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Alaskan Eskimo Education:

A Film Analysis of Cultural

Confrontation in the Schools 

5/The classrooms on film


Tuluksak was the smallest and most remote Eskimo village in our study. It had been selected because informants in the Chemawa Boarding School in Oregon said it had more of the survival economies than any other Kuskokwim village. I found upon arrival that there was no winter trapping going on, except by the VISTA worker’s Eskimo assistant. Most of the village was on some variety of relief (which can he jeopardized by other sources of income) and during my winter visit there was literally no activity.

The BIA school was a compound of two classrooms, cafeteria, adjoining multipurpose room, dispensary, radio room, guest room, and quarters for the teachers, whom we will call Mr. and Mrs. Pilot,1 since the husband is an accomplished flyer. This couple had been teaching in Alaska twenty years and so might he considered representative of the BIA school culture.

Lower Grades

Mrs. Pilot was in command of a neat, well-equipped, and efficient classroom of about twenty students. The style of teaching was structured and very verbal. The teacher spoke distinctly in a well-modulated voice and kept the class going at a regimented pace. From a conservative point of view, this was a very well-taught class that should inspire a budding student teacher and delight educational superiors. Indeed, Mrs. Pilot’s teaching was spoken of with admiration up and down the river and in faraway Chemawa.

Arctic months on the Kuskokwim

April and May are bleak Arctic months on the Kuskokwim, but much schoolroom decoration follows the seasons of the South. Springtime in the “Lower Forty-Eight” is the motif for this bulletin board in the Tuluksak BIA school (below).

bulletin board in the Tuluksak BIA school

In response to this verbal performance the students were very quiet, though fidgety with what might be boredom or withdrawal. They were well trained in their classroom roles, but looked a bit sleepy and as students, would be called dull. The team judgment describes the class as overstructured and overtrained in proper behavior, simply because there seemed no variation of behavior and very little spontaneous feedback from the students to the teacher or to one another.

One variation in the class routine was filmed. Once a week an old man from the village would come and tell stories in Eskimo. On this particular occasion the teacher set up the recorder to tape the story and then for a period left the room. Child-to-child communication changed. While they were intently listening to the Eskimo storyteller, the children formed a warm communicating group, expressing their acceptance of each other by body contact, hair caressing, and hand clasping.

Later the teacher brought in two Eskimo-made models of forest hunting camps, complete with canoe, meat cache, and forest tools. The children were immediately involved in the models. But when the teacher took a pointer and began to ask questions, they reverted to classroom routine and waited and watched the lecturing-questioning of the teacher. Apparently the questioning distracted them from the model rather than stimulating them to look into the model. For a few moments the teacher’s aide questioned the students, and they looked vividly at the model with considerable group communication.

During my visit this Eskimo teacher’s aide usually remained very quiet, standing back or simply handing material to the class. I am sure she was much appreciated by Mrs. Pilot, but Mrs. Pilot’s own style of teaching was so set that there was only limited work of a serious kind for her aide to do. Occasionally the Eskimo aide did take students into the cafeteria for special instruction. But considering Mrs. Pilot’s teaching load in this two-room multigrade school, where there certainly was need for a real teaching assistant, why weren’t these women teaching together? Because the aide didn’t have a credential? Or was there simply no academic place for a Native teacher in the BIA school? These questions will be probed more deeply in our conclusions.

Mrs. Pilot went to great effort to have a colorful, freshly decorated room in keeping with the seasons. There were spring motifs (even in deep Arctic winter in the month of March) and child-play images: a choo-choo train hauling a long load of alphabets, a cutout line of circus figures, a calf drinking from a bucket of milk, a hoard with a huge bumblebee, and cutouts on a pinup board of the proper diet-Spanish rice, bread, butter, milk, and gingerbread, actually the menu for the school lunch. These were gay images of childhood, hut they were not for Arctic children not Arctic environment. One of Mrs. Pilot’s survival lessons is not how to keep from getting lost in a blizzard but how to obey green and red stop-lights in Anchorage, taught with a full-size, green-yellow-red stop sign. The White school is dedicated to bringing modern knowledge to Eskimos. Mrs. Pilot was teaching White survival. Probably the only inadequacy of this “survival in Anchorage” lesson was the absence of a balancing lesson on survival within the Native world-an area probably outside Mrs. Pilot’s cultural insights.

Visually the shortcoming in this room was that there was generally only teacher-to-student communication. There was no sense of a circuit interrelating everyone. Instead, the teacher was the center. She moved about constantly, sending messages to individual students; But the students were as if alone in the room, barely projecting to the teacher and communicating with each other covertly or not at all.

Eskimo camp in the BIA school in Tuluksak

Culturally relevant learning of English stimulated by a model of an Eskimo camp in the BIA school in Tuluksak.

Even this able and punctilious teacher did not manage to ruin on this classroom. Yet, of all the BIA teachers in our sample, Mrs. Pilot had the most interaction with her village and had genuine friendships with various Eskimo women. She was ambitious for her students to excel, while at the same time discouraged about Tuluksak and the future of her students. We can surmise that despite the fact that Mrs. Pilot was an outstanding teacher in her own style, this did not appear to support the Eskimos’ style, and that the students became much too uncommunicative and at the same time unreceptive.

