English as a means of reading and writing, and Eskimos would have had to master English before they could function as English teachers. But if the Moravians had appreciated that Eskimo teachers teaching in Eskimo could have been as persuasive and effective as Helper Neck in presenting concepts, they might have summoned the patience to train educational collaborators as well.


We cannot consider the human effect of the American take-over of Alaska without a careful look at where the Eskimos appeared to be in 1884 when the first Moravian missionaries arrived on the Kuskokwim. Earlier reports make it appear the Eskimos changed very little under Russian influence. Weinland and Hartman, like Sheldon Jackson before them, were shocked at the “plight” of the Eskimos, probably a shared response of culture shock at the severe life style of the Eskimos. Some eighty years later Edward Kennedy stood on the banks of the Kuskokwim and expressed the same shock at the simplicity of the Eskimo village. In sincerity he too saw Eskimo life style as poverty.

There is little evidence that the spiritual and social structure of the river Eskimos had changed or decayed appreciably. The kashgee described by Zagoskin and the kashgee described by Weinland forty years later were the same, except that the giving away ceremonies had been enriched by new trade items. Within the twenty-year period between the departure of the Russians and the arrival of the Moravians, the general economy of the Kuskokwim had begun a process of economic and commercial change that has continued accelerating into the still unresolved conflict of contemporary Eskimo life in Alaska.

To discuss the changes that began with the American purchase of Alaska we must trace through economic variables and speculate on the effectiveness of missionary education to equip the Eskimos to meet the invasion of American commercial values into their lives then and now. Certainly the Russian American Fur Company began this invasion, but within a different cycle of history and by a different cultural style that rested with little conflict on the structure of the Eskimo village. When the San Francisco-based Alaskan Commercial Company took over the operations, traders and trading culture changed too. The influence was not from imperial Czarist Russia via Siberia but from the aggressive development of the United States.

In 1884 when the first Moravian missionaries, Weinland and Hartmann, arrived to explore the area for a mission site, there were three thriving posts on the Kuskokwim, all owned by the Alaskan Commercial Company. Trade was lucrative, and Weinland was shocked by the evident exploitation of the Eskimos by oppressively high markup on trade goods and the bare subsistence pay for Eskimo labor offered at the posts and for paddling or lining large skin boats loaded with trade goods up the river from seagoing vessels anchored in the Kuskokwim Bay.

At that time the Alaska Commercial Company operations on the Kuskokwim were run by a Russian Finn named Separe, with a total monopoly of all trading on the river. In the pattern of trade with Native peoples everywhere, the traders made a two-fold profit, first from the sale of furs on the world market, and again from mark-up on the merchandize they traded to the Eskimos and Indians. For a brief period Separe became an independent trader with a newly formed company. While this competition was going on, the price paid for furs soared, and as an additional inducement to hold trade the Eskimos were extended open credit. Then when the competing company withdrew and Separe returned to the Alaska Commercial Company, the price dropped immediately and credit was rigorously discouraged again.

With the discovery of gold in the upper Yukon in the 1890s all of Alaska felt the impact of the fever. Though no significant fields were found in the Kuskokwim, the movement of prospectors and speculators of all kinds brought a rapid change as the commercial White world moved into the Eskimo domain. Trapping eventually become so profitable that White trappers began to invade the Eskimo trapping grounds. As a measure of change, the price of a mink pelt, which was 25¢ in 1900, had risen to $4 by 1906. In 1907 a combine of eight White trappers garnered $30,000 worth of mink. The trading economy must have continued affecting Eskimo life patterns by encouraging heads of families to stay on the trap lines rather than return nightly to the sociability of the kashgee or to their family circles. Traded fur filled life with countless new items, and commercialization began shifting the cultural base of Eskimo life. By 1910 there were radical changes in the pattern of Eskimo communities and probably significant changes in the values of the people.

Another measure of economic change was a late potlatch in Bethel, one of the largest gift-giving ceremonies on record, and one of the last. A semiannual missionary report on the activities at Bethel contained this observation:

Good as the above may seem (referring to the high fur prices and the quantities of trade goods in Bethel), there is nevertheless the unpleasant feature about the sudden prosperity of our people. We hope that this will be as short-lived as were the temporary high prices of fur. One of the unpleasant features for the missionaries was the great “give-away” dance among three villages, which was held in Bethel. At this particular dance (there were others elsewhere) goods of all sorts were bought or collected and brought into the kashigi where they awaited their disposal. There were several nights of dancing, entertaining and visiting. Then, on the last day and night, this accumulated material was given away, the greater portion falling to the entertaining village. Most of the people received some flour, some got seal oil, or skins for boots, rifles, stoves or cloth. It was estimated that at this particular dance about twenty thousand dollars worth of goods were given or danced away. Perhaps there was little actual waste, still we remonstrate because of unfairness and unwholesome tendencies which this practice leads to (Oswalt 1963a:82).

On one hand the Eskimos were making huge profits for the Alaskan Commercial Company trading posts. On the other, Eskimos were for the first time dealing in conspicuous consumption. The first response was to siphon off the wealth in prestige potlatches to raise the status of the village. The second response unquestionably was an accelerated acculturation and change, which Eskimos as well as Indians have had a hard time ordering constructively. The response of the Moravians was to pray for falling fur prices so that the process of Christian moral conversion could continue uninterrupted.

