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Native Pathways to Education
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Alaskan Eskimo Education:

A Film Analysis of Cultural

Confrontation in the Schools 

4/Observations on the held experience

THE PHOTOGRAPHER AS PARTICIPANT OBSERVER

The act of taking pictures is a complete experience in itself, just as the making of a survey, apart from its data, reveals many aspects of the field circumstance.

My first impression was that teachers and principals are much more prepared to answer questions than to appear before the camera. The verbal examination can be more controlled and directed by the informant toward a desired impression. Question answering is often from an armored position and therefore tolerable.

The nonverbal examination is harder to control, especially if it goes on continuously. Hence schools are at first agitated over the request to film them. “Why?,” “What for? ,” “Who will see the film?” are immediate queries that must be answered. But once such hurdles had been crossed, 90 percent of the teachers were relaxed and pretty much ignored my presence in their rooms. I am not saying they forgot that I was there. Rather, each teacher is so programmed in behavior that during an hour’s visit it seemed difficult, or even psychologically impossible, to change his pattern fundamentally. Hence poor teachers continued on their negative programs, and good teachers continued turning students on in a relaxed way that made me feel unseen.

Every student seemed familiar with photography and film, and they often showed a keen interest in the process. They were allowed to look through the camera and to ask questions. But they, too, settled rapidly into an established classroom pattern of being teacher-bored, sleepy, distracted, or interacting with excitement to the lesson. My presence in all but a few cases seemed neither to add nor to distract. Maybe this is a quality of film, for it flows on with time, on the same time river that is carrying the students to freedom at the class’s end. The still camera takes a slice out of time, and can both interrupt and distort behavior for this reason.

Working through the superintendent of the State of Alaska’s Consolidated Elementary and High School in the tundra city of Bethel was a very different circumstance from visiting isolated BIA village schools. The state school superintendent was verbally concerned about how his teachers would respond to the filming, but bureaucratically he was in control of their cooperation, and with varying degrees of interest the teachers dutifully collaborated.
Location of villages in the Kuskokwim Basin.

To work in the village school was at the prerogative of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ director of education for the Kuskokwim schools. In some ways my request for film observation was more threatening to the BIA than to the state school system. Once the Bethel superintendent adjusted to my presence and to the observations of Connelly and the Barnhardts, he was enthusiastically opportunistic, for he recognized that we wished a complete and honest picture that might realistically benefit the school. After a month he saw us, in a sense, as collaborators rather than as spies. The state school system is expanding rapidly in Alaska and is success-oriented. The BIA school system is shrinking, is under attack, and therefore is extremely sensitive to any observation.

A major anxiety suggested by the BIA superintendent as to why filming would be difficult was the predictable tension in the isolated schools. I was told that the teachers did not welcome visitors (contrary to the human assumption that they would like a break in their monotony) and that they were usually too harassed and busy with school affairs to be able to work with a visitor. I was given the impression that thousands of miles out on the tundra wastes teachers were harassed by hostile or wasteful studies, and therefore not always hospitable. Further, and of course logically, there simply were no accommodations except in the teachers’ own homes. Indeed, everything is short in the wilderness. Supplies of all kinds must be purchased a year ahead. Because teachers are apparently besieged with senators and educators making surveys, the usual Anchorage prices should be paid for hospitality-$15 a night and $3 a meal were permissible prices for visiting observers. Yet each teacher accommodated visitors on his own terms-humanly established between teacher and fieldworker.

The area director was sincerely concerned about the psychological welfare of his field staff. Talking things over in a cement radar personnel site converted to a BIA nerve center of welfare and education, I got the message that life in the remote village school was a hazardous assignment and the turnover of personnel high. Nothing must happen that would upset the precarious equilibrium of the isolated teachers. I left by bush plane for the villages with the feeling that I was entering an explosive assignment.

Location of villages in the Kukokwim Basin.
Location of villages in the Kukokwim Basin.

