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

Building Bridges for Student Success

Engaging Kodiak's Students and Communities Through Place-Based Educational Practices

Chapter I - Introduction

Having been a "Kodiak Kid" myself, and now being a Kodiak teacher raising children of my own, I am concerned about our community's children. As with many other communities across our nation, we have seen a growing number of what may be considered to be "youth at risk." I believe that low self-image linked to a loss of identity within our society plays a part in this increasingly serious problem. Alternatives in our approach to teaching these, and all children, along with making school more like life itself, reflecting the community in which a child lives, can play a role in helping all children to succeed, not only in school, but in life.

Kodiak's total population of 13,309 people, when broken down into "definable" racial groups, reveals that 69.8% of the residence are White, 16% Native, 1% Black, 11.2% Asian and Pacific Islander, and 2% are "other" (AK Department of Labor, 1990). What these population figures do not account for are those who may look like a member of one of these racial groups, but may not identity with their "assigned" racial group because of differences in culture. The American Heritage Dictionary (1982) defines "Race" as "a local geographic or global human population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics." "Culture" is defined by the same source as "the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought characteristic of a community or population." While attempting to define individuals the Western European culture has made many general assumptions about these groups of people in relation to their behaviors, beliefs, abilities, morals, and values. These stereotypes have been historically applied to the field of education.

As a child growing up in Kodiak, I sometimes felt split between my family's roots. My mom, of English, Irish and Cherokee decent, moved to Kodiak from North Carolina with her military family while she was still in high school. She met my dad and they, later, were married. My father's family has lived in Kodiak for three generations. His roots are traced to Afognak Island and are Scandinavian, Russian, and Alutiiq. My dad is legally one fourth Alutiiq and a shareholder of the Natives of Kodiak. Physically, he possesses many of the features that identify him as Alaskan Native. My brothers and I inherited many of our features from the Norwegian blood that runs strong through our veins.

People see me as being "white." Many do not believe me when I tell them I am Alaska Native, was brought up to be proud of who I am. My dad never showed any shame in being Native, though there were times that I know he felt somewhat alienated in conversations and other public, social situations. He shared with my brothers and I a sense of pride in his family and heritage. Many of our best times were when my family would share stories from the "old days," with many references to how things were "before the white man." Most of these stories were filled with humor, but some reflected the pain of mistreatment by "outsiders." My dad learned to speak a bit of Russian and Alutiiq from both of his parents, but remembers being scolded by his early teachers for speaking it himself. He recalled, vividly, the feelings of discrimination that were sometimes overwhelming as he progressed through high school with the students from the Naval Base.

As we grew, my brothers and I enjoyed a life of "the best of both worlds." We have always been closest to my father's side of the family, probably for the simple fact that most of our relatives that we saw were his. Though not dependent upon a subsistence lifestyle, we engaged in subsistence hunting and fishing quite often. My dad, and later my brothers, all spent much of their young adult years as commercial fishermen and were able to supply our family with fish and wildlife whenever we desired. My mom and dad decided to raise us as Catholics because of my mother's affiliation and steady dedication to that church, but, we were brought up with connections to the Russian Orthodox congregation and priest, as the church and rectory house was directly across the street from our house. My dad was raised Russian Orthodox, so we incorporated many of his traditions into our celebrations throughout the year. Our extended family includes a multitude of cousins, aunts, and uncles living in villages on the islands and in the town of Kodiak itself, and also in Seattle and Anchorage, among other places. My brothers and I, through visits to family and their friends, have had the opportunity of experiencing life in the village, life in a small, but growing Alaskan town, as well as being exposed to life in larger cites.

I have never quite felt like I have fit in with any particular race of people. Though considered to be nothing but "white" by the public high school, I was given all of the advantages and opportunities of being just that. Yet, I heard about and witnessed incidences and heard remarks from others continually, that put down Kodiak Natives. I saw our small town become what I considered to be invaded with White people with "white" ideas of changing our community. I became frustrated with the attitude that ignored the indigenous people of Kodiak and their concerns. I could not help but feel allegiance to the Native people of Kodiak. How surprised, and sometimes even apologetic, people were when I told them of my relation to some of the local natives.

Not much attention is given to the indigenous people of the Kodiak region within the local K-12 curriculum. This is true even at the college level of study. Kodiak Natives have been considered to be so integrated into "white" society that they "aren't really natives." The culture of Kodiak Island had been greatly influenced by Russian occupation of the area since 1763. I believe that because, in part, of the Cold War and our Nation's negative relations with Russia, many of the "locals, "in recent years, did not want to be associated with some of their own Russian heritage and the remainder of the Alutiiq. Little published documentation has been done in the area of Alutiiq oral history. As a matter of fact, the people often will refer to themselves as Aleut, so it is difficult to distinguish whose history it is.

When I was younger I never hesitated to share my heritage with people, but as I got older and began to interpret the statistics relating to Alaskan Natives and understood the corruption that existed during the implementation of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, I hesitated to associate myself with them. I began to feel ashamed of what I had always considered to be "my family." After ANCSA, many times, and to this day, when I have told people of the Native blood in my family, they have responded that I am a "wanna be" native, and I must be looking for some free money. That hurts. What was once pride, turned into pain.

I feel that because of my situation, what I consider to be within two cultures, I am able to be empathetic to many perspectives of multi-cultural and multi-ethnic issues in education. Some of the big issues in education today have to do with our children's negative self-images, and lack of self-worth and belonging. We hear about the lack of values and motivation revealed through student behavior. People are concerned about our youth's attempts to identify socially with racial groups other than what they may appear to belong to. Pop culture invades our homes through radio, television, and the Internet.

Our nation has not become the tolerant society that some visionaries had envisioned. Rather, it has become a highly racist society, creating barriers within the human race. The issue now is that what used to be the majority (Eurocentric), is quickly becoming the minority. As different racial groups, such as Native Americans become more proactive in speaking of the qualities of their culture, more people, including those who are racially considered to be White, like myself, are able to find pride in their own roots. In doing this some are able to recognize how racist we have become and how that has been reflected in our public schools. Materials, instructional techniques, organization and interpretation of information have, in general, been from the perspective of the Western traditionalist. Transfer of culture, one of the purposes of public education, is occurring, but the culture that is being transferred belongs to fewer and fewer individuals.

No fundamental changes in American education have been made in the last 50 years, yet the make-up of our population has changed tremendously. It is only in the recent past that we are realizing that the "culture" we have been teaching is no longer sufficient. We need to go through the struggling process of communication and continued dialogue to commit to change. Perhaps instead of teaching to a general American culture with broad standards that supposedly fit everyone's needs, each community should build its curriculum integrating local culture, history and perspectives while grounding itself in the values of the place in which education is taking place. According to the Alaska Standards for CulturalIy Responsive Schools developed by the Assembly of Native Educators, schools that do this will effectively "focus curricular attention on in-depth study of the surrounding physical and cultural environment in which the school is situated, while recognizing the unique contribution that indigenous people can make to such a study as long-term inhabitants who have accumulated extensive knowledge related to that environment" (1998). This provides a win-win situation for students and communities. Students are provided with a curriculum that is reflective of their surroundings, and communities graduate students who are prepared to contribute to their community.

Each one of our students has a story to share. Each one has a story that is connected to our community. Each one has experiences that led them to where they are now. They might have just arrived because their parents were transferred through the military, they may have come with a parent who is starting a new business, they may have arrived with their migrant family from the Philippines, or maybe their family has been here longer than anyone can remember. In any case, educators can build from that and provide curriculum that connects to their story, grounding them to their home community.

Table of Contents

 

 

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Last modified April 24, 2009