Moravian records speak unhappily of the invasion of miners and accompanying commercial entrepreneurs around the turn of the century. The mission tried to be hospitable, but was unquestionably glad when this rush of prosperous strangers ended. On the other hand, the Alaska Commercial Company was a respected partner in bringing Christianity to the Eskimos. Mr. Lind, the trader at Bethel who was a Finn and a Lutheran with an Eskimo wife, saw great value in the missionaries and was continually helpful and supportive.

Of course the missionaries saw their function as very different from the traders’, but in perspective they were similar and complementary agents of change. Despite disapproval of commercial exploitation, the Moravians themselves became traders, partly at the invitation of the Eskimos. In Eskimo eyes all White men wanted to prosper by dealing in Eskimo furs. The Moravians described most of their operations in detail, except for their trading, which they mention with an apology for mixing commerce with Christian conscience. One statement to the mission board in Bethlehem points out that trading was a survival necessity to get food-which it was-and to pay the overhead of the Arctic mission-which may have been sheer opportunism.

Practically they had to work hand in glove with the Alaska Commercial Company, for their survival depended on the company’s goodwill. Pragmatically and culturally they had to work in harmony. So from the beginning the Moravians have always cooperated with business enterprise on the Kuskokwim. This made them symbolically and economically a unit of the White enterprise in the Arctic. By 1900 the pattern of exploitation of the Natives was well established. White men were looking for gold along the Kuskokwim tributaries and trapping the hunting ground of the river Eskimos. What did or could the Moravians do about this invasion? In terms of directed education for the self-determination of the Eskimos, the mold of education was cast, and Moravian education continued to direct itself to the moral basis of Eskimo society without effectively involving themselves with Eskimo economic survival. There was, however, one action period of realistic vocational Arctic education, created by the introduction of reindeer from Lapland.

It was Sheldon Jackson who seized upon reindeer herding as a solution for Eskimo development. He had made the first report to the U.S. Office of Education on the state of Native welfare, and his concern had won him the appointment as special commissioner of education for the Territory of Alaska. As mentioned he was appalled by the Eskimo life and determined to help. He was also a realistic economic observer and noted the increasing presence of White trappers and the general effect of material change created by the sale of furs. He must have seen that the economic future for the Eskimos was precarious unless they got a more stable economic base than trapping. He saw reindeer herding as a source of food, clothing, and profit for the Eskimos.

Jackson’s reindeer project got under way in 1892 among the Eskimos of the north coast. As a service directly under the U.S. Office of Education, the administration of the program was placed in the hands of the schools, many of which were missionary enterprises in those early days. In 1901 the Bethel Moravian mission acquired a herd of 176, followed by another group of 200. By 1904 the deer in the Bethel area numbered over a thousand, and the Moravians were realistically, for the first time, involved in the economic development of business education for the Eskimos.

It took special training to herd and manage the reindeer. Lapp herders came along with herds and stayed, first as instructors to the Alaskans but later as reindeer owners. An apprenticeship system was established in which selected Eskimo youths were assigned to the herders. In turn they would be given reindeer and become individual herders themselves. These apprentices had to have special training in reading, writing, and bookkeeping to succeed in their role, and this created an action curriculum in the Moravian School at Bethel to train Eskimos to succeed in realistic Arctic skills and economy.

Anna Schwalbe speaks nostalgically of the school of the reindeer apprentices:

Often these swarthy young men may have felt out of place spending hours at undersized desks, trying to re-acquaint themselves with textbooks and pencils rather than handling lassos and other gear in the great wintry out-of-doors. Nevertheless, they were the envy of the little school boys and the lions of the other sex. On the day of their arrival in the village at the first sound of the little tinkling bells or the appearance of antlers on the horizon line, the cry of “Dundit, dundit” (the deer! the deer!) caused boys and girls to stampede pell mell from the schoolroom. Sometimes shy little sons and daughters, children of the herders, were in the train, coming to attend school, remaining in the home of some relative or with the missionary until the close of the term. These little folk were generally better dressed than the village children, wearing beautiful parkas with wide trimming bands in intricate design made by a loving mother’s hands (Schwalbe 1951:137).

Here is an account of spontaneous Native-oriented education that appeared relevant to Eskimo survival and self appreciation. Here White teachers were integrated into an Eskimo economy. Moravian teachers near the reindeer herding not only instructed the herders in keeping books but were also responsible for making inspections of the herds and turning in annual counts of the deer. Moravian education at this time was genuinely involved in one practical aspect of Eskimo environmental survival. Anna Schwalbe considered this a vital period in Moravian service and successful education, saying, “All of this, then, concerning the reindeer has resulted in an education which may be said to have served the Eskimo well, the effects being more far reaching than we can now see” (1951:137).

This innovation in education came after several decades of American commercial interaction on the Kuskokwim. There had already been a serious invasion of Eskimo life that had succeeded in giving the Eskimo a compliant role to the ever increasing White culture. Reindeer herding might have become a model for motivating the villages ideally into economic leadership, but for various reasons what developed was the concentration of the herds in the hands of White businessmen and Lapps, including the mission and the government, with the Eskimos in a subordinate capacity as hired herders. Though reindeer herding represented a substantial industry for thirty years, a combination of factors-the airplane, wartime employment, vagaries of the market, wolves, as well as sociocultural factors of Eskimo village life-led to the decline and virtual disappearance of the deer from the Kuskokwim.5 White education returned to its original role of focusing on Christian morality, hygiene, and survival in the lifeways of White people. Trapping continued into the 1960s as a major source of financial revenue, but as Sheldon Jackson may have predicted, it has failed to give a secure base for Eskimo economic survival.