ISOLATION AND SURVIVAL CULTURE

The Kuskokwim Basin in winter appears as coils of frozen waterways and lakes fringed with stunted black spruce and willows. In the sourheast there are glistening mountains, but west and north the tundra wastes slope to the horizon. In this vastness, a village is sighted close to waterways-a scattering of cabins, a shimmering metallic school compound, a National Guard Quonset hut. Villages can be 15, 30, or 40 air-minutes from Bethel, 8 hours or 24 hours by dog sled, 2 or 4 hours by gasoline-driven snowmobile.

Villages range in size from 50 to 250 Eskimos, who only a few years ago lived off the wilderness-salmon fishing and berry picking in summer; rabbit snaring, deer, elk, and moose hunting, and fur trapping in winter. The salmon still remain a major foundation, but old-age pensions, relief, and National Guard stipends have become the economic way of life, especially through the long winters. Every year fewer Eskimos endure the rigors of the winter hunting camps and beaver trap lines.

Home of a middle income family in Tuluksak.
Home of a middle income family in Tuluksak.

As the bush plane skims over the river ice low between river banks, one’s first impression is that public health has come to the Arctic, for the most imposing structures are the multitudes of neatly painted white outhouses. The second impression is of the barking sled dogs staked our by the privies and then of the Eskimos who gather to watch the mail plane skid to a halt below the diminutive village post office. The mail sled skids down the bank, pushed by laughing children followed by elders, some dressed in Army high-altitude flying gear, others in traditional wolf-fringed parkas. The Eskimos like visitors. They are amused and curious about strangers and eager to make them welcome-a normal response, we humanly assume, to life in great isolation. Travelers have always agreed that Eskimos are very sociable folk.

I have observed, on the contrary, that White people of status (and most White people come with status) dropped on contract assignments into the moist, green isolation of tropical jungles or dropped into the white isolation of the Arctic, often respond to the circumstance by creating further isolation by walling themselves off both from the ecology and from the Native humanity around them.

White schoolteachers in Native schools face this dilemma. Some of the walls that rise around them are self-fulfilling conflicts of- culture, strengthened by the bureaucratic and technological zeal of a government agency. By White standards Eskimo villages are pitifully poor, unhygienic, and shockingly overcrowded, often with two families jammed into one small log cabin 15 feet by 25. As in any survival economy, per capita income would be far below even the conventional poverty line if relief and government succor were removed.

School teachers’ home in the BIA school compound in Tuluksak.
School teachers’ home in the BIA school compound in Tuluksak.

Abruptly, in the midst of all this apparent squalor and staked-out sled dogs stands the BIA school compound. Its life pulse is its diesel light plant, which makes the compound a mecca of blazing illumination in the darkness of the village. (Two villages now have their own light plants.) By day the BIA buildings shimmer in aluminum and fresh paint. Nothing has been spared to make these units ideal models of White mastery, technology, and comfort. On the one hand, the excellence of the buildings speaks for the drive of the curriculum; on the other, the technology and comforts are essential for the emotional well-being of the staff. The comfortable life style of the teachers’ home culture is imported, indeed refined upon, to make life tolerable in the Arctic isolation.

I am sure these comforts do make life tolerable on one level, but on another they greatly increase the isolation. Teachers exist within this comfort style and rarely go outside its walls-except to hunt, which is the one ecologically oriented outlet for male teachers in the villages.

To live within such small space requires great skills in self-fulfillment and high tolerance to human shortcomings. The shock of the circumstance, too, often weakens both these skills. Marriages crack, and contracts are broken. The one skill that most field personnel develop highly is the skill of keeping busy. Fortunately the bureaucracy of the BIA cooperates in this, for if all the forms and receipts are filled our regularly, if radio communications are kept and duly logged, there is literally little time for any other activity. But the busy-ness becomes another wall of isolation not only from the community and the ecology but also from wanting to have visitors observing their operations. Indeed, once inside the educational compound, it is difficult to set up after-school interviews with teachers; they are too busy or they are exhausted.

