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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 



The potential of an Eskimo future.
The potential of an Eskimo future.

Education for Indians and Eskimos is part of a century of effort to place them successfully in the mainstream of American life. The federal effort to educate Indians was a treaty obligation born out of the Indian wars and the Plains Indians’ final defeat at the massacre of Wounded Knee. It seemed not unreasonable at that time to consider education as a terminal experience that would close the history of the Native American.1

But the Natives have not been assimilated, not have they vanished. Rather, they have rapidly increased their number and are now a fast growing minority in the United States. Indians have demonstrated the need to be Indians, to be themselves, and even today this continues to be a perplexing problem in schools and acculturation in general. Too often education has resulted in conflicts demanding extreme personality change. For this reason, among others, Indian education has continued to be a negative experience.

Education for Native Americans is a controversial issue because-despite millions spent by federal, state, and public schools, and by the churches-Indian students too often appear less equal than ever before, as personal fulfillment becomes increasingly difficult in modern society. Generally schooling has not opened pathways to equal opportunity, psychologically or economically, for these culturally different students. Rather, the quality of their education has placed thousands of Native Americans on relief and many thousands more in the ghettos of cities-far too many. In a shocking way, the more they go to school, it seems, the less effective they become as human beings.

How should the White society educate the Red or Brown American? In search of an answer the U.S. Office of Education funded a National Study of American Indian Education, in an eleventh hour effort to salvage Native American education and to assist teachers in this task wherever Indians are in school. The film study of Eskimo schools was one unit of the National Study.

Under the direction of Robert J. Havighurst of the University of Chicago, the National Study conducted an extensive survey, with regional reams all over the United States following the same program of testing instruments and scheduled interviewing.2 Anthropologist and educator John Connelly, of San Francisco State College, was contracted as regional director for the Northwest Coast and Alaska. Connelly invited me to add a visual dimension to his evaluation by film research. It was hoped that this direct observational study would qualify the more abstract verbalized findings of the formal analysis.

The fieldwork was carried out in the spring of 1969, largely in the area of Bethel, an air hub and trading center on the Kuskokwim River in West Central Alaska. Here in the tundra along the winding waterways of the Kuskokwim the Eskimos live in many tiny fishing communities, each with its community elementary school operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Neat one village a Moravian Mission ran a children’s home and their own eight-grade school. In Bethel itself the consolidated elementary and high schools were operated by the State of Alaska. While Connelly and his assistants, Ray and Carol Barnhardt, concentrated on the larger schools in Bethel, I began my film study in the remote river villages, then moved in to Bethel, and finally to the municipal public schools of Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage-covering more than forty educational situations and collecting for analysis some twenty hours of classroom film data.

The purpose of the film study was to track the well-being of Eskimo children through all varieties of school environments of this region-mission schools, BIA schools, state schools, city public schools. In the following year the film data was systematically analyzed and evaluated by a team of four San Francisco State College students and graduates with training in both education and visual anthropology. A final report, combining their judgments, my own judgments, and my empirical field experience, was submitted to the U.S. Office of Education, and the bulk of this material has been incorporated into this book.

Perhaps I should have gone north with no preconceived ideas about Native education, but this was not the case with me nor with most of the members of the National Study teams. Though my knowledge of Eskimos was limited, I had experienced years of interaction with policies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Indian education in other areas. Earlier fieldwork on the Navajo, and more recently a study of Indians relocated in the San Francisco Bay Area, had already raised in my mind serious questions about education for culturally different children. This certainly affected my research and directed my observations, indeed may even have weighted my view. Critically I was observing within an anthropological frame of reference and checking on many circumstances of education with which I was already familiar. Further, I had come north from eight years of seminar experience with college students working for teaching credentials, so I was bringing to my focus not only problems of Indian education but the challenge of American education in general. As I filmed, questioned, and listened, I was seeking answers for many problems and clarification for many dilemmas that have generally confounded education across cultures.

