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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. I


Todd Bergman
New Stuyahok 

In the real world, "ideal" situations never occur. Even in the scientific laboratory it is impossible to create "ideal" conditions; there is always variability and, in turn, error.

Therefore, the following description of an ideal school has to be viewed as a purely philosophical account of what may be possible. What may be successful can only be assessed within reality. It is only with these precautions that I would attempt to portray the "ideal."

In this paper, I will conceptualize an ideal educational system for Native communities in rural Alaska. I will discuss the ideal political and administrative environment and present the relevant community and school background. In addition, I will address the design of an adequate school facility and describe an appropriate structure and organization for the educational system. Curriculum content and sequence will be approached by content area, and relationships among various components will be established. Particular attention will be paid to self-determination of rural people, the educational environment, and to an appropriate notion of development and cultural realities.

The political realities of rural Alaska have been dominated by the Western culture for the past century. Federal and state authority have tucked a blanket of power over the indigenous people of Alaska. Requirements for the funding of rural educational projects have been tailored to Western culture and have demonstrated little, if any, regard for indigenous cultures. Federal and state requirements have laid the ground rules for appropriate facilities, structure, organization, curriculum, and special projects. Under these shadows of dominant authority, the provision of local control of rural education has become questionable.

If ideal conditions were to develop in rural Alaskan education, local authority would have to be incorporated into the power structure now in effect. Federal and state authority would need to recognize the traditional tribal structures as legitimate ruling bodies capable of governing community and regional affairs as they have successfully demonstrated for many centuries.

The tribal council would be the governing context within which all decisions regarding the community would be made. Since the organization of this council is more attuned to indigenous forms of decision making, it could be expected that the decision-making process would become more productive. The tribal council would also govern decisions concerning the school. In rural villages, the community includes all people and facilities. Therefore, the school cannot exist as a separate technological entity that seeks to remain detached from community processes. Decisions affecting the school affect the community and vice versa.

It would be up to the village council to decide how the school needs to be structured and organized. Outside educational agencies-state or federal-would serve as resources to the community. Administrators would operate under the village council and act as organizers, facilitators, implementors, evaluators, resource people, and mediators between the community and outside forces. Teachers, Native and non-Native, would operate within the village to facilitate the students' learning experiences within the daily life of the community.

Within this new political context of education, a new administrative style would have to develop. Administrators would need to be skilled in dealing with the larger bureaucratic forces, yet committed to the cultural needs of the rural community. The role of the administrator would have to become more that of an organizer and less that of a leader. The conventional administrator/leader seeks to establish his or her authority to gain the power to rule the educational institutions. The new administrator would need to develop ways of helping others to use their power. This means that he or she would have to develop strategies for utilizing power and control to meet the educational goals of the community. This administrator would be a true representative of the governing tribal council. In this way, the traditional push-and-tug between local administration and school board could develop into a more cooperative, goal-oriented environment.

I believe that any effort to conceptualize an ideal school for indigenous communities in rural Alaska needs to consider such radical changes within the political and social context of the school. Many Native corporations and the Alaska Federation of Natives have been struggling to bring about such changes. Some of these attempts have been successful, while others have not. Most of these efforts to establish alternative forms of education have not been supported by the Western educational system. In many instances, Native people have had to recognize that if they wanted educational institutions that were more sensitive to their needs they would have to establish these institutions through their own efforts.

One of the major steps in developing an ideal school system for rural Alaskan communities would require that traditional Western practices of organizing an educational environment be abandoned. School needs to be an idea and not a place! Conventional time needs to be of little importance. The traditional Western notions of classrooms, periods, and separate subject matter need to be critically examined. Whereas some subject matter may fit into an hour block of time, other subject matter may not be suited to such constraints.

In the ideal rural educational environment the notion of curriculum needs to assume a new meaning. Curriculum needs to be reconceptualized to include not only learning experiences associated with school, but all learning experiences in a person's life. Elements of formal, nonformal, and informal learning must be complementary and not conflicting. Currently, most of the curriculum content in rural Alaskan schools conflicts with the indigenous people's hopes for education. Native students who earn degrees awarded by the dominant culture find themselves caught in the conflict between two cultures. Therefore, it is essential that the teaching of traditional academic and vocational concepts be integrated with the teaching of other survival skills present in the community.

Another important subject matter component would have to be bilingual instruction at all grade levels. Assuming that Native children enter the school speaking primarily their Native tongue, English would have to be taught as a second language from grade three on. During the first two years of schooling the child's Native language would be utilized exclusively. In grades one and two, writing skills in the Native language and formal learning skills would be emphasized. In the third grade, English would be introduced as an academic subject and as a survival skill. This notion of English as a survival skill focuses on the English language as a necessary tool for communicating with and understanding concepts of the dominant culture. An example would be the vocational area of graphic arts. The majority of the terminology associated with graphic arts is only relevant in the English language. Native language does not address many of the the elements within graphic arts since this area was traditionally not a part of the Native culture. In this sense learning would become truly bicultural.