Behind this inaccessibility there are, of course, other real challenges of individual survival. Quite realistically, to keep air space and peace within the limited and nigh impenetrable walls of the compound (winter temperatures hover for days at 50 below zero), personal privacy must be religiously respected. Under the stress and multiple culture shock, holding together as a person in this isolation is indeed a challenge. Too often self-survival is sought with introversion and further imposed isolations that resent the arrival of strangers.

Well-being anywhere is obtained in a complex scheme of resources. When Eskimos move to San Francisco, this struggle for adjustment can be viewed in reverse. One Eskimo we observed in Oakland was unable to transplant himself. He worked, came home, sat in a compulsively neat but empty house, with no ties with the surrounding community, and drank himself into a psychiatric disaster that required that he be shipped back to the Arctic. Clearly the success of such transplants depends on the ability to transport sufficient life style so that minimal wellbeing can be retained. When a familiar diet is broken and new foods rejected, a “crack-up” in personality can take place. For most teachers a contract in the Arctic is an abrupt interruption of normal life that will not begin again until they return to the “Lower Forty-Eight.” This is as true among teachers in the state system at Bethel as in the village schools of the BIA. Busy-ness is an anesthetic that certainly helps many through the Arctic winter. But this tends to be a frantic solution unless other outlets and relationships are achieved.

RELATING TO THE ARCTIC

The primary basis on which many teachers relate to the Arctic is linked to their reason for deciding to come to work with the Eskimos in the first place. Some come for adventure, but others come our of a real concern for the advertised deprivation of the Eskimo. The well-fed hold out a hand to the hungry. Modern man brings aid to primitive peoples-a missionary zeal that contains empathy but also a severe sense of inequality. They come north to help the Eskimo. Few come north to learn. And, too, many others come north for the money. Again, this is a general view of White teachers in the Arctic.

The motivated teachers of Eskimos approach their tasks with enthusiasm. But as the year passes, enthusiasm may too often change to a fatalism about the hopelessness of the task of educating the Eskimo within his life and habitat. For many the very cultural style of their students’ families is a block against education. Villagers can appear to lack progressive motivation. Indeed, Eskimos can appear lazy and improvident because they often do not find White goals of much value. For too many motivated teachers the year’s contract ends in negative discouragement.

The adventure-oriented teacher, usually male, often does relate to Eskimo survival skills in hunting and fishing. Alaska is a man’s world, and though sports-oriented teachers retain-well-being, their solution is usually outside the village and does not necessarily direct their reaching. Nor does it occur to them to adjust school-attendance scheduling so that Eskimo children could learn these skills also. Other Arctic-oriented teachers become collectors-Eskimo masks, mukluks, valuable furs, and exquisite parkas. But this interest in Eskimo artifacts, again, does not necessarily reach out to the Eskimo villagers or weave into classroom activity in terms of a culturally involved curriculum.

The few career teachers who stay for many years in the Arctic are the exception. For these unusual people school busy-ness may be replaced by deeper involvements. Real friendships are formed in the villages. Individual teachers in the past have been very influential in developing cooperatives and starting light plants in the villages. These lasting teachers are not so driven. On film they appear relaxed and generally live a human leisurely pattern.

One such teacher is a pilot, owns his own plane, and visits up and down the Kuskokwim. His wife is adept in first aid and generously directs an Eskimo village health worker. A circumstance that may be a key to their “lasting” is their philosophical view of their jobs. Generally they keep educational goals low, or “real,” in keeping with their aspirations for the Eskimo villagers. This view can become a fatalism, reinforced by years of experience, that closes the door on radical innovation. This philosophical view allows them genuinely to like the Eskimos, but at the same time precludes their envisioning anything but a limited horizon for these villagers unless they leave. These teachers have another great value: they stay, which is in itself educational. They have been a stimulation to students to reach the goals they feel are practical and progressive for the Eskimo. But it is precisely because of goals of this nature that American Indian education is now under grave question.