Also, I came north with the belief that there is success in Indian education, though it may be less easily defined than the more pervasive failure. I was seeking a fulfilling classroom where positive and additive learning took place. Such a model could offer teachers a foundation point for adapting learning for the culturally different. The first and basic question was: What developments might be needed in Indian education? I hoped some fine teachers would show me these needs. Beyond what teachers could demonstrate, I wanted to broaden the focus of the challenge away from conventional goals and standards into the emotional and cultural considerations which might lie far beyond the common expectation of what makes a school effective.

It is native to our American system to believe that success can be measured in monetary and technological accomplishment, and that dollar-rich budgets can relieve the basic problems of deprivation. An equally spontaneous approach has been to find villains and scapegoats. For years critics have pommeled what they considered “inferior” teachers and decried the material poverty of Indian schools. What if our study found the schools excellently equipped by contemporary standards and the teachers both dedicated and well trained? What if we found that the best equipped schools and teachers fared no better or worse than physically drab, ill-equipped schools with minimally trained teachers? What would we face then? We were alerted that the issue might not be the professionality of the education provided, but the kind of education and the kind of practices followed in teaching the emotionally and intellectually different Native child.

To appreciate how I filmed and what I observed in Eskimo schools, we should share together what I feel is the significant relationship between culture and learning, for this relationship is the major focus of this book. An important view I share with many colleagues is that there is a great difference between schooling and education. As Robert Roessel, first director of the culturally determined Rough Rock Demonstration School on the Navajo, puts it, “Education is everything that takes place in life.” Schooling is a limited aspect of the learning experience. With this view, conceivably the larger and often the most important education takes place before school, continuously outside of school, and long after school. A powerful education can be obtained with no school at all. In a lifetime experience with Indians in the Southwest, I have been impressed by the acuteness and intellectual effectiveness of unschooled Pueblo and Navajo Indians, who often respond to complex modern legalistic challenges with more grasp than school-trained Indians. Does this suggest that Indian children can lose intelligence by going to schools? Or is it simply very difficult to use Indian intelligence in White programs? Throughout this study, total education rather than the interlude of schooling is the large concern. We want to know how schooling affects education, additively or subtractively. In the same reference we are concerned with how schools affect learning and the development of intelligence.

California schoolteachers frequently view their Indian students as unintelligent or retarded. This impression may have a basis of accuracy, for certainly many Indian students perform at a low level. The question the anthropologist must raise is: Do they enter school retarded, or do they become retarded through schooling? One of the casualties of acculturation, moving from one system of values to another, is that effective intelligence can be left behind.

An anthropological view of intelligence is that it is both learned and expressed within a cultural system. Ruth Benedict (1934) refers to this phenomenon as the “language of culture,” through which man develops, communicates, and solves his life problems. The cultural language is the total communication of group-shared values, beliefs, and verbal and nonverbal language. The intelligence of the Native child must be observed in this communication context. Behavior outside one’s own system can appear unintelligent. It is generally accepted that much of basic intelligence is formed in early childhood within a particular environmental program. Acuteness of mind rests within the first language, and the initial intelligence rests upon experiences in the first environment, whether that be desert, jungle, or Arctic snow. From this is born the resourcefulness and intellectual vigor that we hope will be the equipment of the child as he grows. This presents the dilemma that it may be difficult and sometimes impossible to utilize full intelligence except within the cultural system that nurtured the child. It is this challenge that presents crosscultural education as a conflict between cultures, deeply involving the personality and culture of both teachers and students.

In this perspective, effective education could be the degree of harmony between the students’ culturally and environmentally acquired intelligence, and the learning opportunities and the intelligence-developing procedures and goals of the school. Reasonably, if significant conflict lies between Eskimo processes and the school, some variety of educational failure must be expected. Teachers may be seen reaching ideally with the flow of Native intelligence, or teaching negatively against the Native stream of consciousness. Granted, these are subtle energies, but they are there to be utilized or ignored, and they may well make the difference between a motivated or a “turned-off” classroom.

Western life style and technology have drastically altered the Eskimos’ relation to the Arctic, as indeed they have altered indigenous life throughout the world. Realistically then, what should be the goals of schools in preparing Natives to survive in drastic and rapid change? Can schools offer needed new skills to cope with modern economic survival without weakening essential Native learning for success in the Arctic environment?

