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

Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. I



Helen Roberts
Northwest Arctic School District

This article was originally presented at the First Congress on Education, of the Canadian School Trustees Association, in Toronto, Canada, June 21, 1978. The reader is asked to keep in mind that the conditions and processes described in the article were those of the school district in 1978, and do not necessarily apply today.


If indeed, there is a formula for developing an integrated bilingual and cross-cultural curriculum, experience in the Northwest Arctic School District would suggest the following key elements of the development process:

Basing the curriculum on the rapidly changing social context, rather than on stereotyped bicultural (dual society) concepts.

Ensuring local control of educational policy.

Treating the whole school curriculum, rather than separating language and cultural concems off in a fragment of the curriculum.

Being honest, and keeping curriculum processes clear and simple-developing simple educational goals and then achieving them.

Developing school-community unity by keeping advisory channels open. 

The Northwest Arctic School District operates eleven schools in a 36,000 square mile region north of the Arctic Circle. It is an Inupiat Eskimo region, but Inupiaq language has declined in use. The district has set goals for students in relation to basic skills, life skills and cross-cultural skills and is pursuing a curriculum development process which incorporates staff development, community development and program development.

In this paper, some of the problems and processes that have occurred in the development of a community-based curriculum are discussed. An example of the integrated approach is given, and issues regarding the legal and funding structures are explored. Finally, some modest guidelines for the development of an integrated bilingual and cross-cultural curriculum are offered.



School/Community Dissonance: Local Control

"Long ago when they built a Council House they built them for a happy gathering place. They gather together for happy occasions such as dancing, Eskimo games and feasts. They used the Council House for teaching Eskimo way of living."

"There were no set teachers."

"Eskimos are smart. They learn a person's word of advice."

"We were there in the time when there was silence ...the time when Eskimo way of living was like a still water now has become bad like waves pounding."

"And these young people our children are living in the white man's way and have become a part of them. They have become that way and there are no Council Houses."

"The government is giving the education to our children today. The information we have told on the Eskimo culture will be studied by our grandchildren in the school."

Education in a mass society is subversive and assimilative, especially in cross-cultural situations. The strain, or dissonance, between school and rural communities in the arctic stems in part from the vast differences between traditional Eskimo learning and "school learning", as described above by the elders. In traditional Eskimo society children learned by watching silently, and following the lead of their elders. Twenty-thousand years of experience in the arctic environment comprised a sound basis for the cultural content and educational methods of traditional Eskimo society. But encroachment of the technological society on rural Alaska has created an upheaval in Eskimo society, which is characterized in the schools by a doctrinaire school curriculum unrelated to the life experience of the people.

Prior to the establishment of local control of education, the curriculum in rural Alaska was nothing more than a transplanted program such as could be found in any school in the lower forty-eight states. The traditions, values and beliefs of the dominant white middle and upper classes were those primarily reflected in the school curriculum, and Eskimo children were discouraged from using their Inupiaq language in the school. There was no organized course of studies about the State of Alaska, nor any attention to Native Studies, and three successive generations of language suppression had all but eliminated the Inupiaq language. Today, only the older people are truly fluent, and most entering school children are not speakers at all.

Local control in rural Alaska has its roots in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act which created regional Native Associations to hold the Native lands and payments ceded to Native Alaskans in the act. The Northwest Alaska Native Association (NANA) became the holder of lands in the Northwest Region, which encompasses the Kobuk, Noatak and Selawik River Valleys, and the coastal lands between Deering and Kivalina-traditional lands of the Inupiat people. NANA later divided into a profit making corporation (NANA Regional Corporation) and a non-profit association (Mauneluk Association). Local control of the land stimulated the movement for local control of education.

Until 1975 most rural students who wanted to finish high school had to leave their villages to attend schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the State of Alaska. For Northwest Arctic students, this meant traveling as far away as Sitka or even the lower forty-eight. Native Alaskan boarding students rarely got home to see their families, and had little in common with other students. During the time they were away at school, they were removed from village life, and were not learning the traditional skills important for survival in the arctic. Needless to say, there were very few high school graduates among Alaska Natives. 

In 1973 a group of rural Alaskan students (Molly Hootch, et al) brought a class action suit against the State of Alaska, charging discrimination in the State's failure to provide a secondary education such that students could live at home while attending school. The Hootch case was settled out of court in 1976 (Tobeluk Consent Decree), where it was agreed that Native boarding high schools were not an equal educational opportunity compared to the local high schools attended by most white Alaskans. At the same time, the Alaska Unorganized Borough Schools (formerly, State Operated School System) was divided into 21 Rural Educational Attendance Areas (REAA's) to operate elementary and secondary schools in rural regions.