These observations are not directed solely toward a special BIA culture, but as stated earlier, toward White people contracted to work in wilderness isolation. The State of Alaska is taking more and more of the schools over from the BIA, and it is hard to imagine that circumstances would be radically different for state teachers. Basically I am describing the teacher environment of isolated Eskimo schools taught by culturally different White teachers. My observations are directed toward how this compound culture affects education. Furthermore, I am not describing a situation that is wholly predestined and not subject to change; indeed if it were, the substance of this report would be futile.

ESKIMO CHILDREN

Eskimo children must be the most rewarding kids in the world to teach. This is one’s immediate response to any Eskimo classroom in an isolated village. There is enough Eskimo life style left to retain the traditional personality. Will this change if the survival culture of the Arctic environment is radically eroded by intrusive technology and dollars for work unrelated to the ecology? As of now, the Eskimo children are remarkably stable and optimistic, eager for innovation and knowledge of the world.

One rarely meets dour looks or difficult dispositions in the elementary grades. Poor teaching skills and dull curriculum are yet not enough to dampen their spontaneity. They are apparently easy to lead and very cooperative. We have records of teachers who have capitalized on this opportunity; but in general, teachers in the villages make instruction hard work, apply themselves with compulsive intensity, and appear exhausted after a class period. You sense how hard it is for them to reach over to the Eskimo children from their own isolation. They appeared to be shouting lessons over a great gulf-and in the film there was considerable air distance as well as emotional distance between teachers and pupils.

Generally instruction was highly verbal with little feedback from the students. They sat dutifully in class, amazingly intent upon the teachers’ words or else quietly squirming, yawning, and stretching. Was this because of a language block? Was their English even more limited than the teachers realized? Would they have communicated in Eskimo? Or did the teaching style limit verbal feedback?

SCHOOLS AND VILLAGES

The Bureau of Indian Affairs Compound

The total presence of the BIA school-its compound, staff, and technology-provides its educational impact on the village. As observed, the school plant is model of White perfection which constantly contrasts with the tattered and weather-beaten Eskimo habitations. Each school has its maintenance workshop and ultramodern diesel light plant that runs continuously. Each school has a kitchen and a multipurpose room where hot lunches are served or bingo games held for the village on special evenings. The kitchen staff members wear uniforms and waitress-type hats and observe ultrahygienic routines.

The children’s lives are spent running to the brightly lighted, windowed school with all its technology, and back home again over the snow or mud to small, dark, not too hygienic Native homes.

The educational staff of the village school is not limited to White teachers. Each school has an Eskimo teacher’s aide and one, or sometimes as many as three, Eskimo maintenance and janitorial assistants, and an Eskimo kitchen staff. The Native staff members are elite villagers, skilled in White ways and considered intelligent and dependable. Also these Eskimo staff jobs may be the few cash opportunities available in the village and give the holders high status roles in the community.

The educational role of the teacher’s aide is clear. Occasionally she sits down with a group of children in the lower grades and corrects their spelling or math. A lot of the time she stands, far away from the teacher, and waits for an order or a chance to be of service-finding the pointer, the chalk, the blackboard eraser or handing our dittoed forms to students. Even in these modest services I am sure these aides are invaluable, if only for their ability to put the children at ease in Eskimo. What other educational functions these young women could be put to is a question to be examined later in our text.

The educational role of the various male Eskimo assistants is considerably more vague. Whatever their influence is, it is benign and most informal. As stared, they are highly selected personnel, educated in technology and adequate, if not fluent, in reading and writing. They are usually village leaders and belong to the National Guard. Could they be used to teach industrial arts and practical education and to be rewarding adult figures of educational success? In a related way, what further educational role could the kitchen staff offer the school?

A Village OEO Head Start

In the village of Kwethluk, a few hundred yards from the BIA compound, there is a contrasting school culture, the Head Start program financed by the Office of Economic Opportunity. For the Eskimos this is the village school, and the BIA is the government school.

