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Native Pathways to Education
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Alaskan Eskimo Education:

A Film Analysis of Cultural

Confrontation in the Schools 



Geographically we started by looking at the Eskimo child in his remote village on the tundra where his surroundings and all his associations, apart from school, are Eskimo, and where the ecology and the traditional home and community exert the maximum influence over the emotional and intellectual development of the child. Next, we moved down the Kuskokwim River to the mercantile and administrative center of Bethel where. White-dominated economy meets the ecology of Alaska on its own ground, and White and Eskimo lifeways coexist in their prescribed areas. Finally, we moved 400 air-miles east to the modern American city of Anchorage where modern economy and technology serve to insulate the inhabitants from the full brunt of the Arctic, though the economy is still dependent upon the exploitation of this ecology.

Ethnically, the movement is parallel. In the tundra villages the Eskimo child goes to school in the most saturated Native circumstance, where only the school, traditionally an outpost of the BIA, provides a model of the White world. In the town of Bethel Eskimos go to an integrated Native-and-White consolidated state school in a traditionally White school culture. The child grows up seeing both ways and their relation to each other, but in any case, 85 percent of the student body is Eskimo. In Anchorage, Eskimo, Aleut, and Indian children attend a traditional municipal public school system, where these Natives combined make up only 7 percent of the student body. Regardless of the Native population of 5,000, Eskimos here are a tiny minority, living remote from Native culture and ecology, nearly as engulfed in the White life style as they would be in Seattle or Oakland, where school and community are similarly dominated by White values.

In terms of age cycle, we observed Eskimo children coping with White education from Head Start, kindergarten, and prefirst through to tenth grade, with a focus that documents the changing emotional adjustment to challenges of White acculturation that dominate education. We have particularly looked at the changing projection of stress, under different circumstances, of the Bethel school and the Anchorage schools in an effort to determine what is the most fulfilling learning circumstance that can deal with the psychological problems of adolescence in the acculturation and socialization of the Native child. My evaluation will be to examine these three curves of Eskimo development tracked through the twenty hours of film.

The Geographic and Environmental Curve

Children in the elementary school in Kwethluk were more motivated than were the children in Tuluksak, which was relatively a more economically depressed community. But the children of Kwethluk were also more motivated and educationally eager than the school children in the tundra mercantile center of Bethel. In turn the Bethel children were more motivated than the Native children in the elementary school in Anchorage.

Because Bethel is an Eskimo trading center and the center of salmon fishing, Eskimo culture ebbs and flows in from the villages up and down the Kuskokwim and nearby areas of the Yukon that offer Eskimo children a cultural environmental base of operation. It is true that the school largely ignored this potential, but it must have accounted for the high level of vitality in both elementary school and high school in Bethel. The environmental setting seemed to influence the high school particularly. The older boys raced sled dogs and competed in summer boat racing. Many worked full time, fishing through the summers. Education could well capitalize on these resources that are already quietly adding to the well-being of the Bethel school.

We can conclude that small regional schools can offer a more fulfilling program for Eskimo students than large centers that separate students from renewing a culture that is locked in ecology. St. Mary’s Catholic High School may owe much of its durability to its regional setting.

The Ethnic Component

Educators have long been aware that there may be a tipping point in the balance of biracial student bodies, where behavior can change rapidly. Our analysis demonstrated this thesis. In Bethel, where 85 percent of the students were Eskimos, the low stress was directly related to the relaxed pace set by the dominant Eskimo group culture. The high percentage of Eskimos carried the White 15 percent of the student body along with this pace. Even the teacher’s behavior may have been meaningfully affected by the Eskimo character of the school culture. This saturation of Eskimo style certainly made education pleasanter and more palatable to the Eskimos and sharply reduced the stress reasonably expected in acculturation, especially in adolescent years.

Anchorage exhibited a painful environment where White pace and values weighed down the Native students and made life intolerable for some in the schools. Eskimos, Indians, and Aleuts are a minority in Alaska and are officially referred to as “the Native problem,” a public role that is not one of success. Education has much to gain by working with the Natives’ ethnic well-being. There is no evidence that this would slow the educational process. Quite the contrary, a relaxed fulfilled student internalizes and communicates better than the rigid, aching student who has lost his sense of well-being.

The Age-Cycle Curve

Consistently in many minority groups in the “Lower Forty-Eight” (for example, Blacks, Mexican-Americans, Indians), students reach a crisis point in adolescence and high school. This is where the heaviest dropout rare takes place. And here many minority students are facing their first bitter inequality with the dominant society. But in other cultures adolescence is not necessarily a period of inevitable stress.

In Bethel High School; adolescence appeared not to be such an important factor. High school students continued to be relaxed and socially fulfilled in both community and school. There was no dramatic dropout rate as adolescence proceeded.

