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

Alaskan Eskimo Education:

A Film Analysis of Cultural

Confrontation in the Schools 

5/The classrooms on film


“Kwethluk is different from Tuluksak. They’re very progressive down there and busy. I think they have had some fine teachers there,” observed Mrs. Pilot in Tuluksak. Kwethluk is fifteen air-minutes from Bethel. It is a large village with much involvement with the outside world and a number of career Eskimos working at status jobs in Bethel. In a sense Kwethluk is success-oriented and a village of cooperation.

Head Start: OEO (Funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity)

Our first filming was of the Head Start school, housed in a ramshackle planked building of spacious dimensions. This was the council house of Kwethluk and large enough to seat the adult population. The very setting made Head Start a village-dominated enterprise, in which there was much expressed community pride. As a model it was a “Village Community School,” serviced by the community and taught by two young Eskimo women of the community. Except for a short summer workshop in Fairbanks, the teachers’ education was the same as that of many adults who had also gone through the BIA high school programs at Mr. Edgecombe, Alaska or Chemawa, Oregon. Realistically it was a Native school taught by Native teachers and a very valuable Opportunity for observing the educational potential of community education.

The first visual impression of the school interior was of its drabness and very limited equipment. An oil barrel converted into a wood stove gave meager heat. Long benches and a bare table were the only furniture. On one end was a walled closet area holding supplies. Though the day was overcast, blinding light reflected off the March snow pack, and the room was brilliantly lit.

Wearing stretch pants, the two teachers, Miss Annie Eskimo and Miss Betty Eskimo, were warming themselves around the stove when a father brought in his well-wrapped children for their day at school. Parkas were removed and soon the children were stomping off the snow in the anteroom and running eagerly to join a group seated on boxes around the teacher.

OEO Head Start class in the village of Kwethluk

OEO Head Start class in the village of Kwethluk, learning English from a book about Eskimo children.

Watching the film silently without its accompanying tape, one would assume that the teacher was pursuing a very culturally determined curriculum, so shared and intense is the listening. Actually the curriculum was the standard Mother Goose! And the mime gestures given in unison were, we assume, standard kindergarten material taught in any White school in America. Indeed we filmed other Mother Goose classes in BIA and state schools, but they were strikingly different in performance.

Here we observed the most fluent nonverbal communication filmed anywhere in our study. From teacher to student, from student back to teacher, and between student and student, the class was synchronized and wired together on one communication circuit so visible one could see a communication flow passing through this unified educational group.

First, there was body communication. Everyone was touching everyone else. Time lapse studies reveal synchronization of movement-leaning forward, leaning backward, holding forth a hand, rocking, swaying as one being, intense eye-to-eye communication, messaging by hand, touching, increasing communication by rearranging space.

For the children this was home, not a school. And later in free-play, clowning in adult clothing, stalking about in adult high pumps, children moved easily and fearlessly. But discipline was in evidence, signaled by a hand projected almost wordlessly, so that the morning passed in a sense of order and purpose.

There were ill children and some upset children who were tendered positive body affection and led to tasks by the hand, sat down at tables with a caress. But in spirit children were not led but motivated to move on their own momentum. A sick child was motivated to join the art session. Miss Annie Eskimo demonstrated the various colors possible with crayons, and then let the free-style drawing of the child’s peers lead the timid student in graphic expression. Art work on the walls was all free style-collages, cutouts, and finger paintings. Here was the only art session filmed in Alaska where children were not coloring prepared Mother Goose dittoes.

Our team all rated this class as outstanding. We surmise that three circumstances were involved in this school’s success. One, it was by default underequipped, which drew out special initiative from both teachers and students. Two, direction from above was very meager but empathetic. Ida Nicori, field representative of the regional Head Start office in Bethel, was a Kwethluk girl, so that the relationship all around was one of trust. The Head Start teachers were free to convert the experience into their own language and on their own terms. Three, the two teachers, with modest training, did not feel themselves above the village; rather they felt part of the village, which changed the conventional relationship between teacher, students, and parents.

I am sure they fulfilled most of the ideal expectations of child educators and the ideal of higher education courses in child development, hut they did this in response to human function, not to theory. Their confident position spontaneously converted a hackneyed and often deadly Mother Goose routine into an Eskimo storytelling episode. The cultural self-determination sensed nonverbally was a determination of style, pace, and rhythm of the Eskimo way, which might make any curriculum palatable to Native children.

First grade in the BIA school in the village of Kwethluk.

First grade in the BIA school in the village of Kwethluk.

Prefirst in the BIA School

Two hundred yards from the village Head Start, Mr. Principal, principal of the BIA school, was instructing a prefirst class, also using the curriculum of Mother Goose. But the setting is radically changed. Mr. Principal is teaching this class in the absence of his wife, who is away on a medical leave.

