Education and Cultural Self –Determination
Education and cultural self determination is an issue central to the future success or failure of Alaska Native peoples. The very existence of Natives as distinct peoples within Alaska depends on the next generation of Alaska Natives being aware of and connecting to their cultural heritage. Knowledge not passed down from generation to generation is at risk of being lost forever.
For the last thirty years, there have been many issues relating to Alaska Natives in the news. In the 1960s the federal and state governments were taking Alaska Native lands - lands and waters that Natives had been living on for countless generations. But in order to make Native land claims legal in the U.S. Native leaders learned all they could about land issues. They reached a first settlement in 1971 with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Since then arguments over lands and the regional corporations have received attention. Cultural self determination is the big issue now. The heart of the issue lies in three questions: What does it mean to be Alaska Native in this world at this time? What is the cultural legacy being passed on to the children? What knowledge is essential to pass on and how will this happen?
If these issues are not addressed, then mainstream culture will quickly erode the fragmented knowledge being learned by the next generation, and the Native cultural legacy will be reduced to things like medical cards, and museum artifacts.
When American style schools were started in Alaskan communities, the idea was to wipe out Native culture - to undermine connections with spiritual worlds, lands and waters, and to break the feelings of individuals and groups that are the essence of a culture. The agenda was to "civilize the Natives" and to make them more like the white settlers. Any beliefs that Natives had that involved understanding the world differently, or defining their place in the world as separate and apart from the white settlers was not allowed in school. English only language policies were strictly enforced, and punished anyone speaking in a Native language. Those policies erased Native languages from schools and from some communities as well. Schools disparaged Native language, food, dress and customs. At the same time the curriculum of the schools and the teachers taught students to view the world from a Western point of view. Policies were aimed at the hearts of students. Feelings of inferiority and shame were associated with things Native. Good grades and rewards were associated with things Western. This was a tough message delivered by a powerful system.
Fortunately for the state, the world, and for Natives, the heart of being Alaska Native could not be erased. In many places the elders - and some very wise parents - ignored the lies about Alaska Natives being primitive or savage. Traditional practices continued. Young people learned very different lessons from school in fish camps, hunting camps, pot latches, traditional feasts and ceremonies. Some youth learned from the lessons of traditional dances. Most of the young people learned through the lives of elders who showed them that giving to the community was more important than gathering for yourself. The elders also taught that there was more to life than what was learned in school. William Oquilluk used the 'power of imagination' as a way for Native cultures and people to grow and exist. It is time to return to William Oquilluk's lesson and to imagine more than what is taught in schools and on TV.
When rural education attendance areas (REAA's) were created Alaska Native people felt the promise of some degree of self determination and control over the education of rural students. Alaska Natives celebrated the fact that young people would not have to leave home for boarding schools. Parents hoped that students would also welcome the new opportunity to complete a high school education in their home communities.
But that generation of parents had themselves attended boarding schools outside Native communities. In many cases the youth were not prepared to assume the roles of adults in the communities when they returned, if they returned. As adolescents within the community, they would have learned the political, economic, artistic, and other aspects of culture. They would have been observing and becoming familiar with the problems, the issues, the changes. While many positive things were learned in boarding schools, it did not include what it meant to be an Alaska Native and how to return to Native communities and assume the roles and responsibilities of adulthood. Between boarding schools and the rapid social changes in all parts of the State many communities faced serious issues. REAAs, by themselves, could not solve the problems.
Schools, teachers and Alaska Native individuals must 'imagine' how education is related to cultural self determination and begin to answer a series of questions.. By the time young people graduate from high school what will they be expected to know about Native cultures? What are Alaska Native young people learning from their parent's generation? What should Alaska Native young people be learning from their parent's generation? How many of Alaska Native high school graduates will be familiar with any Alaska Native author after twelve years in school?
There are young people in Bethel who do not know who Jackson Lomack or Chief Eddie Hoffman were; in the Interior many do not know the names of Morris Thompson or Rosemarie Maher; in Southeast some do not know what Elizabeth Peratrovitch did.
It is the responsibility of parents, leaders, and communities to become more involved in determining the goals and curriculum of schools. What should Alaska Native young people learn about being Alaska Native? What are the significant organizations, leaders, legends, poetry, stories, oral history, political and social issues? How can the schools support Native cultures? Non Native professional educators can not answer these questions. Alaska Natives must.
Schools and communities must come together and ensure opportunities to learn about Alaska Native history, Native leaders, and oral traditions. Cultural self determination must be seen as integral to the interests of all Alaska Native societies. It should be central to the purpose of the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN). Web sites need to be recognized as places to learn, to inform and to discuss things relevant to local, regional, and statewide cultures and organizations. The issue of cultural self determination also extends to those thousands of Alaska Natives who live outside the State.
Most Alaska Native adults care deeply about cultural self determination. The problem is a lack of attention by Native communities directed to dealing the issue. Cultural camps can address this issue, and students are very enthusiastic about these experiences. But cultural camps are short-term and they happen away from schools. The message being given to students is that school and culture are separate. REAAs provide an opportunity to integrate the community culture, but only if the communities are partners. Young people must know that communities care about who they are as well as what they know. They must know that communities love them enough to share their greatest riches with them. They must know that their cultural heritage is linked, over thousands of years, to who they are today and who they will become.