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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
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Submitted to the
Alaska Natives Commission
in connection with a hearing at

Nome, Alaska
September 21, 1992

4000 Old Seward Highway, Suite 100
Anchorage, Alaska 99503


Witness List | Exhibit List | PDF Version

SEPTEMBER 21, 1992

Deposition Exhibit #1 - Testimony of Nancy Mendenhall

Testimony of Nancy Mendenhall, the Director at Northwest Campus, College of Rural Alaska, which is a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks here at Nome, September 21, 1992.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify to the Commission here today. I am going to speak to you about some of my concerns in the area of rural adult education. Our campus serves the sixteen communities of our region and, through audioconference links with other rural campuses, also enrolls students throughout rural Alaska. About 50% of our students are classified as vocational students. From 55 to 60 percent of our students are Alaska Native; and we are classified as a minority institution for purposes of receiving grant funds.

To introduce myself a little more, I have been working full-time at Northwest Campus since 1982, as its director since 1988. Prior to that I was in charge of training programs at the regional health corporation, and was an Upward Bound director for UAF for two years. I have also taught in schools and travelled as a program coordinator to villages in our region. Today I am going to confine myself to comments about adult education, both academic and voc ed for rural Alaska Natives, and to the socio-economic situation which our young adult students and potential students face today. Most of my remarks will also be applicable to the other rural campuses in Alaska.

Many decades of work have gone into trying to develop a system of adult education for rural Alaskans that is successful, and surely by now we have enough experience to be able to say what constitutes a viable program that will give us the results we all want, and yet, with a few exceptions most of us are not satisfied that we really are meeting the needs of rural Alaskans, are providing the training that will allow them the choices they want. And by that I mean the skills and understandings to be able to choose to join the computer age as a productive member of the work force, or to remain in their traditional community and pursue as much as possible a traditional lifestyle, or a combination of both, which is what so many young adults want.

My belief is that we do know a great deal more about what constitutes a successful program than we are actually putting into action most of the time. Why? First, we must be blunt and recognize that there are still many people who believe in assimilation of ethnic and cultural minorities. If these so-called minorities don't want to or can't join the great mythical American majority, too bad for them, is the attitude. That goes double for people who want to live isolated rural villages. Social Darwinism is still alive in every state capital to some extent, enough to influence the political process in Alaska for sure. And beyond that there are always natural and social forces operating which resist change, i.e. are invested in the status quo, whatever it is. And of course, there is the big problem of committing the resources required to make any change. The U.S. and Alaska aren't all that rich today-- where will we reallocate the resources from? Any kind of spending program becomes a political issue; the issues which get the dollars reallocated to them are those with powerful constituent groups and lobbies-Education is always very political in our country, and inevitably will be in a democracy. Right now, rural Alaska is politically not as strong as it was.

To build successful programs for Alaska Natives, there are three general principles I think we must follow, none of which are new insights, but which somehow get overlooked too often:

-- First, the people for whom these programs are intended must have identified the need, must want the programs, plan them and direct them. They must be involved in every aspect. This is not only ethical, it is realistic.

-- Second, all sectors important to the success must recognize that the need is critical, that the programs are important enough to give their total commitment, that to ignore them will cost everyone.

-- Third, the necessary resources must be directed according to the plan. I want to talk about the last one in more detail. Too often, critics charge that we seem to think that all we need is more money to solve our problems. Although this is not true, the changes I will propose here today will all involve the commitment of more, or better use of resources.

One could argue that there are some changes that simply take insight and energy, are not so much an issue of dollars. But look at the realities. For example, one could argue that it costs no more money to hire a good teacher than a bad one, or ill-prepared one. Not true. To take care in the recruitment process takes time. It may mean spending more money advertising more broadly. It means being willing to readvertise and wait if you don't get the applicant you want the first time. It could mean that you recognize the importance of hiring Alaska Native teachers, so important for positive rule models as well as their cultural understandings; and if they are underprepared in some areas, you are willing to put out extra dollars in in-services and mentorships to get them up to speed. It means being willing to pay competitive salaries so that you can keep good teachers, because quality Native teachers are in high demand and can name their price. They may not stay with you out of sheer dedication to the community or the program. Even more basic, you will have a hard time hiring Alaska Native teachers in Alaska today when too few are graduated, and those that are have the choice of many good jobs, few as rigorous as teaching public school, or teaching in our isolated villages. You will need to support programs that attract village residents who intend to stay to teach in villages. These are not typical urban campus based programs. That was just one example. If we want to change the situation for Alaska Native students and the rural unemployed, more resources have to be directed into viable programs.