Nowhere in America will you find a more modern, well-lit, and well-equipped school than the BIA plant in Kwethluk. It is technologically perfect, and painted in relaxing pastel shades. But Mr. Principal’s large classroom is also shared by the second grade to accommodate another loss in teaching personnel.2 At one end, second-graders lean over their workbooks, watched by the Eskimo teacher’s aide, who stands quietly above the busy students, occasionally leaning down to help. At the other end, Mr. Principal is projecting Mother Goose images with an overhead projector to a sprawling class of prefirst students who are sitting on three lines of low chairs. Reading from a paper, he firmly singsongs the Mother Goose rhymes with his students, some in rhythm, some not, some looking about the room, gazing at the big enlargement of Little Bo Peep who lost her sheep. All-persuasive Mr. Principal tries to turn on his kids, while they try to sit still and concentrate on Little Bo Peep; indeed everyone seems trying together.

The film record shows very fractured communication. The teacher is earnestly and clearly projecting the message, but the words barely seem to make it over the chasm to the Eskimos. Reception signals are low. Eye reception is equally low. Faces were focusing in all directions, a few on the enlargement, a few on the teacher. Body behavior was equally distracted-feet flying out in all directions, some students slumped, some sitting straight, bodies twisting, leaning back, leaning forward. Mr. Principal’s efforts seemed in vain. Each child was a distracted, unreceptive, uncommunicative individual, until a National Guard plane zoomed down on the nearby flying field-then senses synchronized and for a moment half the class was an intercommunicating group.

We are here observing the same curriculum but with a major difference. One, the teacher is a White man and a stranger, who has only been in the school less than a year. He has had very little contact with the villagers except in his classroom. Two, the teacher was standing while the students were seated in rows. Spacially, intercontact was all but impossible. The row seating disoriented the intergroup communication that might have been there if the children were sitting on the floor in a circle, with Mr. Principal as one element of this human circle. The result of this disorientation made each child a dislocated unit, and limp because he was not in a current flow of the group. Reception, concentration, and body control rapidly ran out and were replaced with dulling preoccupation and boredom. What if the Eskimo aide were to singsong alone with these kids? Would the circumstance have changed?

Teaching English by acting out Mother Goose rhymes

Teaching English by acting out Mother Goose rhymes in the OEO Head Start class in Kwethluk. Film clip illustrates body proximity and sensual unity of children learning together in a circumstance typical of a small-room culture, where living is usually within body reach in the small dwelling of the Arctic.

The next session was an English language class based on a supposedly practical situation.3 Written on the blackboard in large letters:

Good morning Mr. Policeman.
My name is ____________ .
Good morning. Can I help you?
Can you direct me to the Hospital?
Yes, I can.
Thank you.

Is this a situation an Eskimo child might meet in the streets of Anchorage? Mrs. Pilot in Tuluksak had an illuminated stop-and-go sign to alert children to survival in cities; Mr. Principal had a standard educational tool-a cardboard image of a policeman with a hole for the face to frame the head of the Eskimo child, so each child could be Mr. Policeman. A martyr was drawn from the group, his head thrust through the cardboard policeman image. Looking sheepish, the martyr and another recruit repeated, reading from the board, “Good morning, Mr. Policeman. My name is John.” And so on through the sequence. Then still another child was drawn from the group to say to the cardboard “Good morning, Mr. Policeman.”

Again Mr. Principal used the greatest persuasion-physically standing the children face to face. Turning to the group, he enunciated very distinctly and corrected their responses with gestures of encouragement and criticism. Psychologically, when these gestures are looked at frame for frame, they turn out not to be gestures to draw communication together; rather they seemed to be pushing the children even further away.

We evaluate this class knowing there was great stress in this school. Two teachers had left. It was near the end of a long winter. Mr. Principal was, no doubt, worried about his wife. I was warned the school would be tense, and realistically I had filmed this tension projected into the classroom, tension that was no doubt widening further the gap already lying between school and community. We cannot dismiss this as an unusual circumstance, however, for all too frequently there is stress in the compounds. This stress should be expected, realistically, as one of the barriers that arise between isolated White teachers and the Arctic community.

Despite the internal strife, the BIA school in Kwethluk held up remarkably in dedication and educational skill. The stress of the principal substituting for his ill wife does not negate the effort that he put into trying to make his school a success. The performance of other Kwethluk teachers speaks for the goals of his administration.

Head Start student in the village-run OEO school in Kwethluk

Head Start student in the village-run OEO school in Kwethluk. Home and school are a step apart; learning here begins at the door of the home.