Because historically education for Native Americans was essentially the conflict waged to change the Indians into White men, I was prepared to see stress which often places the Native child in conflict with his own personality-stress resulting either from failure in mastering the school culture and hence failure in the teachers eyes, or stress from success in mastering White style. Successful White education could become the double bind that leaves the child in a chasm between two worlds.

A significant question is: What is success in the eyes of the White educators? Relocation away from the village? Partial or complete rejection of Eskimo self? Are students often left in the traumatic confusion which may be associated with disorganized change? Workers in the field of Indian education have long been concerned over the high dropout rare, among Indian students, and the later inability to cope with modern cultural and economic life. Other ethnic minorities, notably Spanish-American children, respond in similar ways to comparable circumstances. I was equally concerned about this confusion of personality which seemed to freeze effective development.

Do White teachers of Eskimos limit further the resources of their students by their attitudes toward the Eskimo life style? White people in Alaska are heard to say, “The villages have lost their economic function. There is no future for a bright well-educated Eskimo boy in the villages.” Is the intelligence of the child locked significantly into the vitality of his village and the Arctic life style, so that if we condemn the villages, we are also rejecting the emotional well-being of the child, in school and out? In this light, is White education a support or an assault upon Eskimo vitality? Can we consider well-being in education without considering the solidarity of Eskimo life in the Arctic? Is there no place for Eskimo culture in modern survival education? Where and how could Eskimo skills be incorporated into the schools?

White education on the Navajo Reservation, whether missionary or BIA, has in the past consistently rejected Navajo-ness from the schools, as if to say, “Hang your culture outside, and take a shower before you come to class!” Even today the first step in a BIA kindergarten school on the Navajo is to strip the clothes off the youngsters and soap them down before they are allowed in the classroom. However hygenic this may sound, and however economically practical the White teachers’ dim view of the Eskimo village may be, both reject symbolically and conceptually the Native children from the White education in the school. Let us be very clear: I am not talking about any single kind of school-missionary, BIA, state, or public. We are simply discussing and observing what is happening to Native children in White schools. Ironically, comparable rejections affect many White children, as well as other ethnic minorities in American education.

Traveling north my plane left Seattle and flew over four hours of snowbound wilderness. Surely the far Arctic is the outpost of the American continent. Here we could observe again the historic contact of modern White culture with ancient people, the Eskimos. The wilderness was vast beyond any of my conceptions. Schools were dots on the tundra; villages, clustered dots by frozen rivers or coastlines. But when I entered the village classrooms, I sensed that I had not traveled far. Here was the familiar conflict, the distance that frequently isolates teacher from students. I was immediately impressed that there were aspects of the Eskimo classroom that were shared with the inner-city schools or the Spanish-American schools in the Southwest. In greater dimension, I sensed I was witnessing the conflict involved in the westernization of ancient societies, or of affluent American education’s attempts to communicate with and ideally to “uplift” students from poverty’s community. The Eskimo world has been called the ghetto of the north, or in the words of Edward Kennedy as reported in the Anchorage press, “the Appalachia of the Arctic.” How pervasive is this view? Are teachers able to break away from this ethnocentricity and educate Eskimos as Eskimos?

Intrinsically this book is a report of “White Studies” for Brown students, and the hardships and frustrations of administering such a curriculum laid down by culture-bound White values. I approached the Eskimo world as an isolated microcosm where the familiar circumstance of the crosscultural dilemma might be observed and its simplicity might offer fresh insights that would be useful to the Hong Kong Chinese immigrants in San Francisco as well as to the Eskimos and the American Indians.