I could go on, but part of my message is, we won't get quality education for rural Alaskans until we are willing to pay for it. However, right now Alaska is not in the best shape economically as everyone knows. We are looking at reduction, not expansion, of some fairly good programs with measurable successes. The problem of reducing resources is compounded in rural Alaska, where we don't have the numbers in enrollments, and never will. Rural Alaska cannot compete in the numbers game, and we are losing ground in the competition with other powerful constituent groups in Alaska. The recent legislative reapportionment will intensify this. Also, the Alaskan citizenry as a whole, still living on the fantasy of the “boom years”, do not accept that to have services from the state they must pay for them. At Northwest Campus, we have not yet been seriously threatened with closure, despite the economic gloom, because there are many groups who still feel an obligation to try to bring rural Alaska out of its third world economy, and believe that locally available training is part of the answer. But Northwest, and every other rural program, is each year being gradually being cut further and further back through inflation and outright reductions, so that speaking of internal reallocation as a strategy for new initiatives is not to be taken seriously.

One thing I want to stress here today is that no positive changes in rural Native education for adults of significant size, and I stress the size factor, are going to happen in the next years without increased attention from the federal level, The boom state is a memory, and the economic environment which gave us large advances-- first the state-operated schools, then the community colleges, then the Molly Hootch village high schools-- is no more. The urban sector is calling the shots. The economic and social situation in rural Alaska for young adults is now getting worse again. Why? The annual capital projects that injected cash into weak village economies are a fraction of what they were. The projects and programs that are the result of those wealthy years now have to be maintained with shrinking dollars. Meanwhile, the state has cut way back on revenue sharing to the small cities and to special programs like community schools. That the blessing of the land claims is a mixed one is now more clear as village corporations have not been able to develop profitable enterprises in most cases. The economy of Nome as a regional center has been going down for years, with no basic industry but one gold mine to draw on. Fisheries have not developed in most of the region, nor has tourism come close to its potential.

Meanwhile the baby boomer generation in the villages now has its own children going into high school, and the birthrate remains high. Every village is crowded with unemployed young adults who want very much to become a respectable part of the socio-economy, and who must have some cash to participate in the subsistence economy of their village but have little opportunity. AFDC is heavily utilized, and while it aids, also adds to the problem. Young men, especially, have fewer viable roles to move into in their communities.

Despite the fact that large numbers of young people leave the village for urban centers, or are lost through unnatural early deaths, their numbers in the villages keep growing. The resulting frustration and depression, and accompanying alcoholism, suicide, homicide, and family deterioration are hugh problems despite state, local and tribal efforts to turn these around. The report from AFN in 1990 titled "A Call to Action" goes into this phenomenon in detail. Another important recent document is Harold Napolean's book, the Way of the Human Being. So, the next key point I want to make today is that the Native young adults of rural Alaska are in a crisis situation that is getting worse, that Alaska does not seem to be able to devote adequate resources to combat this, and that federal help is need to turn this crisis around.

I want to emphasize that although we can point to many failures in our years of effort in adult training and education, we also have a few notable successes. The trouble is, the socio-economic problems in the rural regions are compounding faster than we can alleviate them. This is partly because of false starts, partly because of lack of resources, or unstable resources to do the job that's needed, partly because of the complexity of the situation. Our programs are generally not yet completely adapted to the realities of life for village residents. The profile of a typical Northwest village student is a far cry from the traditional urban campus dorm resident. Our student is female, over thirty, head of the household having one or more children, working part-time, unable to easily leave for an urban or even regional campus, low-income, having developmental courses to cover before she can get into fully credited classes, having a strong motivation for regular challenging employment, and in the case of the academic student, fully expecting to spend over 10 years in the attaining of a baccalaureate degree, as she will average between one and two courses per term till she gets close to the finish, at which point she will jump in all the way for nine to twelve credits. During these years of study, she will experience all manner of extended family responsibilities, crises, tragedies, and more positive demands on her time and will develop incredible strengths. Some of these students will also get considerable support from family, but not all.