In Anchorage, as we have stated, this curve was reversed, and Native students conformed to the conventional model. Stress grew higher with each school year. Reasonably, Native adolescents were facing the hard realities of being a minority in a White man’s world. Many were faced with severe economic insecurities that in Bethel would be borne partly by the extended family culture. Thus, school became a greater challenge, and education, for some, became a humiliation instead of a stimulating fulfillment. Obviously, as we have observed on film, White adolescents were also suffering. But they were White and had the security of White success to pull them through. In terms of age cycles in education, the Native student appears to have a better chance of fulfillment within his own supporting environment and cultural group.

These observations are written about the present acculturation process in this phase of American history-now! We are speaking of circumstances best adapted to becoming modern Eskimos. First we must educate for secure, fulfilled, and resourceful Eskimos. When we accomplish this, the right door to the future will open itself.

No Basic Differences between School Systems

Our key-sort cards gave us a rough statistical comparison of the differences and similarities of Alaskan schools. These indicated that there is basically no difference in the education presented to Eskimo students by the schools, regardless of whether the schools are run by the BIA, by missionaries, by the State of Alaska, or by the Anchorage municipal school system. In working over the film to find areas of similarity and differences, we found consistently that in all areas related to the educational approach and administration-in curriculum, classroom appearance, educational materials and their use, teaching methods, general teacher behavior, and teacher relationship to students-there were no significant differences between systems. Indeed it would be difficult to look at any class in the sample on film and be able to identify it as being BIA, stare, or public school. For this reason the research team often exhibited a certain amount of confusion as to which classes wert in which system-until they memorized the code numbers on the film boxes. To be sure, within each school system there were different sorts of teachers who approached their students in often widely different ways, but each seemed to exhibit the same range of approaches, with no major difference between systems-only between teachers.

All schools teach the same “White Studies” program. If there are basic faults in Eskimo education, these failures are shared by all of the schools. It is essential to be absolutely clear on this, for many people with varying motives feel that emancipating the Eskimo from the BIA will solve the problem of Native education. This is fallacious and hides the true shape of the problem, which is that White schools in Alaska or elsewhere in the United States have not met the challenge of equal education for the ethnically and culturally different child.

There were fine and dedicated teachers-and ineffectual teachers-in all the schools. The material quality of the schools in Eskimo villages is as good as, if not superior to, that of many rural schools in the “Lower Forty-Eight.” The schools on the tundra were, if anything, overequipped. But any superiority was in terms of the materials and needs of American culture, and did not thereby necessarily meet the needs of Eskimo education.

English, reading, and writing are all taught intensely in each school. Teaching skills and methods were familiar and approved; they were “excellent” for the most part in terms of standard American educational practices. If then, the Eskimos were unable to read and speak clear English, it means we must question how appropriate these skills and methods and equipment were for Eskimos in the Arctic.

We did not observe any teaching of English as a second language or any other effort specifically designed to bridge the chasm between the Eskimo and White worlds. There seems to be a maddening formula that the more we “educate” Native children, the more definite become their problems of effectiveness and fluency. None of the school systems in the sample could be said to balance out this negativity. Possibly the articulate St. Mary’s seniors visiting Bethel may have been the result of an effort to meet this problem in Native education.

The philosophy of education in all these schools directs the effort toward assimilating the Native child. Nationally schools follow the principle laid down by Theodore Roosevelt that there is no place in American democracy for two languages, two cultures, or two different allegiances. Education for the minority child has always attempted to Americanize him and separate him from his cultural distinctions. We saw nowhere in Alaska any appreciable departure from this philosophy.

The BIA administration in the Kuskokwim suffers with this challenge and worries about Eskimo culture fading. Indeed it would sincerely like to remedy this situation by some variety of “Ethnic Studies,” but when faced with action, it has so far backed down. “Why teach about Eskimo culture when it is doomed to be lost?” The Moravian missionary effort simply rejects the issue and vehemently opposes Native culture whenever it competes with White Christian precepts for the Eskimos’ faith and allegiance. The state schools supply their libraries with literature on Eskimo history and culture. It is there if the Eskimos wish to read it. Public schools in Anchorage also have ethnic studies texts in their libraries. But these books are looked upon as social studies; for the most part they are directed toward White children, explaining the strange exotic ways of Eskimos-rather than life studies for Eskimo personality survival. State schools tend to treat all children “the same,” which tends to reinforce the unequal opportunities for Eskimo children.

The BIA schools and teachers are aware they are teaching Eskimos. Therefore, they may be more responsive to dynamic change, if indeed it were ever to be sanctioned. But we fear this will never happen, not until all schools together face the issue of equal personality opportunities for all children.