The village Head Start class is held in the commodious planked council chamber of the village, and every service of this school is carried out by the village, including the instruction. Two young women of the village with BIA high school education and a summer’s workshop in Fairbanks teach 5-year-old Eskimo children rhe rudiments of Mother Goose, English, and alphabet recognition. I suspect the class is far ahead of where early childhood education is supposed to be, but this village school is taught by alert and ambitious Eskimo women with a high regard for their pupils.

The OEO Head Start program is directed from Bethel by a traveling director, herself an Eskimo from this very village, who flies a circuit of village schools 80 miles in all directions from Bethel. Most of the time the young teachers are on their own, and so the school operates on its own level.

The principal at the neighboring BIA school was suspicious that all they did was in Eskimo, but when I played him a tape from Head Start he was amazed and impressed by the school’s effectiveness in teaching English.

Viewed on film the school is very different from the BIA, and it is clear why this school made such progress. In the BIA prefirst as well as in the kindergarten at Bethel, there is a great deal of space between pupils and teachers. In this Head Start class, communication is body to body, and there is a current of communication running from teacher to students and back to teacher. The effect of this communication is clearly seen on film.

The BIA teachers are White and come and go. The Head Start teachers are kin to most of the children. Though English is used heavily in Head Start, it is easy to lapse into Eskimo whenever appropriate. This Head Start class was our one model of the effectiveness of Native teachers with minimal teacher training. This circumstance will be examined again in our conclusions.

A Moravian Mission Home and School

A variation from the school compound culture was the world of the Moravian Children’s Home three miles from Kwethluk. The Home was established originally to accommodate Eskimo children from families stricken by tuberculosis. Now that TB is no longer the scourge that it was, the Home is for any child who needs care and education. A church and three commodious two-story lodges are strung through a clearing in the stunted spruce on a bend of a tributary of the Kuskokwim. Through the summer, boats and barges stop at the Home, while in winter, planes land on the ice, and dog sled and Sno-Go link the Home with the post office downstream in Kwethluk.

Isolation is nearly complete, except for daily contact with the Home’s Eskimo population. Here there is no village nor any opportunity to interact with the ecology except to be surrounded by it. Whereas in the villages the school hours tend to be culturally separated from Native life, here you find the school one large family with intense interaction between everyone around the clock.

The missionary commitment of Moravian personnel makes for continuity. It is a way of life, and many stay to retirement. The religious activity largely takes care of well-being and insists on at least an outwardly loving social relationship. As a missionary center, both the Children’s Home and school are relaxed. The children seem spontaneously happy, and most of the human problems met in the compounds are solved by the Moravian culture of the Home. I am sure not all missionary schools achieve this relative harmony, and it is a question just what this Home offers in functioning education for Eskimos.

There is no overt culture conflict simply because the children are lifted totally from their own culture and submerged in the school. The extreme isolation makes everyone functionally dependent on everyone else. By comparison the BIA schools are in the mainstream of Arctic travel. Mail planes stop twice a week, and all day long bush planes are roaring in and our. The daily radio “skid” from Bethel holds each school in the bureaucracy. But the Moravian Home is “unto itself.”

Compared to the BIA schools, education at the Home is limited to the three R’s and vocational training such as typing. The plant is poor but stable, unequipped but severely thorough.

The school appeared to welcome visitors, and the director was eager to talk over the psychological problems of its charges. The question arises: Can such a mission school innovate to the bicultural needs of its students? Moravian missionaries initially took a very hostile view of Eskimo culture, and the summer school for Eskimo village lay readers still instructs against Eskimo culture in the form of dancing or traditional social life. Religious attendance in one village was fanatically compulsive, and the church program appeared not to concern itself with the survival problems of the community, such as building a cooperative, encouraging Arctic skill, and so on. One gets the impression that even here in the human warmth of the Home, orientation is out of the Arctic. The general education offered is in conflict with the life style of even the contemporary Eskimo. Looking our from the Home, the villages hardly exist. On the other hand, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, seat of the Moravian church, is critically in focus.

THE TUNDRA CITY OF BETHEL

What kind of education do Eskimos receive from this busy hub of the Arctic? The school in Bethel is excellent as measured in White values-as are the BIA village schools, as well. But here the school is an appendage of the city, Bethel.