Within this framework, the concept of teacher would have to be expanded to include parents, elders, community members, guests, and, most important, the students themselves, in addition to professional teachers. Peer teaching would be a key component of the entire system. As students would become older (high school age), they could be peer teaching not only one another but also primary students, thus serving as role models for the younger children.

Formal learning areas associated with the contracted teachers and with peer teachers would include mathematics, Eng]ish as a second language, social/political science, general science, and computers, which would be integrated at all levels, and in vocational subject areas.

The Proud Hunter by Marty Norton
Nonformal learning areas associated with parents, elders, community members, guests, and peer teachers would include Native language (oral and written), Native religion, Native arts, subsistence skills (ranging from hunting, fishing, and trapping to trap construction, food preservation, and cooking), and other traditional Native skills, such as boat and sled construction, dance, storytelling, and all other cultural activities that are essential to the maintenance and development of the local-indigenous culture.

Informal learning would complement and connect all formal and nonformal learning activities. If all people within a community were supporting the educational system, then informal learning would naturally function to integrate all components of the learning process. Informal learning activities in which students would engage with members of their own culture as well as with members of other cultures would reinforce both the indigenous cultural elements and formal curriculum content.

Since the major goal of this educational system would be to maintain the local indigenous culture, formal learning would have to be creatively adapted to the local environment. Alaska River and Sea Week was developed with this goal. Formal curriculum content would have to be presented as one way of organizing and conceptualizing the environment. It would have to be emphasized that the Western cultural perspective can only function to complement the indigenous world view, thus contributing to a broader basis for conceptualizing the environment. In this way, formal subject matter could be adapted to support the goals of cultural preservation and economic survival.

Finally, it may be necessary to address the design of an appropriate school facility. The education environment in rural Alaska is the entire community. Therefore, if may be questionable whether separate school facilities must be provided. Whether or not a school building is necessary would depend on the extent to which the educational program of the community needs to be centralized. If a separate physical plant is to be constructed, the architecture of such a facility would have to be governed by environmental considerations. In addition, an appropriate school facility would have to include features that make it a suitable meeting place for community events.

Let's try and capture in a nutshell the concept of an ideal school for rural Alaskan communities. Traditional Western control is abandoned and a new form of tribal government controls the local educational organization. Administrators serve as organizers and facilitators and as political mediators between the community and outside forces. The teaching staff includes all who are capable of sharing a learning experience. Appropriate school facilities are provided if necessary. However, in general, the environment becomes the school, while the community and the land becomes the classroom. Cultural learning takes place in a nonformal and informal context. Academic and vocational skills are learned in a formal context, but they are applied as survival skills and adapted to the local environment whenever possible. Students operate in a biculturalbilingual environment. Language is used in ways that are relevant to the context of learning. Usually, formal learning is associated with the English language, and nonformal learning takes place in the Native language.

This ideal educational system will provide opportunities for all members of the community to participate in the educational process. One of the major objectives of this system will be to support the self-determination and self-empowerment of local communities. In the beginning, the new educational system will have to pick up where the previous system has failed. In the process, Native power will be strengthened and Native control of education will be established.

A functional bicultural education system should provide Native people with the skills necessary for making choices and not leave people in a situation over which they feel little control-a situation of being caught in the middle of two cultures. Conflict is inevitable; learning how to acquire the skills to cope with conflict is the means to survival.



J. Kelly Tonsmiere


Ray Barnhardt

Section I

Some Thoughts on Village Schooling
"Appropriate Schools in Rural Alaska"
Todd Bergman, New Stuyahok

"Learning Through Experience"
Judy Hoeldt, Kaltag

"The Medium Is The Message For Village Schools"
Steve Byrd, Wainwright

"Multiple Intelligences: A Community Learning Campaign"
Raymond Stein, Sitka

"Obstacles To A Community-Based Curriculum"
Jim Vait, Eek

"Building the Dream House"
Mary Moses-Marks, McGrath

"Community Participation in Rural Education"
George Olana, Shishmaref

"Secondary Education in Rural Alaska"
Pennee Reinhart, Kiana

"Reflections on Teaching in the Kuskokwim Delta"
Christine Anderson, Kasigluk

"Some Thoughts on Curriculum"
Marilyn Harmon, Kotzebue

Section II

Some Suggestions for the Curriculum
"Rabbit Snaring and Language Arts"
Judy Hoeldt, Kaltag

"A Senior Research Project for Rural High Schools"
Dave Ringle, St. Mary's

"Curriculum Projects for the Pacific Region,"
Roberta Hogue Davis, College

"Resources for Exploring Japan's Cultural Heritage"
Raymond Stein, Sitka

"Alaskans Experience Japanese Culture Through Music"
Rosemary Branham, Kenai

Section III

Some Alternative Perspectives
"The Axe Handle Academy: A Proposal for a Bioregional, Thematic Humanities Education"
Ron and Suzanne Scollon

"Culture, Community and the Curriculum"
Ray Barnhardt

"The Development of an Integrated Bilingual and Cross-Cultural Curriculum in an Arctic School District"
Helen Roberts

"Weaving Curriculum Webs: The Structure of Nonlinear Curriculum"
Rebecca Corwin, George E. Hem and Diane Levin

Artists' Credits



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Last modified August 14, 2006