The Moravian mission’s moral position clearly laid down the shape of White education for the Kuskokwim Eskimos. Hence when we consider the process and effect of Moravian education in Christianity and basic White skills, we are looking at the current of what may still be happening today. Moravian education followed consistently the pattern of education for Native Americans as far back as its history can be traced.

Moravian Christianity
Moravian Christianity is the center of community life in most
Kuskokwim villages and the basis of education.

Throughout the New World missionaries were the first White educators to the Native Americans. In 1636 in Quebec the Jesuits opened what was probably the first school for Indians of the Northeast, a boarding school for the Huron tribe. As usual, recruiting of neophytes was the first obstacle. Parkman recounts this first effort:

. . . Father Daniel, descending from the Huron country, worn, emaciated, his cassock patched and tattered, and his shirt in rags, brought with him a boy, to whom two others were soon added; and through the influence of the interpreter, Nicollet, the number was afterwards increased by several more. One of them ran away, two ate themselves to death, a fourth was carried home by his father, while three of those remaining stole a canoe, loaded it with all they could lay their hands upon, and escaped in triumph with their plunder (Parkman 1898:260).

Moravian educators fared far better than this, but the problems they had to overcome remain basically unsolved today. The Moravians, too, had a hard time recruiting their early students. Edith Kilbuck wrote of the problems of founding this first school:

In our second year we opened a school. We had a great deal of trouble in getting scholars. Parents said they would not send their children to school; they would die if they dwelt with white people, and if they had their hair cut, their noses would bleed; or we would feed them with salt, and then medicine men would have no power over them, should they get sick. . . . They asked us why we wanted them to go to school. How much would we give them? What price would we pay for a boy’s time? (Oswalt 1963a: 35).

Even at this early date White schooling was running up against structure invisible to the educators. Because boys away from home were not doing their chores, someone else had to do their work for them, so the parents should be paid for loaning their children to the school!

Yet from the outset of White education, it has been the student who has had to change to become educated. From the beginning of the Moravians’ first school in 1886 the lessons were taught in English. This may have impeded education in the broadest sense, but teaching English symbolized bringing the Eskimos a new style of life. It was inconceivable to the missionaries that the Moravian school should adopt elements from Eskimo life; this would have been contrary to getting educated. From the beginning Eskimo children had to give up their own ways to accept what the White teacher had to offer. They had to accept a rigid schedule in conflict with their sense of time and program. Children ran away, and those who stayed had to change their style of life radically. Even in this early beginning Native education had to be a subtractive process; to add to the net sum of the Eskimo child would have allowed the pagan spirit to live on within. The Native child had to be purged of his original sin to accept the amenities of Christian civilization.

Moral as well as temporal values were forced upon the Eskimo students-White morality that at this time related in no way to Eskimo life. Students were whipped for disobedience, which must have been a great shock since Eskimos disciplined their children by nonviolent means. Subsistence activities of families were seriously interfered with, for parents were loath to make trips to traplines and fishing camps without their children. These journeys were essential to survival, yet teachers felt that children should stay behind for school. The Moravians, many of whom came from rural backgrounds and were sensitive to the realities of subsistence cycles, were willing to make adjustments that would meet some of the demands of seasonal subsistence migrations. But federal and territorial school administrations were less flexible, and then and now the pressure is to make the school year conform to that of the lower states (Anderson and Eells 1935:296-297). Thus, from the beginning, White education has plucked the child out of his ecological life and education and directed him away from his Native environment.

By the turn of the century the U.S. Office of Education, an agency of the Department of the Interior, was partially overseeing the Kuskokwim schools. The government paid for equipment used and paid salaries, but the teachers’ salaries were given to the mission, which in turn gave the missionary teachers a Moravian stipend. For the federally supported schools here and elsewhere in Alaska general policies and curricula were laid down by a superintendent stationed in Seattle. The contracts called for instructions, first of all in sanitation and then the three Rs, so mission teachers felt justified in prohibiting Native customs that they found objectionable. A teacher in 1907 strongly objected to the smell of fur clothing in the classroom, so even at that early date White clothing had to be obtained for the Eskimo children (Schwalbe 1951:104). The curriculum called for sewing classes for the girls. The teacher wisely appreciated that the Eskimos were far more adept at sewing then she was, so the period was turned over to the older girls and the students were taught to make towels and handkerchiefs, many of which were sent away to mission groups in the states, presumably to be sold for aid to the mission. Apparently Eskimo-style stitchery and beadwork were not sent along with the “hankies” (Schwalbe 1951:106). There is no explanation for this choice of handiwork for the mission societies back home.

It is important that the first requisite of federally directed education was hygiene. From the first Moravian contact the Eskimos’ unconcern for sanitation was a major point of shock. The missionaries were fearful of contracting diseases from the Natives, and exposed themselves to the unwashed bodies and lice only as a necessary sacrifice required by their zeal to uplift the Eskimos in both body and soul. Yet, before the White man came to the Kuskokwim there were few contagious diseases (Anderson and Eells 1935:65). What the missionaries saw as lack of hygienic custom in reality reflected the absence of certain types of physical illness. Western hygiene has been developed to guard against particular illnesses; if we had no tradition of sickness relating to germs, we might have no values in hygiene.