Some time later I had occasion to film free-play in the village, and there was spontaneity and spirited behavior. The low pace of the classroom was replaced with delight and intensity.

Upper Grades

Mr. Pilot directed his class with equally seasoned professionalism. He appeared to have reduced education to its rudiments and leaned heavily on workbooks, which is not unreasonable in a mixed-graded classroom. His manner was gentle, quiet, and limited in verbal messages. He moved about the room constantly, briefly answering questions and correcting faults. In a quiet way he exerted his discipline, and the classroom was as structured as the first-through-fourth. He was very relaxed and his students equally relaxed. The research team described this behavior as sleepy. The team feels the students and teacher are just going through the motions. Actually this quiet teacher may have been giving more than the film reveals in-terms of education.

The walls of the classroom do reflect Alaska. There was a poster with samples of all fur-bearing animals, pelts glued on with the proper names of the animals. Above the blackboard were cutouts of Alaskan animals and a fleet of snowmobiles. Mr. Pilot is a flyer, hunter, and gunsmith, and probably the older boys relate to him on these skills. At least this was one bridge, and the eighth-grade students seemed genuinely involved in their tasks.

But despite these shared interests, the teacher stands aloof. He rarely sits down with his students and usually is in a state of motion. Our data sheets record little direct evidence of student-teacher relations, and it was observed that the workbook lessons seemed to require very few responses.

Despite evident competence, here also was a chasm with but a slender bridge- hunting and a flyer’s involvement with the ecology-with a sense of great air space between teacher and student. Communication signals were very limited. The students did not watch the teacher or signal eye responses to the teacher. They did relate in a nonverbal way to one another; as one observer noted, they “yawned in unison.”

Why was there so little to show for the human warmth of this school? Mrs. Pilot’s kitchen door was always open, and women were often stopping to chat or have coffee with her. She was always simple and cordial and warm. In the evenings she helped run a weekly bingo game for the interested mothers and regularly held advisory school board meetings. In one meeting she stressed that soon the BIA might give up its educational function and the village might be expected to run its own school through a school board. Yet in the same meeting she read a long letter from the superintendent of BIA education asking whether the community wanted Native teachers. She presented the question by assuring them that there were not enough accredited Native teachers, so that if they wanted Native teachers they would have an unaccredited school. Since the majority agreed they did not want an unaccredited school, this amounted to not asking for Native teachers.

Had there been a formal path through the jungle of bureaucracy to practical goals of ethnic and ecological survival education, certainly teachers like Mr. and Mrs. Pilot would teach toward such goals. We have described how Mrs. Pilot did bring an Eskimo storyteller into the classroom. She made him very welcome and taped his Eskimo tales, which showed her appreciation of Eskimo stories she could not even understand. With explicit sanction from above, maybe many bush teachers would begin reaching out to Native teachers on many levels of content and skill.

Hovering in the background of the dedicated efforts to these two career bush teachers is the couple’s shared conviction that there is little future for tiny Tuluksak simply because dollars and affluence are sweeping Alaska and somehow this progress spells doom for Eskimo communities. In a silent way maybe Tuluksak Natives feel this also, and so together teachers and students do not have much future to work toward. If there were a realistic future, probably these two teachers would change spontaneously the style of their teaching.

The Tuluksak case was one of the most baffling of our Eskimo study because of the ineffectiveness of the human potential of this teaching team; Mr. and Mrs. Pilot deserved their reputation as outstanding teachers, but still the school appeared failing the community. What was critically needed may be genuinely beyond the present intent and resources of the BIA or any White-administered Eskimo school. Education for Native welfare-missing from this school as from so many others- is inextricably involved with the conflict between two cultures and life styles.

Tuluksak is a community, but is its BIA school a community school? Is the lethargy of the community related to the pace of the school; or is the school the effect of the community? If it were a community school, what could it do for an underdeveloped community?

The community force in Tuluksak now is the Moravian lay minister, an Eskimo from the Kuskokwim Bay region on the Bering Sea. His efforts of community development are expressed in compulsive church attendance and study of the Bible. The BIA school appears in conflict with this church leader, and he has been reported to discourage community actions by the school. Hence the school on one very important level is isolated from the community. In a similar way the VISTA worker also ran into conflict with the church and found that his community program was quietly ignored by the village-to a point where the VISTA worker just sat alone in his cabin. As already stated, this is not always the case with BIA village schools; occasionally they have added to the community welfare in positive ways-though likely by circumnavigating BIA isolationism.

I revisited Tuluksak on May 3, just on the eve of the river breakup, indeed on the very last ski plane. The world was pools of melting snow, and great cakes of ice were beginning to move toward the sea. The silent winter village had sprung to life as more and more navigable water opened up along the village shore. Everywhere boats were being caulked, outboard motors repaired, nets mended, a canoe re-covered. Muskrat season was about to begin. Salmon fishing was weeks away. Everywhere children ran, danced, played marbles with young and old, played baseball, hovered around the water edge watching winter go out. Boats were finally launched in the limited clear water and motors began roaring as Eskimos raced up and down “to shake loose the ice.” At this season it was hard to believe Tuluksak was doomed or had a low ebb of vitality at all. There was fire in Eskimo cheeks and sparkle in their eyes. How could there be a dull school in the midst of such vitality?

1 Descriptive code names have been devised to help the reader recall the many different characters in our drama.



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Last modified November 21, 2008