The Northwest Arctic School District is the REAA which encompasses the Inupiat Eskimo lands of the Northwest or NANA Region. The District has an eleven member Regional School Board which is elected at large by the people of the region and establishes district-wide educational policy. Each of the eleven village schools in the District has a Community School Committee which governs local school affairs.

In its first year of operation, the Northwest Arctic School District brought the two remaining Bureau of Indian Affairs schools into the District and began establishing secondary school programs in the villages of the region. The School District now offers high school education in all of the villages and education is governed by elected representatives of the people.

The fortuitous chain of events which has brought local political and economic, and now educational control to rural Alaska has done much to eliminate the dissonance between school and community in the Northwest Arctic. Where school policy is made by the parents of the school children a community commitment to education develops. When imposed from outside, what might have been the same prescription has failed repeatedly.

Thus, one antecedent to the reduction of linguistic and cultural barriers in rural school programs is the recognition that language and culture are but two of a number of social forees affecting the lives of rural arctic people. Researchers in culture and education have long been aware of the systematic disenfranchisement of minority cultural ways in the educational system of the United States Among all minority groups, Native Americans have fared the least well in the traditional educational system, and the Northwest Arctic has been no exception.

Today, the most distinguishing feature of life in the Northwest Arctic is not language, culture, politics or economics, per se, but a combination of all of these in rapid change. Inupiat people exhibit as many and varied lifestyles as do people anywhere in America, from completely traditional to thoroughly modem. In times of rapid change, the extent to which a group of people can gain control over the political and economic forces in their lives is the extent to which the educational system can be adapted to meet their changing linguistic and cultural needs.


Approach to Curriculum

In recognition of the blatant disenfranchisement of Inupiat people under previous school administrations, the Northwest Arctic School District has been pursuing a community-based curriculum development process. This process necessitates a reversal of the former assimilative role of the schools, making them reflective of the changing social structure, allowing latitude for diversity of cultural values in the school curriculum, and, in the case of the Northwest Arctic, fostering a revival of the Inupiaq language.

A community based curriculum development process is a whole-system process. This requires a three faceted approach to curriculum development in which staff development, community development and program development are all included in the process. Most educators treat only the school program (plans, textbooks, learning experiences) in attempting to solve curriculum problems. In the Northwest Arctic, we assume that no curricular change can actually take place unless the community wants it and supports it, and unless the staff has the necessary motivation and expertise. The diagram below depicts the relationship between staff, program and community development in the curriculum development process of the Northwest Arctic School District.

The Relationship Between Staff, Program and Community Development

Improving attitudes and communication

Improving instructional techniques


Expanding educational opportunities

Improving instructional resources

Defining educational goals
Supporting instructional program


At the same time, the Northwest Arctic School District has not adopted the bilingual/bicultural approach to curriculum development, because of the static view of culture embodied in the approach, and because the district's students are not bilingual, but rather are becoming bilingual. In the past, bilingual/bicultural distinctions have served to aggravate the students' feeling of anomie by presenting them with the ludicrous choice of becoming a "real Eskimo such as their grandparents were, or becoming a "white man", neither of which was available to them in reality. The Northwest Arctic School District takes the view that there are not two separate societies (as implied by the bilingual/bicultural approach), but rather that there is a viable modem-day Inupiat culture and language which has been ignored in the school curriculum. Thus, the district is attempting to develop an integrated curriculum based on the individual and combined needs of Inupiat students in a rapidly changing social and economic structure. In this integrated curriculum, Inupiat language and culture will not be treated separately, but incorporated through the whole school program, and reflected in staffing patterns and community relations as well.

The integrated approach to curriculum development, then, is characterized by a process of defining the schooling situation as it is seen from the point of view of the people of the Northwest Arctic, rather than as defined by educators and officials elsewhere.

To operationalize this process of curriculum development based on individual and combined student needs, the District has initiated a number of concurrent activities to promote program development, staff development and community development, with the aim of instituting an integrated and excellent curriculum in the schools, a curriculum which has the necessary support of the community and to which can be brought the professional expertise necessary for success.

