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Native Pathways to Education
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Alaskan Eskimo Education:

A Film Analysis of Cultural

Confrontation in the Schools 

3/Methodology of filming and analysis


Bethel is a hub of communication and transportation for planes that fly in by the hundreds from all points of the compass. Bush planes on skis roar off the river ice for the multitude of Eskimo villages-down on the Bering Sea, Out on the vast tundra, and up and down the Kuskokwim and its winding tributaries. By summer the river is a highway for barges and outboard-driven fishing skiffs, by winter a frozen path for dog sleds, and increasingly the gasoline-driven snowmobile. All journeys begin and end on the frozen river front before the Northern Commercial Company post.

On my first day in Bethel I stood on the river piling and looked down on the snarling or sleeping sled dogs and now silent metallic Sno-Go’s and tried to picture where these sleds and machines would be at their journey’s end. In a very few days I too would be flying up river to begin filming Eskimo education. I would be working alone trying to record, often in one visit to an isolated tundra school, sufficient data to define the culture of each school and each class.

In two weeks the field team, John Connelly, Ray Barnhardt, his wife Carol, and their baby son John, would arrive for a two months residence. John, Ray, and Carol would meticulously study first, fifth, eight, ninth and tenth grades in the Bethel Consolidated School. They would execute “Draw-a-Man” tests and questionnaires and schedule interviewing with teachers, students, parents, and important village persons.

Six months earlier I had sat in Boulder, Colorado, with the leaders and regional fleldworkers of the National Study of American Indian Education. Each day for two weeks we gathered in seminars redesigning this verbal methodology, testing the questionnaires on each other and on Indians in the local Public Health hospital. What would be the returns of my colleagues using these most precise verbal recordings? What would my film data offer that this thoroughly programmed study would not gather?

First, we look at the returns of our colleagues, who make their statements mostly from the study of questionnaires and scheduled interviews. This brings in data on one level, and final interpretations rest on highly abstracted evidence, the speculative verbal stare-speculative, because words are abstract mind signals that are recovered within a wide range of meaning, first within the Native’s response and later in a researcher’s interpretation. The data must be seen always over a communication chasm of words.

Film documentation is nonverbal, hence at many points less speculative and more open to critical judgment by a team of analysts. It is, in this sense, a very low level of documentary abstraction that is as sensual as it is intellectual, and therefore offers the analyst emotional-psychological opportunities difficult to research from verbal projections.

But why not still-photographic recording, which would be both cheaper and less cumbersome within the field circumstance?

Fifteen years of experiment have fixed reasonable limits of still-photographic evidence. The still camera does a fine job of inventorying what is there. It counts and measures responsibly. But it has serious limitations when motion is of a major research importance. True, one can make voluminous time-and-motion scheduled, still-photographic studies, but both making and analyzing these studies become extremely awkward and more time consuming than the film record. Time-and-motion records of the still camera are fixed points of human phenomena. Projectively the mind must link behavior together between these fixed points. The result tends to be a gross assumption or to be impressionistic in judgment. Film flows photographically and links all time stations without impressionism, and therefore allows for authentic observation of motion.

My colleagues in the National Study were getting the fixed facts. We hoped film would offer the emotional flow between facts and allow us to discuss genuinely the emotional-psychological behavior of the child in education. The decision to research with film was based on advanced studies by anthropologists and psychologists concerned with nonverbal behavior. We thank pioneers in visual anthropology for much of our methodology. Edward T. Hall formally introduced us to the cultural opportunities of film analysis. He demonstrated vividly on film with slow-motion projection of three culturally different groups of people at a fiesta- Indians, Spanish-Americans, and Anglos-how each moved consistently within a program of behavior which was totally synchronized within each group. Could we make a similar record in classrooms and thereby describe school culture from nonverbal behavior?

Paul Byers of Columbia has also carried nonverbal recordings into analysis of group behavior. Byers has demonstrated that people in any cultural circumstance are consistently programmed in their use of space and body expression (Mead, Byers, 1967).

We have used Hall’s concept of proxemics, space in culture, and we have been constantly grateful to Ray Birdwhistell (1969) for his studies in kinesics, the significance of body posture. Birdwhistell analyzed two minutes of film made by Gregory Bateson of a disturbed mother and child, and through kinesics was able to diagnose accurately a state of psychiatric stress. Film appears able to document emotional stress and well-being, and this opportunity has been a major objective in our research.

