Alaska's Cultures

Being in the Right Place at the Right Time
Paul Ongtooguk

For thousands of years Alaska Natives lived nomadic lifestyles - they moved across the land to find food and shelter. Groups of people did not wander randomly in the often unforgiving climate of the North. If they had, the odds for their survival would not been more than a few days. Instead, the sophisticated cultures that developed over thousands of years in Alaska were based on knowledge and strategy. Sites for hunting, fishing and gathering were known. Groups planned in advance so they would be in the right place at the right time with the right equipment. A subsistence society is based on a cycle of life where knowing about key locations and weather, travel, time, and strategy allows you to be at that location at the time you planned for.

For generations subsistence societies had to develop ways to educate and prepare their youth. Survival of the group depended on the passing of knowledge from elder to youth, and on the development of critical skills. This was not left to chance. The educational system in many cultures was like an apprenticeship.

With Inupiat boys, for example, the apprenticeship might begin by watching the hunters come in and observing how the goods were divided and shared. Participation was highly valued by subsistence societies, because being alone reduced your chances for survival. The young boys might start to prove themselves by helping in small ways Eventually, when a boy was mature enough, an uncle would assume his role as a teacher. The uncle's job was to prepare his nephew to become a contributing member of that community. Uncles, instead of fathers, usually became teachers of the boys because they while they were family and cared about the boy, they were more distant from the boy as a student than a father would be. This separation of teacher and student was a critical element of the traditional educational system. The uncle cared enough to keep the boy alive. At the same time he would allow the child to learn by taking necessary risks and making mistakes in ways that a father might not allow. Apprenticeships were not based on chronological age and grade level expectations like are our schools systems today. The boys were observed by their teachers and given additional knowledge and more responsibilities based on their growth of character, physical development and other abilities. Life and death and the survival of the group depended on children being carefully prepared for adult roles.