Our queries may appear to go beyond the scope of our film data of Eskimo classrooms. Factually stated, they certainly do. But the drama in these classrooms goes far beyond the teachers’ fulfillment of their professional roles. To give justice to the efforts and the generosities of these men and women, I feel the real challenge of their assignments must be appreciated. Positive education for Native Americans has baffled educators for decades. Brilliant schemes have been introduced and millions of dollars spent, with small return. I approached my Eskimo classrooms with this perspective, and all that has been written is toward appreciating the scope of the challenge. The landscape of education I am trying to describe is particularly critical for Eskimo and Indian students, but the dilemma is shared with all children who are different-Red, Brown, Yellow, Black, or White. Basically the challenge is the right to be one’s own self, whether this be the personality of a single individual, or the collective personality of a group. I move forward in this writing, as I did in the field experience itself, seeking an educational definition that offers people, no matter how different from others, a productive place in the modern world. I write with conviction that not only are people and peoples inherently unique but that civilization is enriched and tempered by this diversified vitality. I see Native education (and there are Natives everywhere among us) as utilizing multitudes of cultural energies without which a free and equal world may never be formed. The pages to come describe the varied effort of many teachers to deal with this challenge. The descriptions of classrooms will share with you questions that remain unresolved: Why are we educating Eskimo students? Why do well-trained teachers so often choose to teach in the lonely school posts of Eskimo villages? And if Eskimos were genuinely offered equal educational opportunity, what would be the content of this experience?


My winter departure from civilization and modernity of the “Lower Forty-Eight” was from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Flight northward was toward the Arctic frontier where symbolically man’s survival still is within the grip of nature. Flight into the Arctic winter dusk from Juneau to Anchorage is surely over nature’s domain-no track of road, no human sign, hour after hour of tundra land, icebound shorelines, and treeless mountain ranges. But this expanse, north to the Arctic Ocean, is the home of 53,000 Eskimos, Indians, and Aleuts, scattered over a half million square miles of tundra and forestland. It was hard to conceive of modern enterprise emerging out of this wilderness. It was hard to imagine man’s living at all in such bleakness!

But in a few minutes I would be arriving at the city of Anchorage. Mountains suddenly leveled, and in the distance was an impossible blaze of lights-the city. The lights fanned out in a maze of brilliance. Ahead were the homes of 40,000 White men and an estimated 5,000 Native Alaskans. The plane was lowering fast. The wilderness was scattered. Blinking neon signs, red and blue, and ribbons of car headlights illuminated tall buildings and windows of tiny homes. Suddenly the wilderness that had been majestic and timeless seemed fragile. Only a few decades ago Anchorage had been a railroad construction camp. Now Anchorage was any small American city that had grown too fast. Gaudy bars, secondhand car lots, and glass-encased, self-consciously modern buildings, with piles of dirty snow. Sharply dressed men, girls in miniskirts despite the cold, American construction men in boots, fur caps, and cowboy hats. Here and there a Native-Eskimo women picking their way with care in sealskin mukluks, quiet Indian faces drifting along, bright eyes of a few Native children, oblivious to the modern pace and mechanization. Here was a model of what American know-how could do with the Arctic wilderness. As in any American city, cars streamed by, grinding the winter into black asphalt. Multitudes came in by plane, but as many more came in cars from California and Oklahoma-campers, trailers, wagons, sport cars. The wilderness was broken by the Alaskan Highway and by the constant air streams flowing to and from the “Lower Forty-Eight,” Europe, and Japan.

My second journey through time was from Anchorage to Bethel, a western trading center on the second largest river in Alaska, the Kuskokwim, which flows from the mountainous interior to the Bering Sea. The city of Bethel-would it be ablaze like Anchorage? Wien Consolidated Airlines canceled the morning flight: snow. Nature had intruded!

The flight to Bethel was into an Arctic wind and flurries of snow. The plane interior was shabby with use. Freight was lashed down where passenger sears had been. An all-Eskimo detachment of National Guardsmen climbed aboard, on their way home to villages after a training period near Anchorage. They were heavily dressed in snow packs, army parkas, and ear-flap caps. They filled the plane with gentle laughter and pressed their noses against the windows as we angled upward in a deafening burst of jet engines.

We circled for altitude, leveled westward as Anchorage began shrinking, and finally disappeared in the grandeur of desolate white peaks. The wilderness closed beneath me again. No trails, no sight of man. For the next two hours it was incomprehensible that we would see man again; but we would, the miracle would happen, and out of nowhere would come the small city of Bethel.