Self-Depreciative Effects of White Education in the Arctic

In filming the Eskimo villages we were impressed with the block to effective education that the White educational compound imposed on the village’s self image. It is clear that the schools, educationally, are supposed to make the villagers look about and attempt to raise the standards of village life. This could be a dynamic influence, but we feel the negative effect of this demonstration on Native life destroys any positive end. Defeat in education for Native children, and more seriously later in their mature activities, produces the weight of self inferiority that saps confidence and resiliency.

The educational presence of White teachers with their White culture-the affluent White style necessary for keeping teachers in their jobs in the village schools, whether BIA or state-creates a serious discrepancy that in itself manufactures deprivation among the Eskimos. Depreciation of self is a serious blow to development; and we feel that this disposition, created by the discrepancy that seems inherent in White education, is one of the major causes of failure in Eskimo education.

Culturally, it seems impossible for White teachers in the villages to live in empathy with the Eskimos they are educating. White teachers often greatly enjoy and even admire Eskimos, but the Eskimos’ life style continues to shock them. Thus, in the villages a teacher’s visit with Eskimos is conducted in the teacher’s home and not in an Eskimo’s. In Kwethluk, Eskimo children flooded into the teachers’ compound-and they were usually welcome-to baby-sit with the teachers’ children or just to visit as guests. The wall-to-wall carpeting must have fascinated them, along with the immense size of teachers’ homes, and the brilliantly illuminated interiors must have made magazine reading and game playing a real pleasure. But how did these children feel when they walked home over the snow to their own small, dark, very crowded cabins?

What should be the role of the White teacher in the Eskimo community, a role that would motivate students and at the same time not abet their sense of deprivation? We filmed just one teacher who, we felt, had mysteriously mastered this combination of teacher and equal human being. If this role cannot be mastered, teachers instruct over an impossible chasm-a chasm existing between their world and the Eskimo’s world. This is a major cause of the defeat of Native education.

It is impressive that the Peace Corps rules out this material discrepancy whenever it can and places its volunteers in Native villages at the same level and in the same style as Native students. The VISTA workers in Alaska are also required to live on the Eskimo level when working in the villages. In both cases the goal is to reduce the human differences.

Relevant Curriculum in Eskimo Schools

The bitterest criticism of the BIA schools is that they are washing 6ut the Eskimos’ personality. If critics were fully informed, the charge would be laid against all schools in the Arctic.

While visiting in Tuluksak, an official of the VISTA program for the Bethel region stated, “There is no relevancy anywhere in the BIA schools. How do you expect kids to learn with a curriculum totally unrelated to their lives?” Later, with pencil and paper in hand, I asked him to detail a relevant curriculum for Eskimo children. His mouth fell open, and he was unable to think of one item. A culturally oriented curriculum that would be taught by White teachers is indeed a challenge to construct in the face of the rapid social change that is sweeping the Arctic. But at the same time there is no denying that the absence of a relevant and culturally supporting curriculum is a major fault in Eskimo education.

Our own records, as we have stared, show very few and sometimes no items in Alaska classrooms that would suggest the schools were not in Ohio. The only consistent Eskimo item we did see was an Alaskan Airlines poster that regularly presents Eskimo portraits. In Tuluksak the gamehunter BIA teacher had a chart of Alaskan furs, and his wife had two models of Eskimo camps, one of which had been made for someone else. At least 99 percent of all exhibited materials in schools were about the “Lower Forty-Eight” states. The only school that encouraged free-style art work was the Head Start school; everywhere else the children colored Mother Goose dittos. In early childhood education the only Eskimo-oriented text was one used in Head Start. In all other schools, BIA, Mission, State, and public, Mother Goose was exclusively the White goddess of education, and in the first grade it was Fun with Dick and Jane. One first-grade teacher in the state school in Angoon, which is outside of this report, used an approved Native Alaska Reader. The only class in any school that studied a standard text oriented to their environment was the BIA eighth grade in Kwethluk.

We have just five film examples that record Eskimo students’ response to relevant curriculum. The most outstanding demonstration of relevance was Head Start in Kwethluk. Not only were the teachers young women from the village who spoke to the children in Eskimo, but the standard Mother Goose routine had been sufficiently acculturated into Eskimo styles of motion and pantomime, so that the children responded with delight. The young teachers did not restrict reading to Mother Goose, but in addition used picture books and storybooks about Eskimo life to stimulate the children’s interest in reading.

The second was Eskimo storytelling in first grade in Tuluksak. The students did respond intensely to this Native opportunity, and it stirs one’s imagination concerning any contributions that could be introduced from the villages directly into the classroom. Mrs. Pilot also worked with an Eskimo hunting camp models in an attempt to stimulate language use. Even when questioning by the teacher appeared inappropriate, the model did hold great interest for the young students.