Lower Grades: BIA

The first three grades and the eighth grade were taught by Mrs. and Mr. Kwerh. Both received a high ranking by the research team. I believe they were equally isolated from the village but were well-oriented and disciplined teachers. Maybe too disciplined, but they did not break under the circumstance and kept their classes on a high level; overdiscipline may have been a survival essential.

First grade was taught along with second and third. This demands programming. The classes were scattered about the room in groups, some with workbooks, some with earphones listening to audio lessons. First grade was gathered around a table with the teacher. As one researcher noted, “She camouflaged herself by sitting low with her students.” The class was relaxed and not teacher dominated. Communications from the teacher were directed verbally to individuals or to small groups, so that the room remained open for relaxed student-to-student communication. Students felt free to get up, look out the window, talk to one another in a reasonable way Researchers agreed it was a happy class and an open class.

Upper Grades: BIA

Across the hall Mr. Kweth taught eighth grade. In many ways this was an invaluable filming opportunity. When I set up my camera, it appeared I would be recording a very rigid situation-a multigrade class of sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students sitting compactly behind desks. Mr. Kweth took a teaching position at the head of this large class group, and because of the way the seating was arranged, there seemed little opportunity but to lecture. And that was what Mr. Kweth proceeded to do, never once leaving his position or asking or accepting any response from the students. Might this be just the approach to turn off bewildered Eskimo students? But Mr. Kweth was not only a good lecturer; he had chosen what turned out to he a swinging subject-mental health-with a heavy accent on the deprivations of life in the “Lower Forty-Eight.”

On film can be seen the effect of relevance. As one researcher noted, “Mental health is ego-oriented.” This must be true, for here was the longest concentration span of any class in our sample. Despite a fairly dry delivery, the class rarely took their eyes from the teacher except to make notes. The level of intellectual intensity cannot he matched by any high school class I filmed in Bethel or Anchorage. The teacher proceeded to diagram the health of Kwethluk village, showed the whole world related to Kwethluk, and stressed the importance of family, village cooperation, and positive human relationships.

Apparently this found sophisticated ears and may have touched the mainsprings of village vitality. Communication within the group was intense. Reception was visually clear from ear to eye to notebook, and there was free intergroup communication. Notes were compared, books were shared (a social studies text around which the lecture was composed), and the student-to-student communication was about the lesson, either sharing notes or audio and body communications while eyes were clearly focused on the teacher.

In Kwethluk there were two amazing extremes: first, communication and empathy converting an irrelevant curriculum into an exciting experience in Head Start, and second, a highly motivating and relevant curriculum turning on Eskimo students despite a dull and exhausting teaching method-the lecture. I do not suppose Mr. Kweth has this good circumstance of relevance every day, but this day was the positive record of what can take place when Eskimo children relate to the message.

Middle Grades: BIA

Later I filmed fourth and fifth grades taught by Mr. Luk, and by combining relatedness, clear two-way communication, and relevance, Mr. Luk had one of the happiest classes in the BIA sample. Only one White teacher in the regular classes rated higher in terms of communication.

What was involved in Mr. Luk’s class? First in importance was a great diversity in communication, on the part of the teacher and in return, on the part of the students. Mr. Luk used clear verbal communication, explicit nonverbal hand, body, and arm signaling, and he constantly changed, adjusting himself in space to improve and complete communication. He would move from the front of the class directly to a respondent, lean over and speak personally with this student. Other times he directed himself to small groups. Then he would communicate with the class at large. Students freely approached him, drew him to their problems, or helped themselves to materials when they needed them. Mr. Luk switched from verbal to visual techniques rapidly-pointing to the clock or moving hands on a demonstration clock, drawing a foot on the hoard and relating it to the student’s foot.

Students worked intensely, writing, reading, computing, working at the chalkboard with visible enthusiasm. This high spirit was expressed in communicating with each other, by body relating, eye signaling, and work sharing. When tension got too high for some students, they downed and fooled around, yet were not pounced on by the teacher. In body motion there were no signals of boredom or sleepiness and many body signals projected work involvement, such as body bending intently over work or moving to improve reception from the teacher.

There was a fire drill. The school poured out into the yard. And then an allrlear. The whole class ran spiritedly back to the classroom as if eager to continue their projects.

Around the walls were large art drawings, made by the students, of the history of ancient civilizations, including the Aztecs and Mayas. One felt Mr. Luk had a lively imagination and driving educational interests that were projected to the students.

A sixth grade teacher in a BIA village school

Dedicated, well-trained teachers put great effort into their task. A sixth grade teacher in a BIA village school.

