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

Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. I



George Olanna


The curriculum of a rural Alaskan school should be related to the local community and the local environment. The community should be a resource and should be involved in decisions regarding what will be taught in the school.

The students have to learn two cultures. We can neither go back in time and live only off the land nor can we live exclusively the Western lifestyle in our villages, where many of the things of Western culture are not available. Therefore, our students must first know their place in their communities. In addition, they must know where they are going; their world cannot stop in their communities. Some rural communities are changing rapidly. It is hard to predict what further changes will take place and how they will affect the communities. Of course, we could change the curriculum each time we see changes in the cultural pattern. But will this work?

I think, if we begin by looking at the traditional cultural values and expand from there, the education in our rural communities would improve. The students in rural areas have to know who they are before they can compare the outside world. Therefore, the teachers would have to know the local culture and understand it. A teacher who has no experience in rural cross-cultural education cannot provide rural Native students with the well-rounded education they need. On the other hand, a teacher who is trained in cultural studies will be able to assist the students in understanding the experiences which are part of their life in the community. In this way, teachers will be able to work with students in selecting what is best for their education. The students will be more motivated to learn if they understand why the school exists.

In today's rural education, teachers often feel that the students don't know much because the students' experiences are not taken into account. Students are taught what the teacher chooses, whether or not that fits the students' everyday life.

The bilingual/bicultural programs in most schools are not always used properly either. That is, they are not integrated into the curriculum. Instead, they are regarded as just another school subject. Ethnic studies should be at the core of the curriculum; they should be used to equip students with the tools for learning about the outside world. In elementary education, ethnic studies should integrate reading, writing, arithmetic, social studies, science, art, and language. In secondary education ethnic studies should include history, biology, literature, science, and vocational studies. In this way, the students would learn from their own experience and knowledge, and will expand this knowledge beyond the village context.

In secondary schools the students could be encouraged to attend school outside the community for one year. The main purpose of this would be to expose the students to other cultures and environments and to provide them with the experience of what it is like to live "away from home." In most villages, there are not enough jobs for all high school graduates. Students who have only attended village schools tend to stay in their community because they are unfamiliar with the world outside the village. If the subjects were taught with an approach that considers the students' experience, the students would be able to relate their studies to real-life situations. Such an approach would have to consider that in real life, we don't set aside a time each day to do math for 45 minutes or to socialize for half an hour, but that all of these activities are integrated in daily activities.

Curse on the Young & Old by Marty Norton
To develop a community-oriented curriculum, the community, teachers and administrators must be involved together. The curriculum developed by the Northwest Arctic School District (see Roberts, this publication) could be used as a model for an integrated curriculum development process. Workshops on curriculum development should be offered to anybody who participates in the educational process, such as parents, teachers, members of advisory committees, and school board members. As in the Northwest Arctic School District, there should be two advisory committees and a curriculum director. One advisory committee would be composed of professional school staff and the other of community members. There would have to be two-way communication between the community and the school district. In this way, the curriculum would be developed jointly with the community rather than just by outsiders. The curriculum should be supported by the community and the teachers. In-services on the curriculum should be held in each school for members of the advisory committees, teachers, administrators, and teacher aides.

The teachers in preschool and kindergarten should be trained in early childhood education. The school districts should offer such training programs as well as career ladders which would motivate the teachers to continue their training. The teachers in early childhood education should come from the community because the students are too young to accept a stranger. The teacher should be a "mother" or "father" figure during the first years of school. Early childhood education is a "stepping stone" for our children. Bilingual/bicultural studies should be included in the early education program. To some Native teachers it may seem to be too difficult for young children to learn two languages. However, there is much our children must learn and, therefore, they should be taught in both cultures from the beginning. We cannot escape the fact that we are living in two cultures. We have to honestly tell our students what will be expected of them and not try to hide it. Twelve years of schooling are too long for our students to finish not knowing what is expected of them. 

The school should be required to teach the traditional Native values. Each school should hire or train teachers who understand these values. There are too many cases in which the students' behavior is punished by teachers or principals who have no idea why the student did what he or she did. To us, the traditional values are like the bible to Western culture. These values kept our culture alive before the bible was written. In today's education these values are not adequately taught. Our elders are no longer the "teachers", but have been replaced by teachers who know little about our values. Some of our traditional values have been identified by the NANA region. They are:

1. Knowledge of language

2. Sharing

3. Respect for others

4. Cooperation

5. Respect for Elders

6. Love for children

7. Hard work

8. Knowledge of family tree

9. Avoid conflict

10. Respect for nature

11. Spirituality

12. Humor

13. Family roles

14. Hunter success

15. Domestic skills

16. Humility

17. Responsibility to tribe

It is said that our Native world is simple but complex. We can understand each other without saying a lot. We learn by experience over many years. Our values fit the world we live in. Our educational system must be simple. We must learn from within, not from the outside.

Our world is dualistic, the world of Native culture and of Western culture. We cannot go back in time nor can we fully adopt the life of the Western world. In this sense, our culture is unique, so our education must be unique as well.



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