The third example on film was made in the eighth-grade BIA class in Kwethluk. The teacher was relating a standard text on mental health to Eskimo life in Kwethluk, describing verbally “the cultural deprivation in the Lower Forty-Eight.” Though this was essentially a lecture circumstance with only a minimum of student exchange, our film reading describes it as one of the most responsive classes in our sample.

The fourth example on film was the visit of the St. Mary’s High School seniors to Bethel. First, as a group they were the most eloquent, effectual, and assured students observed in our study. Second, the Bethel Eskimos responded with intense listening and expressions of enjoyment, whereas the White boys dramatically withdrew in an exhibition of boredom and rejection.

The fifth example was in the elementary school in Anchorage, where an Eskimo mother gave a picture talk on life on St. Lawrence Island. Though the uniqueness of the circumstance seemed confusing to the Indian and White students, the two Eskimo boys did respond openly; more importantly, the film demonstrated the competence of an untrained Native woman to teach, to present Native study material in a general classroom.

We conclude that cultural relevance can appreciably improve reception and projection in the Eskimo student, and that most texts and curricula used in all the schools have difficulty reaching, and often may fail to reach, the Eskimo child.

We feel the issue of relevance in curriculum is an issue related to bilingualism. Both issues are important, not necessarily as means of cultural retention but more importantly, as means of fluency in communication that can allow Native children to conceptualize general educational content.

Native Teachers in Eskimo Schools

We filmed only one credentialed Eskimo teacher in all our sample. Eskimos are used as teacher aides in the BIA village schools but their teaching opportunities are limited.

The Charles K. Ray report on Native Education in Alaska, released in 1959, made no recommendations about Native teachers (pp. 242-243). In the body of the report mention is made of BIA teacher aides, who at that rime were considered temporary replacements for qualified White teachers. The Ray report states that unquestionably, Native aides are invaluable for White teachers, but the report also expresses anxiety over their educational ability and stresses the importance of weeding out teachers without training and credentials.

These expressed attitudes are the heart of the dilemma. As expressed by the administrator who asked an advisory school board whether they wanted Eskimo-speaking teachers, “Of course there are no qualified Eskimo teachers . . .” In other words, education itself blocks the development of Eskimo teachers by insisting that to teach you must have a credential.

Native instructors in the Head Start program demonstrated the competence of village teachers to perform on a professional level with minimal training. OEO gave these young women a summer workshop at the University of Alaska which was adequate to make them the most effectual teachers of young children filmed in our Alaska study.

When we asked a leading Eskimo intellectual in Kwethluk what should be added to the village school, he answered, “I should be teaching in that school.” And what could he teach? “I would teach our boys all the things they cannot learn because they are going to school!” He recognized that the schools were destroying Eskimo education essential for survival in the Arctic. Yet the Ray report (1959:273) recommends lengthening the school year, to include camping experience.

If White education had its way, it would absorb the Native child completely in just the same way the BIA historically tried to absorb the Indian child in its program of captive boarding-school education.

Native teachers even without college education and credentials in the schools might balance out this alarming destruction of the Native child’s grasp on his own life and ecology, and offset the hardship of long hours necessarily required to complete school.

We have no illusions about the simple solution of recruiting Native teachers and organizing educational experiences to correct the racial and cultural imbalance of White education. Stepped-up programs to rush teachers through credential programs might not be a real solution, because teacher training itself can interfere with the effectualness of the Native teacher. We observed that you can train and credential an Eskimo without assuring the result of a teacher who can build the conceptual bridge between the White world and the Eskimo. Too often the college-trained Eskimo comes home a confused and culturally schizoid individual.

Training the Eskimo teacher to return constructively to the village school will require new guidelines and a radically changed philosophical approach to educating the culturally different child. Unless this takes place, the value of the Native teacher is often destroyed by the White backlash of conventional teacher training. When this happens, White schools seem to educate Natives to become second-class Americans. The Eskimo teacher returning to the Natives can be a harsher critic of Eskimo ways than the White teacher. We have observed that Native teachers who wish to help their own people often impose the same harsh routine of education as they were given in the White man’s school, for it is all they know in terms of school education.

The Limitations of White Teachers and White Studies

In both BIA and state schools on the tundra, we observed competent, well-trained teachers giving all their time to educating Eskimos. Were these professionally skilled teachers doing appreciably more for the Eskimo children than incompetent teachers? The most dedicated teacher can become enmeshed in the web of White education to a point where even his skilled efforts turn off the Native child. This was the most disturbing evidence in our films.

Only one teacher in the state school in Bethel, Mr. Scout, seemed to have freed himself sufficiently to teach the thoroughly White curriculum, while at the same time holding out an empathetic hand to his Eskimo students. We found even the teachers who were best in terms of dedication and training were unwittingly and with missionary zeal educating the Native child out of his basic foundations of personality and into an educationally manufactured personality that does not support his needs in school or later in life.