The Eskimos had an entirely different conception of disease. They recognized illness that exterminated whole villages as catastrophe brought on by the White men. Smallpox swept western Alaska in 1838-39, and the Eskimos burned the settlement called Russian Mission on the Yukon in revenge. A Moravian census made in 1890 revealed that 50 percent of all Eskimos had some chronic diseases, and a large portion of the children did not reach adulthood. Death always stalked the Arctic villages in accidents and hunger, but apparently by 1890 White diseases-smallpox, tuberculosis, whooping cough, influenza-were well established in the Arctic. Ironically, one of the appeals of the missionaries was their ability to treat White diseases that the shamans were unable to cure. In 1896 there was an epidemic of whooping cough on the Kuskokwim, and mortality among the Native children was very high. In the same period influenza swept away half the population of the region. Hygiene was then a mortal necessity, and a major function and power of the missionaries was treating diseases that the mission itself may have been instrumental in bringing into the Arctic. Diseases and economic disruption came to Alaska with White progress, and so, pragmatically, White education should be able to meet these disasters by special training and sophistication gained through White learning.

The advance of Christianity might be seen as illness and disorganization of Native equilibrium, but of course missionaries were just one of the agencies of change in the Arctic. Sheldon Jackson bitterly recognized that White enterprise had seriously upset the Eskimos, and he saw the missions as the only positive White force that might balance the damage already done. We must see the Moravians mission of change in the total context of the White invasion of the Arctic. The Moravians had a long tradition of missionary work, including work with Eskimos in Greenland, and may well have been the best prepared teachers of Native people in the 1880s. But of course they were White teachers with White solutions, and our interest in their program is basically this content.

After the Moravians’ pioneer school was opened in Bethel in 1886, their program was extended to other villages up and down the river, on the coast of Kuskokwim Bay, and on the Nushagak River to the east. As the Alaska Territory developed, the federal government gradually built up a network of schools for Natives, -for many years working in close collaboration with the missionaries, appointing missionary or “missionary-minded” teachers to the village schools. Increased bureaucratic intervention certainly must have made Eskimo schooling even more rigid, along with the missionary goals that were firmly implanted in the curriculum. Native education throughout Alaska was administered the same way, parceling out school support to the various mission programs. The missionary heritage also pervades the education of American Indians and still affects Bureau of Indian Affairs schools throughout the country today. For example, at the new $12-million boarding school at Dilcon on the Navajo Reservation in 1968, the principal and 60 percent of the teaching staff were Mennonites.

Indigenous people all have schooling for survival, for subsistence, for defense, and for psychic resilience to deal with often harsh environment. This intense education does not necessarily take place in the home, for often communal patterns do not give the nuclear family this responsibility. Eskimos on the Kuskokwim and elsewhere along the western sea coast of Alaska did not have home and family culture as westerners conceive of them. The barabarrah was for women (often two or more) and their children. For the men and the growing boys living, in various dimensions, circulated around a communal dwelling. As described, men worked, ate, relaxed, and slept in the kashgee. It was the beginning and the end of their days. Boys grew to manhood in the kashgee. And so, before the kashgee became a church, it was a school.

We observe that Eskimo parents are very permissive with their children, especially their sons. Domestic process in the home educated the girls and taught them to rear children, to cook and to assist in the processing of fish, meat, and furs. But traditionally the men had little work to do in the home; all intellectual pursuits and most manufacturing activities took place in the kashgee. Hence the home was not a place for discipline or learning male skills. Home was a place to play, to love your children. The Eskimo father could do this loving without restraint, for the boys would be dealt with in the kashgee and disciplined by all the men of the community.

Formal school was not in the home, and schooling was for boys, not for girls. In many societies this has been the case; even in European Renaissance culture schooling was only for boys (Ong 1963:444-466). Among the Eskimos the kashgee was for men and boys only, and girls had to receive their education spontaneously in the life process.

The kashgee could be compared to the longhouse on the Olympic Peninsula which was also the school of the community where boys were disciplined. The longhouse itself has perished from parents memory, but parents continue to be very permissive. A school principal suggested that a mother should exercise more control over her daughter, who had been suspended for truancy. The mother agreed but later expressed her wonder, “Why do they want me to make her go to school if they can’t get her to stay there?” (Barnhardt 1970:54-57).

The White school is not a longhouse or a kashgee. It is remote from the village influence of the men and not involved with the day to day survival of the village. The White school in this dimension can be seen as an extreme contradiction of Eskimo Native learning.

The Eskimo style of indirect instruction or correction of error, technical or social, appears as one of positive reinforcement. When a boy kills his first game, there is rejoicing and a special feast; nothing is said about the game that got away. When a girl cleans her first salmon or picks her first bucket of berries there is equal rejoicing and feasting. Both in social control and practical instruction there is present a constant concern not to embarrass or unnecessarily discourage the learner. This restraint carries over to allow the learner or the individual to ignore a request when he does not wish to comply. Children do not, in this way, refuse to honor their parents’ order; rather, they do not acknowledge that they hear the command. This does not embarrass the parent or attack his position. This behavior is characteristic of other societies. Spindler (1963:351-399) described a similar attitude in Menomini education, where criticisms are implied rather than forcefully stated.