Paul Ekman, in association with Langley Porter Clinic in San Francisco, has also carried our many years of study in psychiatric nonverbal behavior and stabilized film reading to a point where Langley Porter can use film responsibly in diagnosis.

Finally, as is inevitable in visual anthropology, we are indebted to Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson for laying the cornerstones that have made the studies of nonverbal behavior a reality in anthropology. Business Character: A Photographic Analysis (1842) offered many clues to making and analyzing our film research.


Our study was focused on schools, wherever Eskimo children received an education. In the problem of educating Native children, were particular school systems experiencing more difficulties and negative results than others? We were particularly interested in BIA schools because historically they have set the style of Indian education. However, the quality of BIA schools may be considerably less crucial an issue than it used to be, simply because more Indian and Eskimo students are attending state and public schools than federal schools today, and the field of Native education has thereby left the remote reservation for the congested cities.

Beyond the question of the character of Native schools, the film study was attempting to chart the human and educational behavior of Eskimo children on three curves: an ecological-geographic curve, a cultural-ethnic distribution curve, and an age cycle curve.

Ranging from the remote Eskimo village, to the larger more progressive village, to the tundra city salmon fishing center, and finally to the modern White city of Anchorage, our film sample allowed the camera to watch the relative learning pace of the children as it changed, from the most undisturbed environment to the most impersonal, un-Eskimo environment available in Alaska. Does school setting affect learning and emotional well-being? Are teachers less or more responsive to students’ welfare as Eskimos in tiny village schools as compared to the city school environment in Anchorage? Are changes of concern related to how teachers teach and how students learn? Is there real value in making sacrifices to teach in remote villages? Or is it educationally more successful to move Eskimo children into large centers with greater interaction and fuller educational advantages? Is environmental and cultural security really significant in Native education?

The second curve followed the range of Eskimo children’s response to the ethnic composition of the classroom, from the totally Eskimo schools in the villages to the predominantly Eskimo student body in Bethel where 85 percent of the school children are Eskimo, and finally to the predominantly White schools in Anchorage, where only 7 percent of the students are Native-Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts. Is there a relationship between well-being and the ethnic composition of the classroom? Do Eskimos respond better within their own group? How do they respond as a small minority in the genuinely desegregated school? This insight might he very important in discussing the value of BIA education versus public school attendance. Should Natives near White communities be bussed our of their village schools into the stimulation of White schools? Or is the concept of the village ethnic community school one key to effective education for Native children? Is there a relationship to the school dropout rate in this ethnic distribution curve?

The third curve was the age cycle. The class sample of the National Study included first, second, fifth, eighth, and tenth grades. To correlate with their work, I covered the same sample of classes, but broadened this coverage to include early childhood education as well-Head Start, kindergarten, and pre-first-and special education classes, all of which we felt were very important in considering Indian education. Thus the age curve ranged from Head Start to tenth grade, or from about 4 to 16 or 17 years old. Where on this curve do Eskimo children exhibit the most intensity in learning? Is there an age or grade at which children begin to show signs of alienation or stress? If the students exhibit stress at adolescence, is this essentially physiological? Or is this tress also environmentally related? In the background of this query is, of course, the historical debate over ethnically segregated schools versus integrated schools.

Questions were also asked as to the value of Natively relevant material in the curriculum, the value of bilingualism, and the possible educational empathy of Native teachers versus Caucasian teachers. Since the film sample included a few instances of these elements, I have also evaluated, on a very small sample, the effect of relevant curriculum and the resourcefulness of Native teachers in terms of relevance and communication.

The filming was designed to gather samples systematically, class to class and school to school, so that later we could search for the same behavior variables and produce findings that would represent the impact and significance of twenty hours of classroom experience. The combined evidence will support observations of the goals of Eskimo education and the character of educational programming for Eskimo children.


How to make this film record? Should I use conventional 16mm film? Or should I use Super 8mm film, which is considered an amateur medium? This question was answered immediately by the budget. To achieve relevance would require many hours of film. Sixteen-millimeter would skyrocket the cost of the research. The Super 8 image is satisfactorily sharp. The cost of a Super 8 camera that would allow us to make time lapse studies was relatively low. So was the cost of a projector designed to study time lapse frame for frame (the Eastman Ektomaric Super 8 projector). Also, processing costs thousands of dollars in 16 mm. In many ways it was a hard photographic decision to make, for almost surely it would limit our film to research only; to date it is extremely difficult to produce audience film with Super 8. But audience use of film was no issue in this study as the intimacy of these recordings would ethically ban public distribution.