Tragically, we felt many teachers sensed this but had no resources to alter the process. This haunting suspicion of failure harassed teachers in both BIA and state schools, and was a factor of the futility affecting teacher endurance in working with Eskimo students.

My impression was that their image of educational success was limited to Natives’ becoming modern, civilized men embracing White values and ambitions. Their image of failure was the Native student who goes on being a bush Eskimo, as if remaining Eskimo were a mark of educational failure. We talked to no teachers who clearly conceived of their students becoming modern Eskimos, standing firmly on their past and perpetuating their values into the future. As Murray Wax observed about White teachers on the Sioux Reservation, “The Indians’ furniture was invisible, and in the teachers’ eyes they lived in an empty house” (Wax and Wax 1964:15-18).

Critics agree that Eskimos and Indians need better education. But there is considerable disagreement as to the goals for Native education and the kind of educational program that might meet them. We agree with many observers that schools as institutions are destroying Native American life, simply because the content of schools limits the scope of education. Whether in Alaska or in the American Southwest, we find the same educational circumstance-that the schooling of Native Americans is seriously inadequate not only for survival in the American cities but for survival within the Native environment as well. Yet we also feel that no schooling would doom the Eskimos completely, so important are the communication and technical skills available in the White curriculum, and so complex and threatening has been the world surrounding even the most isolated Eskimo village. Eskimo survival depends on new lifemanship in the real world of social and technological change. Our interest together should be to envisage the kind of education that would offer Eskimos and Indians in the modern world the important equality of participating as individuals and as groups within the general society and of finding fulfillment within themselves and within their own life styles.

Maybe we can speak with more clarity of the educational needs of the Eskimos than of Native Americans at large. For here we find hunting and fishing people within a relatively unspoiled ecology with major economic opportunities still within their traditional life style. We also see a process taking place that parallels the historic pattern of White education for Indians begun a century ago. And we can reasonably suspect that we are making, as White educators, many of the same mistakes that our predecessors made generations ago. We seem to learn only slowly, if at all, about the dynamics of education for Native peoples.

The Eskimos today face a spoils system dominated by White men and an invasion and exploitation of their property, just as group after group of Native Americans did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and as the Navajos and Hopis do now with the push for coal-generated power. With this history the needs for Eskimo education now are dramatically twofold:

  1. To retain and enlarge their environmental opportunity as Eskimos.
  2. To obtain the special skills and sophistication to cope with the onslaught of the White world and cultural change in general so that they can avoid being made paupers on their own lands or economic or psychological failures in the industrial cities to the south.

Education toward these ends means learning the skills of their own culture so that they can live providently within their Native environment. But equally they must learn skills and sophistication in order to participate in new technologies. They must meet the White invasion with Eskimo solidarity, economically and politically, or they will effectively be driven from the Arctic completely. Competing with the White world does not mean learning Mother Goose, but it does mean literacy and the ability to speak to and reason with White men who know no other language than English. Eskimos need the fundamental components of a sound White education plus a depth knowledge of Eskimo skills and culture, if they are going to be able to deal effectively with White men and their schemes. To accomplish these things they need an education to become effective Eskimos.

Eskimos need intense survival training, and they need it right now. They must learn to survive when a snowmobile breaks down in the vast tundra wilderness in mid-winter. They also need to survive as competitors with White men, using all the modern skills, so that the Eskimo people will be assured a place in the Alaskan enterprise. If their education fails these needs, it is mis-education of the most destructive kind that can only hasten their departure from the land that is their birthright.


Goals for what? Effective education? On whose terms are we to evaluate? And by what criteria?

Margaret Nick, Eskimo leader from the village of Nunapitchuk on the Kuskokwin, framed this dilemma for Edward Kennedy and his Senate Subcommittee Hearings on Native Education in Fairbanks in March of 1969:

. . .This last thing I want to say I consider the most important thing in education. Let’s ask ourselves a question. A very important question. What does education mean? Who knows the answer? Maybe there’s somebody in this room who has a degree in education. Maybe he knows the answer. I don’t know. How can I predict how my younger brothers and sisters should be educated?
I’m sure my grandparents didn’t know what my mom and dad would have to encounter in life. He {they} didn’t know how to educate them. Just like I can’t predict how I should educate my children. I can’t predict how they should be educated, but one thing I know is, if my children are proud, if my children have identity, if my children know who they are, they’ll be able to encounter anything in life. I think this is what education means. Some people say that a man without education might as well be dead. I say, a man without identity, if a man doesn’t know who he is, he might as well be dead. This is why it’s a must that we include our history and our culture in our schools before we lose it all. We’ve lost too much already. We have to move. We all know that Indian education should be improved and we’ve got a lot of ideas about how we should improve our Indian education. Now that we have the information, let’s not kick it around like a hot potato. Let’s take the hot potato and open it before it gets cold (U.S. Congress 1969).