This is also the style of social control among Eskimo adults. In the village of Napaskiak on the Kuskokwim the village council regulates antisocial behavior by implicitly influencing the miscreant to change his own ways. If this fails they suggest forcefully that he leave the village (Oswalt 1963 b:69-70). But circumstances are rare when an individual would be humiliated in order to correct his behavior. Apparently it would take an extreme situation for the villagers to purge the wrongdoer publicly. There are indeed records of instances of hysteria where destructive individuals were stoned to death by the group, but this is pathological behavior.

During World War II the Alaska Territorial Guard was organized for possible defense of Alaska. Village leaders were made officers and younger men enlisted; uniforms and equipment were issued freely, and the discipline usually associated with White military establishments was not of prime concern. Consequently what developed was a practical, paternalistic arrangement in which the villagers wore their uniforms daily and used the rifles for hunting. After the war the organization was replaced by the National Guard of the U.S. Army. Oswalt describes the situation in Napaskiak. Direction of the Guard was taken away from the village elders and given to young Eskimo sergeants, those who could communicate in English with their Army superiors. Learning was reversed, and to the shock of the whole village, grown men were shouted at for minor drill infractions, and worse, young men were shouting commands at old people. Oswalt feels this was a traumatic experience for all the village. Here was a blunt change from Eskimo education to White-style instruction and control! (Oswalt 1963 b:69-70).

When the Eskimo dwelling became a family home shared by the man of the family and the kashgee function came to be replaced by the white schoolhouse, education for survival took place only in the field. The home, for children, remained a permissive and tranquil environment. The White school took over the harsher disciplining of the child in both moral and academic excellence. The style of learning and discipline was in opposition to the home and the village world of the children, which, quite aside from curriculum, may have added to the distance between the White school and the Eskimo community.

Outside the school Eskimo boys continued to learn Eskimo skills in the survival process by direct participation in a task-mending a sled, stretching pelts for drying, netting salmon, setting traps and snares. But very early in White schooling, school attendance cut across the subsistence processes of hunting, trapping, fishing, and berry picking. White scheduling and curriculum had problems in accommodating this environmental education. And the more bureaucratically organized the schools became, the deeper they intruded on the learning opportunity of tundra and river. Often when the families needed their children most, they were sitting in school rather than learning to participate in the work culture of their villages. Later, at the threshold of manhood, village students who want to go beyond the eighth grade must leave for faraway boarding high schools, some going as far as Oklahoma. Yet, in a report of Eskimo education in the late fifties, Alaskan educators were proposing to keep the Eskimo children in educational camps through the summer, the most important period of salmon fishing (Ray 1959).

In 1917 a Territorial Department of Education was established which developed schools “for white children and those of mixed blood leading a civilized life” (Anderson and Eells 1935:215) - Bethel was granted such a school in 1923 (Schwalbe 1951:166) - Though never absolute, this was essentially segregation on both a racial and a cultural basis. The territorial schools were the forerunners of the present state schools. The federal schools, chiefly seen as schools for Natives, were shifted from the Office of Education to the Office (later Bureau) of Indian Affairs in 1931.

The impact of White schools on Eskimo learning affected not only style and content but also the method and focus of learning. Traditional Eskimo learning was fundamentally a training in observation and the analysis of this sensory reception. Content was frequently nonverbal and ecological in experience-weather prediction, ice prediction, warnings of blizzards, the drift of game. White learning shifted attention to the verbal and the literate, which had survival value in abstract circumstances usually unrelated to the natural world surrounding the school. Humanly, the instructors’ role was shifted from village men to strangers teaching content administered from Seattle and Washington, D.C.

When the Moravians opened their first school in 1886, they taught the Eskimo children in the only fashion understood and acceptable in those days. When the federal government took more direct responsibility for Native education in the succeeding decades, the concept of educating Native people did not change appreciably. By 1931 when Native education was shifted from the U.S. Office of Education to the Bureau of Indian Affairs major changes in philosophy were rocking the larger field of American education. But, as within the BIA, these developments were from the top down and rarely reached the grassroots school or changed the formal shape of public education. Paralleling this consciousness was a growing awareness that American Indian education was already in difficulties. In answer, radical new methods were proposed and tried. Was this going to change White education for the Eskimo people? There are of course many factors and drives establishing the character of schools, so that radical change, even within the controlled program of the BIA, has proved to be difficult.

Home of the Postmaster in Tuluksak
Home of the Postmaster in Tuluksak (middle income).
Home of the Postmaster in Tuluksak

During the thirties the BIA introduced a new approach of Native cultural determination that shifted the emphasis away from boarding schools toward community-oriented day schools in an effort to bring grassroots education to Native people. This effort coincided with a sweeping civil rights law, the Indian Reorganization Act, which was written to give Native Americans administrative control over their own destiny. This act directed even more energy into day schools as centers of community development, and BIA teachers were recruited to help Native communities organize into self-governing organizations with activities centering around the school. This program enlisted a new character of teachers who directively and nondirectively reversed, if only temporarily, some of the historical goals of missionary education.