The more numerous vocational students are much like the former, except that this group will contain more men, and they will have chosen programs which are more short term with more guaranteed assurance of cash returns in the next time period of a few days to several months. Since in all but one of off-highway system regions, the University is the only institution available for vocational programs, we must be able to answer to the needs of both types of student, but usually do the vocational programs in cooperation with other agencies or employers for better sharing of resources. We have partially solved the problem of rural access through audioconferenced classes, but these are not appropriate for hands-on vocational training, and this is where most of our students would choose to be. New child care block grants have recently solved one of the largest problems -- that of child care for students. Still, enrollment in available programs is not what we'd like it to be. Why? For the above described student to make the energy investment in a program, there has to be a fairly solid assurance of a position hire at course completion. Rural Alaska does not have those positions available except for the fortunate few, and they must compete with outsiders who also seek work here.

For significant change in our present situation, more attractive incentives, such as easily developed OJT positions and funded mentorships for locals, must be made available, and for the private sector too. Federally funded public works projects could take the place of state projects which have dried up, and provide training situations, work experience, community improvements, and cash income. Furthermore, any training activity that is longer than one week must recognize that the trainees are most likely playing an important role in an extended family which must be taken over by some else, or let go for a period. Though they may have no wage income, they are part of an economy. A training stipend, or opportunity to earn cash while in training, is essential, and is also an important status indicator in our modern village society, especially for the men. They are not part of the noble "starving student” tradition, and are not going to be viewed that way by their families. It is difficult for most of our students to leave their communities for long. The longer and more demanding the training program, the more important are the financial need considerations. (The only time these have not been so important has been in the teacher training program for those people who were already employed at regular part-time jobs in the local schools.) Yet today, very few funded programs include stipends.

I believe the best way to know the answers about what is needed in training programs is to look at some specific ones which we all recognize as successful, and not the elements. For this, I am going to list briefly the obvious strengths of the Community Health Aide Training program, and conclusions can be drawn from there as to how far we can go in emulating it. First, the need for these professional primary care providers is recognized by each community where they are assigned, and the role is respected, though often subjected to criticism. Second, the program is on-going (since the early 70's) and has stable funding (Public Health Service supplemented by the state.) Third, the community is involved in the planning for and evaluation of the program and the health aide, through the regional health corp board. The community approves the selection of the health aide. Fourth, the health aide is hired before she is sent to training, and is on salary while she is in training. Fifth, the longest period of time she is away from home is three weeks. Sixth, the salaries are among the best in each community. Seventh, the braining sessions maintain a positive, strict training environment. And eighth, the trainers are well-respected by the students and care about their students and their success, the course work being a contribution of classroom and practicums.

This total collection of attributes would be difficult to find in many other programs, but if we want similar success, we do have this chart to follow and can then ask ourselves, how much are we willing to commit to make other programs fit this model as much as possible?

In conclusion, I believe that despite our best efforts that we are falling behind in rural Alaska, that the answers are available as to what needs to be done to remedy the situation for Alaska Natives, but for many reasons, change adequate to make a real difference will be resisted. A very energetic battle will have to be fought to overcome this crisis. The University of Alaska must play an important part in this, as must the state government and the private sector, but because of the particular economic and political situation in which the state of Alaska now finds itself, the federal government is going to have to find appropriate ways to increase its assistance which can gradually be taken over by the state and the private sector and not lead to more chronic dependency. I believe there are ways to do that. Thank you for giving me this time to speak.


This document was ocr scanned. We have made every attempt to keep the online document the same as the original, including the recorder's original misspellings or typos.


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Last modified May 16, 2011