Tuluksak and Kwethluk BIA Schools Compared

There is a temptation to compare the Tuluksak with the Kwethluk BIA school. The comparison is not easy to make in terms of educational skill and dedication. All the teachers at Kwethluk were in their first year of reaching in the Arctic. They were from a different generation-knew more on one hand and much less on another in terms of the long-range development of Native potential in the Arctic. Educationally this worked in favor of the Kwethluk school, for lack of self-fulfilling knowledge about Eskimos allowed them to work ideally and put out units of energy that would be unrealistic for old Alaska hands. Mr. and Mrs. Pilot had been twenty years watching the ebb and flow of the BIA. If they were not cynical, they certainly were philosophical about the realistic limitations of village schooling. They each had a rich fund of historical knowledge and years of living with the benign failure of the BIA. Their very insight into history and the Eskimos seemed to temper their efforts and had the effect of quietly limiting the scope of their teaching to what they perceived as reality.

The Kwethluk staff have scattered now. Two, I believe, are still in the Arctic. But the Pilots are still in Tuluksak, no more disillusioned than they were in the spring of 1969, giving the same warmth and day-by-day generosities to their village.

The Moravian Children’s Home, Near Kwethluk

The Moravian Home and School is just three miles from busy Kwethluk, but years away in time and culture. There is little to compare between the BIA school and this mission project. Issues of change hardly stir the Home, other than shifting from dog team to gasoline snowmobile to fetch the mail in winter. I cannot imagine that any change has come to its classrooms for the last twenty years. One of the teachers is the daughter of an early Moravian missionary couple who raised their family on the Kuskokwim. She teaches fifth through eighth grades. Kwethluk Eskimos speak with respect of this school-tough training, high standards, no games.

The research team had only negative comments on the first- to fourth-grade class. The school is, of course, frugal and poorly equipped, but this did not explain the totally drab, brown-on-brown interior of this small classroom, where very young children come to learn. The teacher was friendly but inept, and seemed unable to reach her young students. They sat dutifully, some yawning, all trained to look occupied, though none of the research ream felt they were. The film clearly showed that they were simply acting busy. They sat reasonably still, but their eyes were not focused on books or on the speaking teacher. Their focus was dead, nondirective, and sleepy. There was a lot of fidgeting, but always within a safe level so that they still appeared to be attending the lesson.

The teacher was tethered to her desk and made only short forays out, snapping back as if on a rubber band, as if this tiny class were threatening. One data sheet reads, “Maybe just letting time pass.” Professionally she appeared as just an unmotivated and poorly trained, or possibly untrained, White, middle-class teacher. Communication was superverbal with almost no other expressions by arm, body, smile, or eye contact.

Only one student seemed absorbed; he was leafing through a book about Eskimos. The class text was the usual dreary White boy-and-girl story, and there was simply nothing in the room to remind the viewer that this school was completely surrounded by the white Arctic winter.

The second class, fifth through eighth, was held in a large but desk-crowded room. The effect of the room was more brown-on-brown, with an American flag, a piano, a few religious pictures, and odd decorations like cutout bunnies that in no way related to each other. The room, like the rest of the Home, was anti-aesthetic but clean, well-scrubbed, varnished and waxed. Twenty-five students, boys and girls, worked at their desks. A few showed signs of stress, as one might expect in a home for displaced children. Many more were relaxed and looked genuinely happy.

The research ream felt that this missionary teacher and her students were closer together than most students and teachers in the BIA schools. They felt the teacher was quite secure with her students and that the room had a relaxed trusting air. The teacher communicated verbally, with only a few nonverbal arm signals, and freely drew upon students to act out lessons for the class. Students were receptive to the teacher, and thus one form of education was happening in this school. There was communication in this room, even though it was basically one way. Students did get her messages, listening was real, attention spans were reasonably long. Unquestionably much education could take place in this room. In fact the Moravian Home as an institution has this rich potential. If it fails, then the fault is purely philosophical.

“Provincial” would describe the style of the Moravian Home, and the relating was definitely family oriented, as if everyone genuinely depended on one another. The quality of education sprang from this and set the character of the school apart from the BIA, where the teachers only needed the students to teach and the students needed the school only so long as they sat there. Here there was no gulf between school and community because the community was the school.

2 The BIA school at Kwethluk was filmed on two field trips. On both occasions classes were very disturbed by the loss of two teachers and the consequent efforts to combine classes. Hence our records overlap the grade levels, but with different combinations on the two visits.

3 I have been told since that the policeman lesson was drawn from a TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) program prepared for Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican children in New York City; as such it makes more sense, both in regard to situation and linguistics, since the rather stilted “direct me” makes use of the Spanish cognate “dirigirme.”



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


Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
Questions or comments?
Last modified November 21, 2008