Such developments could have resolved many educational problems and opened the door to community development. Many dedicated teachers with zeal equal to the spirit of the early Moravian teachers struggled to redirect the course of BIA education. Certainly they were in conflict with missionary goals, but maybe even more seriously they were in conflict with many of their own White values and the pressures of accelerating progress in Alaska. The program opened a contest between the traditional goals of Christian zeal and Native self-development, between collective White American conformity and Eskimo difference.

The educational program of the Indian New Deal may have come too late to salvage the destruction of a century of miseducation. Many of the ethnically ideal goals of this plan attempted to involve Native survival culture that had become increasingly dysfunctional. At the other extreme, the community school program may have come thirty years too soon. Such schemes today would be welcomed by many Indian groups who are now much more sophisticated about their identity and concerned with cultural determinism.

Missionary and White education, historically and still today, remains blurred in relation to goals for Eskimo survival. The community school renaissance of the BIA program of the thirties tried to clear this educational vision. But the overreach of modern cultural supremacy places Eskimo education today in a position not very different from that of the Moravian school of 1900.


The tundras of the Kuskokwim remained in great isolation through nearly a century and a half of White European influence. Change began imperceptibly with the arrival of the Russian traders, but the pace of change accelerated steadily with each new wave of White intruders. Change speeded considerably under the Christian education of the Moravians, but still the relative isolation of the area allowed the Eskimos to accommodate the challenging influences into their own life style. The pressure of White intrusion increased as transportation and communication breached the isolation of the tundra. More trading posts were built, the Kuskokwim River was charted, and deep water vessels could discharge their cargos directly on the river bank at Bethel. Wendell Oswalt feels that by 1925 the indigenous life style, with its belief in the pagan supernatural, was gone for good from the culture of the river Eskimos.

Along the river, village patterns had changed also by this date. Gone were the barabarrah sod-covered igloos, though sod dwellings persisted in isolated tundra villages into the 1930s. Gone were the kashgee communal centers-either burned down or torn down; the last, in Napaskiak, was burned in 1950. By 1935 village patterns changed further under the organizing influence of the BIA school and community program. BIA teachers had the educational responsibility of organizing village leadership to accommodate the opportunities offered in the Indian Reorganization Act. The villages for the first time developed governing councils. Many BIA teachers worked zealously to effect community development on many levels, so in a sense this was a period of genuine community education. During this period, on their own initiative, teachers introduced electricity generating plants to some villages, improved water supplies, and even stimulated the forming of a cooperative store, as in the village of Kwethluk. At a later date teachers in the isolated tundra community of Nunapichuk helped develop the first fishing cooperative, which later formed the foundation of the successful fishing cooperative at Bethel that today affects the welfare of many Kuskokwim communities. In 1918 when reindeer herding was at its peak the federal government built a hospital at Akiak, the herding center. Two years later it was moved to its present location in Bethel.

The Second World War suddenly ended the isolation of the Kuskokwim and ushered in the state of rapid change that is the character of Eskimo life today. The proximity of the Japanese enemy sealed off the Kuskokwiin on one level, closed schools, and interfered with social interaction. War hysteria brought violent turmoil and also at least one example of human futility. The one Japanese citizen of Bethel, whose skills helped build defensive army installations there, was summarily separated from his Eskimo family and deported to a concentration camp in California, where he died (Schwalbe 1951:243).

At the same time the wartime drama filled the Eskimo world with thousands of White military men and dumped tons of goods and technology on the river banks of the tundra. Eskimos saw White skills transform boggy tundra into expansive air fields and also witnessed the White man’s material affluence used, stored, or discarded as expendable waste. Much that was thrown away entered the Eskimo community, and the bulldozers, motorized transportation, and vast technology entered the Eskimos’ consciousness and expectations. This turmoil is still the character of Bethel, the important air hub of western Alaska, an expanding city of White enterprise in the Arctic.

The war recruited the Eskimo villagers into scouring units and later into units of the National Guard. Oswalt feels that this postwar development was the largest single influence in changing the structure of the Eskimo village. The National Guard gave ample equipment and prestige to its men and placed the administration of all this activity in the National Guard Headquarters in Bethel. This unquestionably diminished the prestige and leadership of the newly formed village councils and made young men more prestigious than the old. The Guard brought obsolescence into the villages and linked the values of the village with the other White world. It would be distortive not to appreciate that the National Guard also contributed to village organization, further educated the adult population, and gave the men special technological training. But positively or negatively, it broke the isolation that had given each village its own destiny.

Wendell Oswalt’s two studies of the Kuskokwim, taken together, offer details of both change and continuity. In Mission of Change in Alaska he traces the pervasive influence of the Moravian missionaries who in the forty years between 1885 and 1925 managed to bring an end to major manifestations of classical Eskimo culture. Yet in Napaskiak: An Alaskan Eskimo Community Oswalt reports details of a great deal of Eskimo culture that was surprisingly unchanged. Napaskiak, six miles downstream from Bethel, came through World War II still retaining much of its man-to-nature relationships as well as many ritual patterns of Eskimo culture. Probably the beliefs behind these rituals had faded but the ceremonies went on. Growing up in Napaskiak still required many traditional rites of passage. Male-female relationships, patterns of marriage, and the dignity of growing old persisted in the traditional way. There were still two shamans, an old man and a young girl who had “the power of healing.” At least in Napaskiak this apparently created no conflict.

