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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




This series brings to students the results of direct observation and participation in educational process, by anthropologists, in a variety of cultural settings, including some within the contemporary United States. Each of the books in this series is selected as an enduring example of educational anthropology. Classrooms, schools, communities and their schools, cultural transmission in societies where there are no schools in the Western sense, all ate represented in the series. The authors of these studies move beyond formalistic treatments of institutions to the interaction among the people engaged in educative events, their thinking and feeling, and to the educative transactions themselves.

Education is a cultural process. Every act of teaching and learning is a cultural event. Education recruits new members into society and maintains the culture. Education may also be an instrument for change as new adaptations are disseminated.

Generalizations about relationships between schools and communities, education and society, and education and culture become meaningful when education is studied as a cultural process. This series is intended for use in courses in education, and in anthropology and the other social sciences, where these relationships are particularly relevant. They will stimulate thinking and discussion about education that is not confined by one’s own cultural experience. The cross-cultural emphasis of the series is particularly significant. Without this perspective, our view will be obscured by ethnocentric bias.


John Collier’s qualifications are those of a fieldworker and an observer of culture. In his role as photographer he has brought special sensitivity to recognition and recording of the field circumstance.

Collier’s first fieldwork was in the early forties with the Farm Security Administration photographic team led by Roy F. Stryker. Here, working with Edwin Rosskam, Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon, Jack Delano, and Russell Lee, Collier was educated in the social and economic content of the documentary visual record. When Stryker moved from government to industry, much of his staff moved with him, and Collier spent four roving years recording the role of petroleum as an agent of change, from the arctic to the tropics. This experience brought him to the challenge of cultural significance in photographic imagery.

In 1946 Collier collaborated with Anibal Buitron, Ecuadorean anthropologist, in an experimental study to record with the camera the complexity of culture and processes of change. The Awakening Valley, by Collier and Buitron, reported on this effort of combining photography and ethnography.

From this point Collier moved directly into anthropology. For three years he worked as a research assistant with Dr. Alexander H. Leighton, of Cornell University, exploring and testing our various photographic methodologies that could open the door to the nonverbal content of culture. These studies included cross-cultural fieldwork in the Maritimes of Canada and the Navajo Reservation. Next Collier worked for a year assembling for Dr. Allan R. Holmberg a photographic baseline of the culture of Vicos against which to evaluate change in the Peru-Cornell Project. A comprehensive photographic ethnography was prepared, which awaits publication.

For the past ten years Collier has devoted his time to teaching and research in visual anthropology. He has worked consistently in the area of acculturation and the welfare of American Indians and more recently in problems of Indian education. After his film study of Alaskan Eskimos, Collier continued this educational research in the Rough Rock Demonstration School in Arizona.

Collier has lectured at Stanford University, the University of California at
Berkeley and Davis, the University of Oregon, and the University of Washington.
He is now an associate professor in Education and Anthropology at California State University at San Francisco and also reaches creative photography at the San
Francisco Art Institute.

About the Book

This is a study of the educational process where the teacher and the student represent different communities. The settings for the study range from schools in isolated Alaskan villages attended only by Eskimos to schools in Anchorage where only 7 percent of the student body are Eskimo, Indian, and Aleutian. The research is unique not only because it was done on a wide range of communities but because it was carried our by an anthropologist using film and tape as his major data collecting devices. The procedures used and explained by John Collier in this case study enabled him in a comparatively short period of time and with twenty hours of film as data to produce a substantial and very insightful analysis of education.

Perhaps because of his use of motion picture photography as a research technique, his analysis calls attention to the elemental rhythms of interaction and movement within the classroom. The teacher who moves into and becomes a part of the circle of children, the teacher who talks to the empty seats in the classroom at a great distance, the teacher who is oriented to the individual tasks of individual children, and the children themselves, involved and spontaneous or bored and sleepy, come through in a way that is rare in the literature of schooling and education.

The insights into educational process to be gained from this case study are not limited in their application to Eskimo or Indian education alone. The teacher in every school in every classroom is in some measure separated culturally from his or her students. The separation and insulation of the teacher is more severe in the cases described by John Collier than in many schools in the United Stares, but the elements of interaction and communication are perceivable and held in common in all schools. Conversely, the elements of effective teaching and productive learning are identifiable and applicable to all schools. In this case study it is clear that education is a transaction dependent upon interaction and empathy.

The case study also raises questions about the relevance of what is taught. It is not merely a question of whether Eskimo children should he taught about the culture and technology of the Whiteman in, say, Seattle, Washington, but rather one of how the knowledge about Seattle shall be joined with an understanding of the environment in which the Eskimo child is living. If the teacher is sealed off from this environment both physically and psychologically, the probability that a viable joining will occur is remote. This generalization applies to any school any place.

George and Louise Spindler
General Editors



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Last modified November 19, 2008