We must focus on concrete purposes of education or we will be unable to conclude our study functionally. There are at least four objectives involved in the fulfillment of Indian education that we feel must be considered.

  1. The traditional goal of Native education as pursued by missionaries and historically by the BIA: Is education successfully fitting Eskimos into the mainstream of American life?

This is the oldest and most agreed-upon goal, and is an adaptation of the goal of American education at large. But beyond this traditional goal, and sometimes in
contradiction to it, we see three other emerging goals that appear essential for Native peoples to succeed in the contemporary environment:

  1. The goal of human opportunity: Does education fit Eskimos to meet whatever problems life presents with resources and resourcefulness?
  2. The ecological-economic goal: Does education support and equip Eskimos to survive economically in their Arctic environment?
  3. An emotional-health goal: Does education stabilize and strengthen Eskimo personality so that Eskimos can stand the stress of life, as all men must, in order to survive in the rapidly changing world?

It will clarify our conclusions if we first evaluate these basic goals.

If schools were succeeding in fitting Native Americans into the mainstream of American life, there would be no need for a National Study of American Indian Education. The fact is that attempts to reach this goal have been largely a failure. Even when Indians have had the best schooling in terms of White education, success in the dominant society has too frequently been low. The special problems that appear to exist in the education of Indians-and of many ethnically different minorities-have largely defeated even the classical goal of academic education. The result is that many Indian students fail to master fluency in English and fail equally to meet day-by-day challenges of protocol and practical survival in the White world.

We should speak here about the rationale supporting the mainstream approach. “Why bother to educate Eskimos for anything other than entering the American mainstream, when it is already impossible for Eskimos to live their traditional life?”

White education for Natives, whether they be Eskimo or Navajo, by curriculum assumes that the future of Native peoples is in urban centers of wage-work opportunity. The federal government’s recurring termination policies for Indian lands make the same assumption. I say, the Arctic is a fine place for an Eskimo future, as much as it seems to be for eager, opportunistic White men. With balanced economic development the future for Eskimos will be largely in Alaska, and therefore they should be educated to rake advantage of this future if they so desire. The continuation of Eskimo identity does not necessarily require living in a traditional style, though for many it might mean living within the Arctic ecology.

A second rationale for mainstream education is, “What good is knowing about Eskimo ways for a Native who will live in Seattle?” In terms of personality, knowing Eskimo ways has nothing necessarily to do with living in the Arctic. We view knowing Eskimo ways as knowing about self and building a strong identity that is essential even for the Native who lives in Seattle. Yazzie Begay, a school board member of the Navajo Rough Rock School, sums up this issue clearly:

We need education for our children so they can hold good jobs and get along with people in the dominant culture. But in getting this education they must not forget who they are and from where their strength comes (Johnson 1968:150.)

Another Navajo leader, Ned Hatathali, now president of the Navajo Community College at Many Farms, adds to this:

The Navaho people must re-discover themselves in this fast-moving culture of today-they must know where they came from and who they are in order to know where they are going (Johnson 1968:59).

We present a frame of reference that views effectiveness for Natives in their psychological, as well as their practical vocational, skills in modern life. Our three further educational goals are related to educating the Eskimo not only as a practical outer man, but as a whole and resourceful inner man as well.

This focuses directly on this study’s conclusion that education for Natives in Alaska is detracting from the goal of human opportunity rather than increasing this equality. All the schools make a valiant effort to teach Eskimos White skills- to master reading, writing, and arithmetic-but while they offer these learning opportunities with one hand, they undermine the relevance of these attempts with the other. Thus Eskimo students, instead of gaining human equality through education, too often are convinced by education that their life chances are unequal simply because they are Eskimo, and nothing rakes place in White schools to reinforce their confidence that being Eskimo is a unique opportunity rather than a cultural, ecological, and genetic misfortune. Equal tools do not necessarily make equal men. Equality is primarily a psychological reality.

Very few Eskimos gain an improved ecological-economic position through education. There is no focus in schools to train and motivate Eskimos to succeed in their native Alaska. All around them they see White Americans apparently enthusiastic about their own futures in the Arctic; but for Eskimos all arrows in all school systems point south. Generally education for Eskimos means to leave their environment, which is then rapidly filled by White men who gain wealth from the same environment. In all schools the curriculum is void even of appreciation of life in the Arctic. Hence we can say that education is structured so as to empty the Arctic of adjusted, successful Eskimos, since the focus of curriculum is to make them dissatisfied with Arctic life by stressing values that can be obtained only by leaving.