Significantly Napaskiak is a Russian Orthodox village. It was among the first communities that the Moravians tried to convert, but for unclear reasons they failed. Was this because Napaskiak was a recognized mystical center and so was able to repel the missionaries? More likely it was an especially self-contained organization and resented the particular pressures of the Moravians. Though the Russian Orthodox Church was not active in the Kuskokwim when the Moravians arrived, something of the earlier tradition persisted and was contrasted in the Native mind with different emphases of the Moravians. In 1905 a visiting Russian priest baptized half of Napaskiak, and the other half was baptized a year later. Then whenever an Orthodox priest visited he was welcomed to preach in the kashgee, until in 1935 a Russian Orthodox chapel was built. This may not mean that at any one point they had lost completely their indigenous mystique, but rather that they needed a new form in which to express their feelings. The mystery and color of Orthodox ceremony may have allowed a dynamic sublimation of Native spirit. Moravian Christianity, on the other extreme, meant strict rejection of all Eskimo ceremony.

Up the river from Bethel the nearest Eskimo village is Kwethluk, also a predominantly Orthodox community with an old Russian church. Kwethluk has a small Moravian church as well, and is just a few miles from the Moravian Children’s Home which was established there in 1925. Both Kwethluk and Napaskiak are recognized for their order and self-determination.

The life style Oswalt observed in Napaskiak in 1955-56 revolved around Native subsistence of fishing, trapping, snaring, hunting, and berry picking. Ceremonialism surrounded these functional activities. The first game killed by a boy was celebrated with a feast that marked passage toward manhood. The first salmon a girl cleaned by herself was equally celebrated, as was her first pail of berries picked. The patterns of subsistence prescribed the Eskimo’s day, season, and year, and created the Eskimo way. Hence survival of Eskimo ways had significant economic meaning. All the villages at this date shared these subsistent economic ties with their ecology. The villages remained dynamic centers; extensive family ties were functioning and important. Age roles from youth to manhood to old age were ordered and respected. Sex roles had changed because women held more recognized importance now that the home was the center rather than the kashgee. Villages with Orthodox churches had a brilliant calendar of ceremonial events comparable to the indigenous calendar of ceremonials. Conceivably the villages that were predominantly Moravian may have changed psychically and spiritually toward a more individual destiny accomplished through the religious value attached to morality and hard work, but all acculturation was modified by the life style of Arctic existence.

Yet by the end of the 1960s, Eskimo life style was drastically transformed. Innovations entered Kuskokwim life that wrought more profound changes than all the years of Moravian teaching. Change came not through objective teaching but through accelerated diffusion of modern technological process and modern technological economy.

A similar transformation has taken place among the Hopi, Zuni, and other Indian villages in the Southwest with comparable historical circumstance. The Hopi, as one model, not very long ago had a delicately balanced subsistence of farming and stock raising, both of which succeeded or failed depending on rain. Rain for crops laid down the Hopi’s total association with their world, and ceremonial and supernatural life revolved around moisture, fertility, and harvest. Hopi character and social structure were established around these realities.

Home of the janitor of the BIA school in Tuluksak
Home of the janitor of the BIA school in Tuluksak (upper income).
Home of the janitor of the BIA school in Tuluksak

The Hopi, too, were living in great isolation-of plateau desert instead of moist tundra. The Hopi lost their isolation through worldly education at boarding schools and later by traveling away from home to seek work, as well as by the accelerated invasion of strangers. Finally roads penetrated the Hopi world so that the trading centers of Winslow and Flagstaff were only hours away. Diffusion of modern needs, washing machines, radios, and most expensively, pickup trucks, required cash. Hopi desert gardens cannot supply dollars. Fleece and lamb crops, like beaver and fox pelts, proved an unstable base because pasturage became over-grazed, drought decimated flocks, and the price of wool fluctuated for a host of reasons unrelated to grass or vagaries of rain. Today it can be safely said that no Hopi family makes its major subsistence from farming; someone in every family works for cash somewhere. Yet the social order and ceremonialism of Hopi remain remarkably stable, simply because they have replaced the subsistence functionalism of farming and dance prayer for moisture with new recognition of the need to retain their villages and go on being Hopi people. Hopi integrity had to find survival in the modern world.

The tundra Eskimos now face a similar challenge. White technology and White values have become rooted in Eskimo ways, and the subsistence economies of river and tundra no longer supply the trade value that can purchase White-type needs. In effect, Eskimo survival economy and the remote villages have become obsolete in modern eyes. The market for fur is unstable. The time it takes to trap fur is no longer expendable. A self-sufficient existence in nature becomes increasingly difficult.

Like the Hopi, the Eskimos live each year in less isolation. Outboard motors, motorized snowmobiles, and the constant roar of the bush planes have put the remotest villages in close contact day after day with the modern world. Wage work has entered the Arctic in successive waves since the war with oil exploration and fish canneries. Building projects and national defense projects have employed whole villages and interrupted their ways of Arctic survival. This has happened less on the Kuskokwim than elsewhere in Alaska, but going away from the village to make cash is increasingly becoming an economic necessity. When the subsistence base of the village goes, the very survival of the village is shaken. Innovations of the last few years have radically altered the functions of the villages.