Bethel as a school for Eskimos might be compared to Gallup, N.M., as a school far Navajos. A liquor store pays the town’s upkeep. And even though almost everyone agrees that this one- liquor store is the scourge of all Eskimos living in or visiting Bethel, in the last election the store was voted permanence-for it pays. Some years earlier it had been voted closed, with a sigh of relief, but the loss of revenue was too severe. Beyond the liquor store are three richly stocked general stores to tempt the Eskimo further in his tastes for conspicuous consumption, as well as waste.

Bethel has a genuine slum, poor as shoddy cabins only can be when shadowed by affluence. So in one sense Bethel is the world that the White man’s education is selling to the Eskimo. And as a world it has most of the White man’s failures. Bethel could be looked upon as a proving ground for coping with White ways and perversities. Hence it could be a very educational spot.

The Alaska State School in Bethel holds itself aloof (as do most schools) from the larger classroom, the city, even though its superintendent is aware and resentful of that fact. Education in the Bethel School cannot be judged by such extreme standards, but considering how intimate Bethel community problems are to the school, education could do far more than it is doing for improvement of community life. It should be judged on how well it prepares and encourages Eskimos to deal with their immediate social and economic circumstances. This writing will examine some of these educational goals further on in the text.

Eskimos themselves may be using Bethel at large as a school far more effectively than they use the state school. Bethel is the site of the most militant co-op and the center for the most politically determined Eskimo group in the tundra. Villagers from nearby Nunapitchuk form the backbone of the salmon cooperative based in Bethel and are the leading group in the Alaskan Native Association. Nunapitchuk had a rare and early educational opportunity. Through default there was a four-year period when the only teacher in the school was an Eskimo woman. This period of teaching paved the way for the following set of BIA teachers who also taught in terms of community education. One of these teachers married an Eskimo girl and at the time of this fieldwork had moved to Bethel where he was one of the leaders of the fishing co-op. The cooperative was given national news coverage when Walter Hickel, then governor of Alaska, under pressure from canneries in Seattle tried illegally to break it. When we consider the state school, we cannot ignore the very educating experience of this Eskimo cooperative.

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA’S BIG CITY

Anchorage is a boom town. It romantically likes to think of its boom as the derring-do of a latter day gold rush. Driving around Anchorage is more reminiscent of real estate developments around Seattle and the petty exploitation of millions of American dollars dumping inflation on the Arctic.

For the Eskimos, Anchorage is just a city, and they are in the minority as they would be in any city in the “Lower Forty-Eight.” Five thousand Indians, Aleuts, and Eskimos live in Anchorage. Seven percent of the school population is Native. The superintendent of elementary education suggests that actual school attendance represents only a part of the Native population of school age. He claims that many children are not in school at all because Natives find the schools painful and unfriendly. This reflects clearly the fact that the public schools are not for Eskimos or other Natives. Education here is the most conventional White urban education, just as Anchorage city life is White urban society.

Overtones from our film suggest that we are looking at Native education in any middle-sized American city. Actually in Anchorage there is a lower percentage of non-White students than would be found in many American city schools today. There is a very small Black population in Anchorage and an even smaller Oriental community, so that Anchorage might be expected to be less sophisticated about educating ethnic minorities than many other American cities. Though Anchorage has the largest Native community in Alaska, this fact appears to have little or no effect on programming in the schools.

Possibly this is the educational tragedy of Alaska. Statistically the Eskimos are a very small group of people. They have as yet little political power. Only since the oil strike on the North Slope have their interests been an issue in Alaskan affairs. When viewing the Anchorage school film, it is hard to realize that this is Alaska. Even more than Bethel, Anchorage is the American experience. We can look at Natives in school here as affected by very much the same circumstances as in Oakland, Seattle, or Spokane. The simple fact is that Anchorage really is an American city. Its schools present a fair picture of Natives in school attendance anywhere in the country.

 

 

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Last modified November 20, 2008