Alaska Native Education:Steps Toward Reciprocity
Historically, schools in rural Alaska have been largely alien institutions with an imported curriculum that gave little consideration to the unique knowledge and skills that already existed in the communities they served.
It wasn\’t until the middle of the last century that elementary schools were established in Native communities, and only 30 years ago that secondary schools became available in rural communities.
Before 1975, most village students had to leave their home community and attend a boarding school to obtain a high school education. So our task has been to open up a dialogue to foster a two-way exchange of ideas, knowledge and skills between the schools and the communities they serve, recognizing that each contains knowledge of value to the students.
A major contribution toward opening this dialogue was the work of Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley, whose doctoral dissertation provided critical insights into the world view, ways of knowing and educational practices of his people, the Yupiaq of Southwest Alaska.
Central to Dr. Kawagley\’s thesis was the representation of a Yupiaq world view as made up of a dynamic relationship between the human, natural and spiritual realms that constitute the whole of Yupiaq existence. He argued that one cannot address the role of the human realm without taking into consideration our interdependency with the natural and spiritual worlds. In other words, we can\’t teach science or history apart from understanding how we as humans interact with the world around us.
This chart illustrates how we went about introducing changes into the educational systems at two levels.
First, we had to engage Native elders to better understand how the local knowledge systems functioned in ways that could be drawn upon to enhance the school curriculum (the initiatives along the upper stream).
Then we had to find ways to make room in the established state curriculum to incorporate the world view, knowledge and ways of knowing present in the communities.
The goal was to bring the two streams of knowledge together in a way that they could complement one another to broaden and deepen the educational experiences of the students.
As we worked with the elders, it soon became apparent that we had to go beyond the visible aspects of the local cultures that schools typically had been limited to, such as dancing, foods, story-telling or subsistence practices (the tip of the iceberg), and take into consideration the deeper, less visible knowledge that continues to be an important part of life in Native communities.
Some of these less tangible elements of local knowledge that offer a rich opportunity for students to engage in comparative study include weather forecasting, navigation skills, traditional medicines, measurement systems, language patterns, local technologies and survival skills.
Elders themselves have become important contributors to the process of documenting local knowledge, such as this book by Athabascan Elder, Howard Luke. Howard\’s book includes a detailed map of the traditional places of importance to the people who inhabited Interior Alaska long before the gold rush brought a new form of livelihood to the Tanana Valley.
Elders in each cultural region of Alaska have also contributed to the educational process in their communities by putting together a list of values that they consider as representative of who they are and how they interact with the world around them.
These values serve as an important guide for teachers and community members to socialize young people into their roles as future leaders and culture bearers in their communities.
This is another example of local values from the Yupik people in Southwest Alaska, with both a Yupik and English translation.
As Native people in Alaska began to put forward their own ideas of how schools might best contribute to the educational and cultural well-being of their children, it became apparent that the school curriculum that was outlined in the academic content standards prepared by the Alaska Department of Education did not provide sufficient guidance to produce a well-rounded education, particularly for Native students.To address this deficiency in the State system, Native people engaged in a two-year process to prepare their own version of a comprehensive outline of what students needed to learn to be full contributors to their families and communities. In 1998, the Alaska Department of Education adopted these \”Alaska Standards for Culturally Responsive Schools\” as an additional component of the State standards for schools.