The next decision was how much to film. Considering the breadth of our sample we budgeted three rolls per class, two rolls at the conventional eighteen frames per second and one roll at automatic time lapse at two frames per second. This offered two varieties of recovery. The first was about nine minutes of film time devoted to long sequences following both general and specific activities, usually shot within a half hour. The second was a systematic exaggeration of body motion that made behavior patterns easy to see. Two frames per second, projected at four or six frames per second, literally dissects body expression. Time lapse also allows for rapid frame-for-frame analysis for refined measure of kinesic, proxemic, and time factors.

Ideally, I chose a location where all of the students and teachers were in view. The camera was usually on a tripod, and before filming there was a time period allowed for teacher and students to adjust to the presence of a camera. Usually halfway through the filming the camera could be removed from the tripod and I could wander about the room when relevant material was not clearly seen from the initial position. The camera had a zoom lens so that individual behavior could be filmed intimately without moving the camera. Slow pans were used to keep in track all behavior in the class.

After the filming, an inventory of classrooms was made with the 35mm still camera. Still records can document detail of walls and teaching materials with more precision than the moving picture camera and offer an easier analysis opportunity than film.

The final decision of technique was in relation to sound recording. Lip synchronization was technically, as well as financially, out of the question. It would have required many thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment and the constant presence of a sound technician. But sound recorded simultaneously for content was thoroughly practical. Therefore every class filmed was sound logged with a SONY tape recorder. This was the only documentary way that behavior and curriculum could be correlated. Also, the noise level could be related to teaching method. The recorder was left in a central position in the class and allowed to run through the entire time involved in the filming.


How were we to analyze twenty hours of film? Frame-for-frame study on the order of Birdwhistell’s and Ekman’s work could take four years. Instead we had to design a study of controlled judgments by a team of trained observers. Slow motion and frame-for-frame relationships could be afforded only at key points of significance.

Members of the team had all studied or were studying visual anthropology and shared a background of crosscultural understanding. Alyce Cathey, a Eurasian with several years teaching experience, was currently teaching English as a second language to Chinese children in San Francisco. Paul Michaels, a master’s candidate in education, had taught several years in Head Start, including one year in northwestern Alaska. Mack Ford was a master’s candidate in anthropology with research experience in education and photography. Malcolm Collier was an anthropology major with years of life among indigenous people and experience as a photographer.

To synchronize our analyses we found it essential to state explicitly how education could be seen on film. Preliminary study indicated that communication is vividly apparent in the classes that the judges felt were educationally alive. Minus and plus qualities in communication appeared the most significant factors. We found it important to agree on one major assumption to simplify the tremendous overload invariably present in the photographic document and help us develop a view that would lead to an agreed conclusion.

Assumption: Education is a communication process-from teacher to student, from student to teacher, between student and student, and between the student and himself.
Corollary: From viewing film we cannot tell whether education is taking place, but we might be able to tell circumstantially if education could take place, and be reasonably sure of the circumstances in which education is not taking place.

(An analogy of the visible proof within the model: If telephone wires are seen entering a house we can assume that messages might be sent or received; if telephone wires are dangling, unattached to the house, we can safely assume there is no longer telephone communication.)

We studied our footage as film, only occasionally studying behavior frame for frame. Hence our variables primarily are in motion, and much of our qualified observation was seen in the sequence of time. Thus time itself was a variable.

We tried to standardize nonverbal communication patterns so that we could recognize behavioral elements in a comparable way. The basic elements for nonverbal research in still images are very similar to those in film, though film offers special subtleties visible only in film. These tangible elements are of three dimensions:

Birdwhistell’s Kinesics-the language of posture and gesture
Hall’s Proxemics-the language of space
Flow of time as a measure of duration of human performance and the validity of behavior seen only through repetition in time.

A fourth element is the comparability between classrooms, which offers a most important descriptive opportunity. Indeed without the element of contrast and comparison between classes the first three elements have only limited usefulness. Comparison of a large number of differing classes was the core of the analysis of the film data.

BIA school in Kwethluk

In the BIA school in Kwethluk students often sit in straight lines. Film clip records the effort of pre-first students to “Stay in your seats!” in a straight line of chairs. We can observe they are not physically relating and form a distracted group. Compare with film clip of Head Start class.