The district maintains two advisory committees on curriculum and employs a curriculum director, who coordinates the curriculum development function in the district. One advisory committee is made up of professional school staff members (teachers, principals and aides), and the other is made up of community members (parents, community school committee members, and school aides). Each advisory group has its own unique perspective on curriculum development in the district and different roles have emerged for each group, as shown on the following diagram.

click on image for a bigger view
As issues in district-wide curriculum development surface, their implications for program, staff and community development are explored. Staff and community involvement in planning for program changes are elicited through the advisory committees, as well as through informal and other organizational networks. Communications are a key to effective integrated curriculum development, with a constant two-way flow of information between school staff and community. It is also important to allow curriculum issues, and thus the curriculum, to emerge from the community and its needs rather than to be prescribed by outsiders. Thus, the emerging roles of the community vis a' vis the school staff in the curriculum development process are those of goal setting versus implementing education to reach those goals.

Such a curriculum development process is time consuming, but ensures the involvement of all groups who have a vested interest in the education of children in the Northwest Arctic. The district has held community meetings and in-service training at each community school for the purpose of identifying needs for curriculum development. Many schools have begun the development of a sequenced program of studies which will result in a planned school curriculum. The superintendent has reorganized the district office program staff in order to provide more direct services to students and schools based on identified needs rather than traditional school roles. Principals have been assigned to most village schools in order to provide more direct on-site educational leadership and ensure continuity of program for students. 

As a reward for patience in this time-consuming community-based curriculum development process, the district now has a simple statement of goals, on which there is wide agreement and commitment. The statement was developed and approved unanimously by the two advisory committees on curriculum. It reads as follows:



The Northwest Arctic Region is in a process of rapid economic, political and social change. The main concerns for schools in this region are:
  • Educating children for the many and changing lifestyles they will lead, whether in the village or in the city.
  • Developing leadership in every aspect of community life.
  • Promoting better cross-cultural understanding and Iñuguliq kamaksriigalikun ("growing up with respect").

The Northwest Arctic School District will strive toward the following goals for students:

  1. Students will become proficient in the basic skills required for educational and societal success.
  2. Students will acquire introductory skills and experience in one or more adult-life roles.
  3. Students will develop respect for their cultural heritage and an understanding of themselves as individuals.

The Northwest Arctic School District has the following goals for schools:

  1. Schools will involve the community in educational planning, instruction, and evaluation.
  2. Schools will encourage community residents to become professional educators.
  3. Schools will encourage teachers to enhance their professional qualifications and instructional expertise.
  4. Schools will encourage students to take pride in the quality of their work and their personal accomplishments.

These goals were developed through a combined effort of parents, community leaders, and educators. They represent the dreams of the parents for their children as well as a philosophy for educators in the region.

What remains to be done in coming years includes the development of curriculum and evaluation guidelines for reaching these goals. The total district plan of service will probably be built on the foundation of combined individual student program plans as well as a flexible district-wide system of learning opportunities accessible to all students. The age-old rural school problems of high teacher turnover and small school size should diminish in importance as a continuous district-wide program of services based on student needs is implemented.


The Integrated Approach: An Example

The most devastating curriculum problem in the Northwest Arctic School District at this time is not language barriers, or cultural differences, or high teacher turnover, or any of the other myriad of issues which come up in discussions of rural cross-cultural education. The singularly most critical problem now existing in this district, and probably in most rural cross-cultural school systems in the arctic, is a "failure syndrome" typified by a downward cycle of teacher expectations, student motivation and student achievement.

The interrelatedness of these factors is one of the few established relationships in education. For all practical purposes, it makes no difference which of these factors may be causative. In fact, the considerable amount of time spent in trying to place blame on one or another aspect of the school/community is wasted, and probably contributes to the downward spiral. The simple fact is that our students are suffering as a result of this "failure syndrome."

Based on assumptions derived from educational and organizational research, and on the expressed wishes of the people, the Northwest Arctic School District is initiating a coordinated plan of activities designed to address all of these problematic factors at the same time. The idea is that no matter how this downward spiral got started, each of the factors has become problematic and all must be turned around in order to stop the downward spiral. Further, it is assumed that an improvement in any one of the factors will contribute to an improvement in the others. This is the system-wide approach to curriculum improvement in action. Shown in the following diagram are the activities that the district is pursuing as remedies in each of the needed areas of improvement.

improving spiral
click on image for a bigger view
Elements of program, staff and community development can all be seen in the activities designed to remedy the "failure syndrome" in the Northwest Arctic Schools. If, as the district hopes, the downward spiral of the "failure syndrome" can be stopped and turned into an upward spiral, or a "winning syndrome," then the resolution of other curricular problems will be simplified. When confronted in a positive atmosphere with a winning spirit, problems oftentimes find their own solutions.