When our plane crossed the peaks of the Kilbuck Range, a hundred miles inland from the sea, we were over the tundra lands of the Kuskokwim. As we descended to land at Bethel, we came in low over the river that meandered west in tortuous coils between dark shorelines of willow and spruce. There were trails of men here! Lines of sled and Sno-Go (snowmobile) trails up and down the frozen river to villages near and very far, located on the river banks or on equally coiled river tributaries. Here the river Eskimos have thrived with a precarious balance of fish, berries, rabbits, ducks, caribou, moose, bear, and an occasional seal swimming from the sea. The Eskimo villages were here when the first White man came two centuries ago. How much longer will they remain? Along with our Eskimo passengers were Army officers and city-dressed men with galoshes, overcoats and attaché cases. Why do they come? What schemes are in their heads? The very vacuum of the wilderness seems to draw White men into the Arctic, each a messenger, like myself, from the modern world.

After experiencing Anchorage, the emptiness of the Arctic seemed deceptive.. How rapidly it was overrun in three years in the Gold Rush! And now oil, minerals, and civil and military aeronautics. The air highway to Europe leads over the North Pole. And every square mile of the wilderness is contended for as a potential sportsman’s paradise, which covets every salmon, polar bear, and moose. Modern men change nature and, of course, the lives of the Native people. Change them into what?

Wing flaps down for landing. Sno-Go and sled tracks below us converged on the straggled river front settlement of Bethel, a scattered mass of black buildings sending up plumes of steam. Bethel was not like Anchorage yet.

Bethel is principally an airport center for western Alaska, a defense base left from World War II, still with the helterskelter look of a habitation of hastily thrown-up buildings and Quonset huts. Bethel is an Eskimo city, for Bethel is the hub of a score of Eskimo villages located 5 to 80 miles east and west along the Kuskokwim waterways. But Bethel is also a bridgehead of modernity in the tundra. I felt I had stepped back in history, for Anchorage was such a bridgehead for White enterprise fifty years ago. But nature still holds Bethel in her grip! No water system, no sewage. Water is purchased by the barrel, and human waste removed by the bucketful. In the schools in Anchorage 7 percent of the students are Natives, but here in Bethel the consolidated elementary and high schools are dominated by an 85-percent Eskimo student body. Bethel is an Eskimo city. Would the White invasion tip the balance of this culture? Soon?

Bethel is an island in the tundra with barely twenty miles of roads. But cars moved grotesquely through its streets, past Eskimos on snowmobiles and masses of Natives and Whites walking over frozen roads to and from the Post Office, the state liquor store, and three major trading posts that straggled along the river. Below river pilings teams of sled dogs were tethered, wailing and barking while the Eskimo owners traded or just visited in the metropolis. Icy winds blew up and down the river or across the desolate tundra, driving against long squirrel and muskrat skin parkas of the Eskimo women, or against the surplus Air Force high-altitude clothing popular with so many Eskimo men.

My third journey back in time was from Bethel to the isolated village of Tuluksak that lay eighty miles eastward up river on a tributary of the Kuskokwim. Seattle to Anchorage to Bethel and now to journey’s end, Tuluksak. Air wings had become smaller, a single-engine bush plane, equipped with skis and loaded with parcels and freight. Village landings would be on river ice. We gained very little altitude and flew eastward across the loops and bends of the Kuskokwim River, following, as it were, the multitude of sled trails with now and then the tiny shapes of a dog team coming or going from Bethel. Twenty minutes later the plane dropped down even closer. Tuluksak lay ahead, pointed out by the pilot. Tuluksak is a village of the tundra, another dot on the map of Alaska, a black design of tiny dwellings, where one hundred and fifty Eskimos, one White VISTA worker, and two White teachers survived together through the winter isolation.

The plane settled down for a ski landing on the river ice. Log and frame dwellings flashed by, the bright buildings of the Bureau of Indian Affairs school, the steeple of the Moravian church. Dark winter-clad villagers descended the snow banks of the river to the metal bird that links the village to the world. Mail, relief checks, newspapers, a hundred pounds of dog food. And I, the stranger, descended to the river ice; another White man had arrived. Eskimo children helped me with my gear, and I entered the village world amid wild barking of staked-out sled dogs.