Examples of Communication in the Classroom


Kinesics: Gestures of message projection
Eye messages, hand messages, body posture messages
Visual display of artifacts that communicate
Proxemics: Space between teacher and student as a communication variable
Space adjustment as an effort in communication
Extreme proximity for one-to-one projection
Touching the listener, body-to-body communication


Kinesics: Eye reception, attention, focus
Body reception-turning toward sender, leaning toward sender
Proxemics: Space adjustment to improve reception
Touching the teacher for body-to-body reception
Time: Internalization span of listening
Ability over a rime span to reject interruptions and distractions


Kinesics: Signalling to teacher
Hands up; eye signals, speech signals, body signals
Proxemics: Adjustment of space for better projection
Communication by touch
Time: Measure of time span of communication


Kinesics: Response by eye reception
Leaning forward to listen
Body reception-nodding, head-shaking, hand signal answers
Proxemics: Adjustment in space to heat better
Reception by body touch
Time: Measure of listening span of teacher


Kinesics: Eye focus for projection and reception
Hand messages, approval, disapproval, etc.
Collaborative reception during lesson or over assignments
Proxemics: Body proximity and body touch signaling
Passing notes, holding our books or other lesson objects
Extra-curricular communication, object sharing, joint activities that link together a peer culture


Programming: Social freedom in the classroom that allows the student to withdraw and think through his own problems and do self-directed study
Proxemics: Student operating in his own air space even within congested classroom
Images of inner-directed concentration in the classroom
Time: Measure of time freedom offered each student to work our his own problem or complete his own creative work


Positive: Coordinated body posture, responding to communication stimulus
Eye behavior suggesting focus of attention
Face signaling expectation and concentration, tonal character of facial muscles
Hand signals of cognition
Negative: Body coordination directed away from stimulus of communication
Body tonus slack and uncoordinated, slouched
Eye behavior suggesting near sleep, daydreaming, out the window
Facial muscles slack and uncoordinated by lack of intellectual or emotional focus


Well-Being: Physical stance of confidence and command over classroom circumstance
Stance suggesting confidence and command over personality
Body behavior suggesting flow of physical and emotional energy
Eye response and body reactions revealing alertness
Facial and body signals of peaceful adjustment to circumstance and pleasure gained from classroom environment
Stress: Body tension suggesting fear, withdrawal from classroom interaction, inability to communicate
Withdrawal suggested by body slumping, head pillowed on arms, etc.
Facial expression of stress, knitted brows, tense lips, suggesting fear, hostility, or resentment

With all these considerations in mind each team member studied every foot of classroom film and logged observations on a scheduled analysis sheet including:

General impression of class
Asthetic look and tone of the classroom, physical layout
Relationships between staff and child
Relationships between child and child
Relationships between child and staff
Character of these communicational situations: verbal/non-verbal
Is the teacher oriented toward individuals or toward the group?

These scheduled observations were inventories of what is there in terms of visible evidence and allowed us to track systematically the imagery to describe the general shape and effect of Eskimo education.

The researchers worked alone, each viewing all the footage and listening to the tapes. The film was looked at without stopping, stopped, run slow-motion, and clicked through frame for frame for spot analysis of refinement of behavior. In addition to the schedule of observation, each member wrote his own general evaluation, class for class. The consensus was fairly even, and where there were discrepancies, these classes were restudied.

After the initial film reading was completed, these data sheets were coded and the material transferred to key-punch cards which carried our study to a further abstraction that defined the educational movement from the tundra villages to Bethel and finally to the city of Anchorage.

How did the sound recording figure in our evaluations?

Because we are a verbally-oriented people, the team found that if the tapes were played with the film, the verbal stimuli drained off the nonverbal sensitivity and made visual reading difficult. Hence a large part of the film analysis was done with silent film. The tapes, on the other hand, when played as a check against the silent reading of the film, often deepened and gave substance to the judgment of the classrooms. In effect the tapes were explanatory but did not prove revealing in themselves.

As author of the report, I studied all the team’s observations, listened to the tapes, and rescreened every film. I would move from projector to typewriter and montage the joint observations on all the classrooms. Chapter 5, “The classrooms on film,” is this combined statement. Throughout the research I leaned confidently on the most rewarding character of photographic data, the analyst’s opportunity to go back again and again to the undisturbed raw data. Despite intrusions of subjectivity that invades even the technology of photography, I believe the photographic record remains the most undistorted evidence we have of human behavior.



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Last modified November 21, 2008