The war began the intrusions that place the villages in a precarious balance today. This balance has been tipped further by federal and state relief. This has struck at the economic heart of a frugal basically subsistence economy. Relief, old age pensions, Social Security, and unemployment insurance have filled the villages with a new source of cash usually with the stipulation that the recipient not be self-employed. The Post Office becomes the trap line. In 1969 in Tuluksak only one Eskimo ran a trap line, a man already employed as the VISTA worker’s assistant. Various sources of relief shared around enough affluence so that the hardships of winter hunting and trapping were pragmatically unnecessary. Eskimos are very practical folk, and why go off into the frozen bush when you can just as productively socialize at home?

Significantly, this inertia does not affect summer fishing and hunting, which is for food rather than for cash. As soon as the ice begins to break in the rivers the Eskimo community awakes from the long social winter. Relief subsidies are forgotten. Steps quicken, smiles lengthen. Everyone is getting ready for the fishing, repairing canoes for muskrat hunting. Boats piled along the river are cleared of ice and trash, scraped and recalked. Outboard motors that have lain unattended in the snow all winter are broken down and lubricated. The village reaches an action pitch as the first boats are launched. And while ice pans still crowd the channel, Eskimos race their outboard-driven skiffs up and down the river to the rejoicing of the villagers who crowd forward to see the spring activity begin.

The introduction of the motorized snowmobiles in the late 1960s is another technological innovation that instantly affected the Eskimo ecology. Dog teams are created by nature, fed by nature, and are adaptive to the crises of the Arctic that threaten survival. Dogs can be the eyes and ears that save the traveler in the swirling blizzard. Indeed as a final resort, you can eat your dogs! But despite these advantages, dogs are a lot of trouble and eat a lot of fish both in summer and in winter.

Snowmobiles feed on imported gasoline only when they run, but they have no eyes and ears. They are very costly and have a short mechanical life. Worse, they can break down at the most critical time in Native eyes. Yet snowmobiles are White man’s magic and the utilization of White man’s power. An Eskimo has to have a Sno-Go just as a Hopi has to have a pickup truck. The technology involved is not entirely new. For years the river Eskimos have had outboard motors which greatly affected their salmon fishing and gave them great summer mobility for trading in Bethel. The Sno-Go gives them even greater mobility in winter. It requires no fish-which probably is affecting patterns of summer fishing, for dog teams have always been a major reason for smoking and storing fish. In a few years snowmobiles have phased out many dog teams. Now fishermen sometimes have a surplus of salmon, which can be consumed by the family as well as the dogs. Salmon is increasing as a commercial commodity and taking the place of furs as currency. If fishing were organized, salmon could become an economic mainstay, for the commercial demand for salmon may be far more stable than the market for fur.

How have the Hopi and other modern Indian groups survived the onslaught of change and needs that appear hostile to traditional cultural survival? In some fashion their sense of integrity has been gained by education, awareness, and sophistication. Can White schools help Eskimos into a self-determined future? Or is this an absurd notion? Is the realistic function of White studies to integrate Eskimos into the economic mainstream of American life? Does this automatically doom the villages? Or can Eskimos appraise their life style the way the Hopi have and reestablish themselves practically in modern Alaska? White educators in Alaska generally say the villages are doomed, but then outsiders may not be able to see any other function than profits made.

Boarding school education for countless village young people has already drained off much vitality. Eskimos have career jobs in Bethel in various state and federal agencies. Do they find fulfillment in Bethel or Anchorage? Saturday morning in the remotest Eskimo village is a roar of bush planes skimming down on the river ice. This is the return to the village from cash jobs in Bethel. Each weekend scores of single youths and young couples pay the $80 for a round-trip charter flight to spend two days in their village, to rake a steam bath, to ear Eskimo food, to relax and socialize in the hospitality of the village.

Does this contemporary desire to return to the village describe new needs and fulfillment in Eskimo culture within the Arctic ecology? Is living successfully within the tundra environment essential to the fulfillment of many modern Eskimos as it was for Eskimos two or three generations ago?

The increase of White men in the Arctic indicates that the “good life” is there for modern man as it was for the indigenous hunter. What do Eskimos need to learn today to master the modern ecology if they wish to find their identity in their home land?

1 Kashgee is the form preferred by Oswalt for the men’s house. Michael, in a comparative vocabulary, gives kazhim as the Russian word and kazhzhyyak as the form in the Kuskokwim dialect. The early Moravians called it kashima, while Mrs. Schwable used the term kashige. Anderson and Eells spell it khashgii.

2 The Russians brought many new foods to Alaska including successful vegetable gardening. Today there are only meager gardens here and there in the villages. Yet agriculture still holds a promise for Arctic Alaska. Long summer days promote excellent growth and make up for the short season. In the 1930s the Farm Security Administration established a successful farming community near Anchorage, which today thrives commercially on vegetables and potatoes, milk and eggs.

3 Oswalt refers to the giveaway ceremonies as “potlatches,” saying this term is frequently used by Whites in describing the ancient communal ceremonies of the Kuskokwim Eskimos. The relationship between these ceremonies and the potlatches of the Northwest Coast Indians is very remote.

4 Oswalt l963a:67. The parenthetical “promiscuously” is Oswalt’s interpretation, as is other parenthetical material in quotations from Moravian texts.

5 See also Lantis 1952:127-148.



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Last modified November 20, 2008