Journey’s end was this village along a small frozen river. There was a tiny Native store, an even smaller post office, a white and green painted Moravian church, and clusters of log and frame houses that loosely formed a village square or fronted on meandering pathways leading along the high rivet banks. Aside from the barking sled dogs it was very quiet. A few figures emerged, disappeared, or reentered dwellings. A village asleep in the Arctic half light. Further beyond lay the BIA school compound, discrete from the tiny log houses of the village.

The village of Kwethluk, twice the size of Tuluksak, has electric lights,
a brightly painted BIA school, a Moravian church, and a Russian
Orthodox church.

Why had I come? Why had the lone young man VISTA worker come? Why had the BIA teachers, man and wife, come and remained teaching in the Arctic for twenty years? White teachers first came to the Kuskokwim to change Eskimos into Christians. I came to observe how White education affects the Eskimos. But we all came, in our separate ways, because we considered the Eskimos in deprivation. The missionary teachers came because they believed the Eskimos had no concept of the soul. The BIA had sent teachers because they found the Eskimos unhygienic and inept in mastering White ways. The VISTA worker came because he believed the village low in modern skills and community enterprise. I also came over anxiety about skills-skills either not taught in the White school or blocked by the White school by interfering with Native survival learning of how to live in the Arctic ecology. My concern was whether education was helping Eskimos live in the real world as Eskimos. But as an observer and an evaluator, I came as a White man like a hundred others who at one time or another have descended on this tiny dot of a village called Tuluksak.

How far back in time was this village? At what point in Eskimo destiny was White education attempting to meet the village’s need? Here my study of Eskimo education began-in the most remote village in a two-teacher school in a community reputedly involved in the subsistence survival of the Arctic. I was dropping in from the skies into two centuries of aboriginal-White contact culminating in Eskimo survival today. Within this history was the BIA school, built close on the edge of Tuluksak.

I was impressed with the human warmth and skill of the BIA teachers when I entered the Tuluksak classroom. The first-, second-, third-, and fourth-grade classroom was a very cheerful room decorated with bright prints of farm animals and cutouts of paper flowers. The room was wonderfully clean and orderly; the children, cheerful and well-behaved if a bit sleepy. The teacher moved about the room, gently prodding or encouraging, speaking in a clear and friendly voice. The school was exceptionally well-equipped for a rural village of a 150 people. There were bright toys, White dolls, modern trucks, and a full library of children’s books. I remembered seeing equally well-equipped new schools on the Navajo Reservation, where I had also worked with some very dedicated teachers.

For many reasons this well-run school was a baffling place to begin observing educational processes that were, in many eyes, failing the needs of Native students. The teachers, living in their well-run home in the same building as the classrooms, were skilled in their style of life, but even on first contact appeared far removed from the lifeway of even the most modern Eskimos of this remote village. All that I could note down from this first visit was that the school compound was a confrontation with Eskimo life. Was there anything wrong with this? Isn’t education generally a confrontation? Certainly I would have been bewildered if this mature couple were trying to live like Eskimos. Instead these teachers were sincerely being themselves and living the properly fed and housed White style that suited their personality and background.

Two years and several months later I still feel evaluating Tuluksak baffling on an immediate classroom teacher-to-student relationship. It is difficult to write about this school without first considering the total context of the White confrontation with the Eskimo. To evaluate education for Eskimos, I find I must consider the total history and drive of White intruders, which include myself, and more than two centuries of Western influence on Native life. We must weigh the actualities that have been imposed on Native survival over the centuries of White contact. If we can do this we might conceive of a modern Eskimo and the world in which he could survive now. A distortion of the educational dilemma could occur when we lose this whole view. What the teachers were giving their students in Tuluksak was real, but maybe only one part of the real that Eskimos need to survive now. Before traveling further we should pause to look at the history and the emerging ethnography of the Kuskokwim Eskimos, or we may be unable to see the many silent dimensions of this well-run White school.

1 The word “Indians” includes many distinct cultural groups; sometimes I will use it to include Eskimos as well, particularly when speaking of experiences all these groups share.

2 Estelle Fuchs and Dr. Havighurst have just published a comprehensive report on the study, To Live on This Earth. American Indian Education, New York: Doubleday. Copies of regional reports and final reports presented to the U.S. Office of Education are available from ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center, Bureau of Research, U.S. Office of Education).



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Last modified November 19, 2008