As for the emotional-health goal, it might be said that missionary schools feel they are educating for mental health by bringing Christianity to the Eskimos. Schools in general feel they are adding to mental health by giving youth new values to strive for, by teaching them hygiene, and by raising the style of Eskimo living. Bacteriological hygiene, higher material living standards, and Christian morality are dubious approaches to health of the spirit, when such education cuts across the roots of Eskimo personality. The most generally observed effect of White education for Native peoples is that it usually achieves alienation. Educators should be aware of this eventuality and try to give back as much as they inadvertently take away. In the case of the Eskimos, this balance seems not forthcoming; and educated Eskimos, like so many educated Indians, often have serious personality problems, alcoholism, and high suicide rates. Included in our sample is just one example of a coordinated sustained effort to strengthen students’ psychic wellbeing. This was the example of the students from the bicultural program of the St. Mary’s Catholic high school. These visiting students appeared to have durable personalities that had definitely been strengthened within education.

The conflict over the goals of education is no special fault of the Native schools. It is the basic conflict of American education today. But we feel the time is at hand when attitudes must and will change. And the most important change will come in schools. Teachers can be trained now and supported in changing the negative course of education not only for Native Americans but for the whole range of ethnically different children. Quite possibly this change will take place first in the inner city, before it affects the tundra. The challenge is not new. It was faced in the New Deal for Indians under Roosevelt. The effort failed then; perhaps it was too diffuse, too romantic, its purpose misunderstood and not sustained. We feel it can succeed now.


The Native American is no longer alone in his plight of education. The commonality of educational default, the shared problem of human survival in this industrial age, is of great significance to the solutions of Indian, Eskimo, and Aleut schooling. Basically the problem is shared by Afro-American, Spanish-American, and all children, even White children, who must struggle for survival in personality and uniqueness in American conformity.

The chasm we find in the Eskimo classroom is found in the inner city schools of our major cities. The chasm is there in the Anchorage city schools for both Native and White students. Facing this reality can bring many skills to Native education and help clarify the real problems in Indian schooling because it is a larger problem. If we were able to understand and remedy the defects in Indian education, we might finally be at the core of a significant modern education for everyone. I do not feel we are dealing with the unique survival problem of an Eskimo personality, but with a shared problem of personality development for any child.

The goals of Eskimo education evaluated in this conclusion could relate to the success of any American classroom, including the gatherings in colleges and universities as well. I feel the revolution of education has been taking place around these four points. Look at the first goal: Is education successfully fitting the student into the mainstream of American life? This is largely the historical function of schools and still is the major goal of public school education. This refers back to the “melting pot” philosophy of Americanization which was for so long the foundation of public school instruction and at the same time the cause of some of the serious failures in education. Compulsive conformity in the mainstream sets the stage for inequality. Students already in the mainstream hold superiority over those who must give up their stream to become “Real Americans.” In terms of mental health, the “melting pot” process has been the leveler of self and the alienation of the society. There are thoughtful teachers who look on the mainstream of American life as a threat to well-being, rather than an educational accomplishment, and pluck their students from this flood for a more humane destiny.

Are White schools fitting students successfully into American life? Never has there been such a high dropout rate from social and economic functions. Is this a fault of education? Probably it is, but it is also a failure of the society itself to offer human fulfillment to its citizens. We are in a cultural upheaval; burgeoning awareness, expectations, and self-determination are challenging every structure of American life in search of new fulfillments. The dilemma of human need creates an atmosphere in which we proceed with a haunting feeling that education has failed. Where? In the classroom? Is this the failure of teachers? In part, yes! We are haunted by our own inabilities to respond to what we know lies outside the school in the real lives of our students. Should this not be a major consideration of education? There is certainly the awareness that education is not meeting the challenge of emerging issues. We worry about Eskimo students, and we can be as deeply concerned for the future of all children for they share many of the same survival dilemmas.

The second variable in our evaluation-the goal of human opportunity-is in every challenge of contemporary education. What is human opportunity? Is it making $20,000 a year? There can be little humanity in materially powerful success, yet the drive of public education is to make money and to rise to a higher level by making more money. What human opportunity is offered the Eskimo child in the White school? To leave his village and succeed financially in Anchorage or Seattle in a White style? This is the central goal offered, other than Christian ethics, Christianity, reading, writing, arithmetic, and physical hygiene. I would presume human opportunity for an Eskimo would be to excel successfully in the modern world as an Eskimo. I believe this is what we all need to achieve human opportunity-to excel in who we are and to be gratified and recognized as who we are. Human opportunity can be economic, but it is also an intrinsic accomplishment in which humanity is the key to gratification and success.