An apriori assumption of an integrated curriculum is its basis in the real needs of real children. Not by legal requirement or court order, but at the insistence of the community through their local school board, the Northwest Arctic School District is already moving toward a total plan of educational services based on the cultural, linguistic, academic, vocational, and special needs of students. As a result, in future years, the district hopes to find itself out ahead of the field in bilingual and cross-cultural curriculum development.



To whatever extent the experience of the Northwest Arctic School District can be of value in other rural or cross-cultural situations, a summary of the critical points in the district's curriculum development process is offered here. These points are raised in the form of organizational patterns which have evolved in the school district, and which seem to contribute to a successful curriculum development effort.

Attend to the Changing Nature of Society

To a great extent in the past, schools have had "cultural blind spots" where students are concerned. Under the guise of treating all students equally, minority cultural ways have either been absent or highly stereotyped in the school curriculum.

Local control of education in rural Alaska has done much to counter the "cultural blind spots," and allow the present-day (not the stereotyped) needs and desires of the people to emerge. Necessary in establishing local control of schools are educational leaders who can enter a cross-cultural situation with an open mind, allowing people to be who they are and become what they will.

Treat the Whole Curriculum 

In an adequately integrated bilingual and cross-cultural curriculum, the school should reflect the community in every aspect, not just in revised text materials or special ethnic studies programs. Staff readiness, community support, and student motivation are keys to any successful curriculum, regardless of language or culture. Since the Northwest Arctic is an Iñupiat region, the schools should be Iñupiat institutions.

A wide vision of what schools do and can do, attention to the real needs of real children (not stereotyped children), and a positive attitude, can further the development on an integrated bilingual and cross-cultural curriculum.

Be Honest

Centuries of wrongs cannot be righted overnight. But one of the purposes of working to develop a cross-cultural curriculum is to resolve the contradictions, or bridge the gap, between what is said and what is done.

Open channels through which people can be heard are vital to planning as well as to developing community support for school programs. In the case of the Northwest Arctic, the two curriculum advisory committees as well as a number of informal channels are open. Again, regardless of language or culture, people everywhere want to be treated with respect. When the Community Advisory Committee on Curriculum was asked to decide on a name for the district curriculum, they chose Iñuguliq kamaksriigalikun, which means in English, "growing up with respect." Iñuguliq kamaksriigalikun has become the theme of the district's curriculum development efforts.

Being honest means stating things such that others can understand, weigh the consequences, and render their own judgments. The curricular implication is that policies, procedures, guidelines and such should be stated simply and clearly, and time must be taken to explain new ideas.

Being honest means not advertising things that cannot be delivered. In the past, people in rural cross-cultural schools have been promised much more than they ever got. The Northwest Arctic School District is attempting to focus its effort on a small number of clear and attainable educational goals, which are identified as the most pressing by the people themselves. 

Be United

The only truly bilingual and cross-cultural curriculum is one in which educators and community are united in their view of what the schools are doing. Patience and compromise are keys to developing cross-cultural unity.

Once wide agreement has been reached on important curricular issues, the combined school staff and school community will be unbeatable in finding solutions to curricular problems. In a like manner, when staff and community stand strong together with a clarity of purpose, interference from outside the district can be minimized.

 The Hunter by Enoch Adams Jr.

A Final Note

So the curriculum developers in a bilingual cross-cultural situation need to practice the art of listening; keep an open mind about the curricular imperatives of language and culture; operationalize the expressed desires of the people in the form of a clear, continuous, simply stated, easily understood and workable curriculum; translate and negotiate the important curricular issues among the different interest groups; and be ready to learn much more than expected.

The curriculum in the Northwest Arctic School District is being (and probably should be) developed "from scratch" because of the unique political, economic, social and cultural changes taking place in the region. As can be inferred from this paper, the emphasis is on process and involvement, with a determination to make the products conform with the expressed needs of the people. Programs for staff development, including encouraging Iflupiat teacher-trainees, are being initiated on a district-wide basis. Program planning and fiscal planning are being coordinated in order to unify the diverse district programs toward the end of meeting all students' needs.

All of these processes are woven with the threads of staff development, program development, and community development, on the loom of lñuguliq kamaksriigalikun. Time will tell if the Northwest Arctic has chosen the right path.



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 17, 2006