The culturally determined St. Mary’s High School offered its students this gratification in building on the self-esteem of the Eskimo. Do we offer the Afro-American this human opportunity? If so, to what extent? What about the people of Appalachia? Where in our school system are students obtaining these gratifications? Only in the limited syndrome where teacher and students relate on the same empathetic plane of values, where otherwise invisible structures of culture are mutually embraced. Is human opportunity and potential a practical goal of education? It could be if the needs for human opportunity were defined and if the processes of reaching these goals were as varied as the children in each classroom.

Economic and ecological goals of learning are essential in retaining our human relationships to our environment. Survival for Eskimos is deeply involved in how they continue to relate to the Arctic ecology. But we may ask: Is the Navajo Reservation being strip-mined for fuel through the failure of sound economic and ecological education? Navajos learn little in BIA schools to alert their leaders to the ecological suicide of selling their underground power resources to White American power needs, a scheme which will destroy millions of acres of grazing land and deplete an already dwindling water supply. Every Native American group has been pillaged by this same greed. Do White schools teach ecological conservation? Do the schools in New Mexico teach Spanish Americans how they can survive on their own lands? Does the California school system teach the value of recreational space and the survival of its forests? We teach about economic success and mastering nature’s resources in terms of dollars and board feet. Are such questions now confronting the Eskimo? If we could organize learning in Eskimo schools for survival in salmon fishing and gathering Native foods, we could design social studies which might save our own dwindling open space, and teach ourselves and our children how to live humanly in cities.

The final goal for evaluation-education for emotional health-is essential for Native people’s survival, as it is for ours, to gain an appreciation of cultural ways so that we all may retain our balance in modern life. Sophistication and appreciation of cultural values are essential to anyone for making wise choices in acculturation. What should be kept, what should be modified, and what can be given away without loss, all determine the vitality and strength of Indian or Eskimo groups and their resilience in surviving in modern technological surroundings that can destroy them as people-as it is destroying the diversity of our dominant society.

Do public school social studies teach toward emotional health in the cities? Do social studies teach ways of renewing exhausted psyches? Is the present social and economic dropout rate and alienation the result of the failure of education to train us to survive in what has come to be an unbearable circumstance? The success of Indian education certainly depends on cultural and emotional survival as surely as it does for White students who must learn to live in Chicago, Detroit, and San Francisco as adequately as on the cattle ranges of Colorado. The critical need for any Indian student is to master the stress of modern life by achieving values that offer personal definition, human community, gratification from work, and faith in his own integrity-these are the needs of all students. So in this final sophistication, the Native American student is not alone in his mental health needs.

For the same reason, teachers in any classroom are not isolated from the challenge of working with Indian children, for the accomplishment is basically the nurturing and developing of the whole child-every child. The perspective of solutions sketched in this conclusion are of two dimensions-the humanly near and the politically far. This action view includes changing the structures that perpetuate negative schooling, and politically this means also meeting the challenges of changing the society that so many schools are frantically trying to preserve.

Certainly, in the overall view, this is a long-range revolution that frustrates many teachers absorbed in their daily schoolroom world. What can he or she do to even change the administration within his or her own school? On short terms, possibly nothing beyond the voting duties of a citizen. Militant teachers too frequently turn away from schools because “you can’t teach humanly in this kind of a society.” The view we are dealing with here is out of the classroom into the default of this phase of history. We can leave the classroom and enter the power struggle, or as frequently we can succumb to numbing withdrawal that stops teachers from doing even what little they can do in their own classrooms. There can be another focus because the children are there. If we shifted our view into the individual destiny of each student, what could a teacher realistically see and do to promote whole child development?

As a teacher in a classroom we can do little about the policy, or even the necessity, of sending Eskimo children thousands of miles away to finish high school, yet we can deal with this reality in the classroom. How?

Empathetically we can appreciate the personality needs of the students who must make the educational journey. We know they will need clear identity. We know they will need great resources within to make this experience positive. The Eskimo students setting forth need what all our children need, a strong foundation of self and culture to stand on. In some fashion, each teacher is contributing to or negating this process, perhaps concurrently doing both! The teacher has broad freedom in person-to-person learning and communication. On significant levels, education results from interpersonal success and this can be accomplished even in the midst of repressive administration.

This writing touches on many self-fulfilling failures between teachers and students. Most of these failures are culturally imposed and would be there whether administrations changed or not. These defaults will remain until we learn to equalize our cultural stations and minimize the power discrepancies of ethnic discrimination. Until this happens teachers and students will remain isolated by the chasm that divides them, though teachers will go on struggling to reach across the gulf to the different child.

A dancer from St. Mary's village

Visiting seniors from the bilingual and bicultural St. Mary’s High School on the Yukon dance for the students of Bethel’s Consolidated Elementary and High School. A dancer from St. Mary’s village teaches and leads this dance of Eskimo life.



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Alaska Native Knowledge Network
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Last modified November 21, 2008