Sivutmun – Going forward: Beyond colonial schooling for Alaska Native peoples

The following is an extended version of an article recently written for an Alaskan publication that is still in press.  

In 1966, the State of Alaska built regional boarding high schools in Nome, Bethel, and Kodiak for students of high school age in surrounding villages. Most communities in rural Alaska lacked high schools at the time, and those who wished to attain a high school education attended Bureau of Indian Affairs operated boarding schools at places such as Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Chemawa Indian School in Oregon, and Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma. The new regional boarding schools were built as an experiment in order to mitigate the failings of these crowded, more geographically distant schools for rural Alaska Native students.  

In 1967, the state commissioned the Training Corporation of America (TCA) of Falls Church, Virginia, to carry out a study advising on the implications for expanding the regional boarding high school program.

Establishing six additional regional boarding high schools would be ideal, TCA recommended, because residential school life would acculturate and “adjust” Alaska Native students for an “urban technological society,” thus favorably accelerating “the breakdown of old village patterns, patterns which may retard the development of rural folk into a disciplined and reliable workforce.”

The failure of these schools to educate Alaska Native students quickly became evident. A 1969 investigation of the William E. Beltz School in Nome by the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, found high rates of teacher turnover, apathetic students below grade level, and out of state teachers unfit to teach in a cross-cultural setting. The Commission saw cultural assimilation for Beltz students as an inevitable feature of their boarding school experience: “Faculty and staff must make a real effort not only to understand the Eskimo culture and the difficulties which the students face as they lose contact with it, but they must also devise new techniques and programs to make the transition [to Western society] easier.”

In a 1973 study of Alaska’s regional boarding high school program, Judith Kleinfeld and Joseph Bloom with the UAA Institute of Social, Economic and Government Research, recommended abandoning it. “The high drop-out rate and the high incidence of drinking, violence, and suicide attempts that have occurred in these large high schools away from home have caused tremendous outcry and have forced a re-evaluation of the direction of rural secondary education,” Kleinfeld and Bloom wrote.

Three years later, the Tobeluk v. Lind settlement (better known as the “Molly Hootch” case) established the State of Alaska’s legal responsibility for the provision of local high schools in 126 settlement communities, paving the way for local control over education.

Over the course of the next decade, the state spent millions constructing local high schools, premised on the Alaska Supreme Court’s ruling that a system accommodating the local high school educational needs of urban students while requiring village students to leave their communities to attain a high school education was racially discriminatory and a patent violation of Alaska Natives’ civil liberties.

Alaska Native communities that formed regional governments could – at least in theory – influence schooling through locally elected school boards.

But history, unfortunately, tends to repeat itself, and thirty-six years after Tobeluk, some Alaskans are again advocating for the reestablishment of regional boarding high schools as a policy solution to continued educational inequity in rural Alaska. These advocates suspect that a state operated network of regional boarding high schools would equalize learning opportunities for rural students and produce more high school and college graduates qualified to address local needs. Boarding schools would accomplish this, supporters contend, by concentrating human and economic resources in fewer locations, thereby reducing costs, high rates of teacher turnover, and offering more advanced coursework.

Boarding high schools would help reduce turnover (statewide, 22% of teachers left their positions in 2007), proponents believe, because rural Alaska’s imported teaching force is presumably more partial to living in larger communities.

However, establishing such a network of regional boarding high schools throughout the state is a shortsighted education policy solution for a number of reasons, not least of which is cost. According to Lexi Hill at the Institute of Social and Economic Research, the per pupil cost of boarding and educating students at Mt. Edgecumbe High School and the Galena Interior Learning Academy is roughly $20,000 each year per student, nearly $5,000 more than statewide per pupil expenditures. “Running a quality boarding program is expensive, even when the students want to be there; costs go up when some students would rather not be there,” Hill said. 

Regional boarding high schools should not be considered as a realistic solution to the persistent shortcomings of rural schooling before more imaginative, community-based solutions are seriously considered.

The boarding school theory of change

One of many problems with the proposed boarding school “solution” is its underlying theory of change. This theory assumes that replicating urban learning opportunities in rural Alaska is a form of fairness that will lead to equality. Such an urban, Eurocentric approach has at its center the belief that what is best for the non-Native, urban population is best for everyone, and assumes that all societies conceive of education and define “success” in the same way. This assumption ignores that Alaska Native communities have their own conceptions of “success” and ideas about how success should be achieved through education.

We should be highly suspicious when the language of “equality” is used to justify policy solutions on behalf of Indigenous peoples, because such justifications have historically been more destructive than empowering.

The colonial models of education that were imposed upon Alaska Native communities in the past sought to place Indigenous peoples on “equal footing” with Western society, which meant stripping Indigenous children of their identities. By using schooling to assimilate Indigenous peoples into Western society, Church, federal, and state education models were generously bestowing the “equal opportunity” to become English speaking, urban Americans upon peoples considered sub-human and backward.

Instead of settling for “equality,” which implies sameness and cultural assimilation, school district and state policy makers should instead strive for education models that promote equity. Equity occurs when societies are economically and politically empowered to self-determine their own futures, rather than having another society’s values and ideas about success imposed upon them. 

Finally, this urban-centric theory of change ignores the fact that urban Alaska Native students who already have access to the academic opportunities associated with urban schooling fair little better than their rural peers. The high school graduation rate for Native students in the Anchorage School District has not climbed above 51 percent in the last two academic school years, begging the question: how can rural boarding high schools striving for programmatic parity with failing urban ones expect to produce positive outcomes for Alaska Native students?

The power politics of schooling

As the failures of past boarding school experiments suggest, Indigenous students do not fare well when given no alternative but to leave their families and communities in pursuit of a high school education. Because existing boarding high schools such as Mt. Edgecumbe and the Galena Interior Learning Academy are premised on choice, they tell us little about the potential success of a statewide network of regional boarding high schools. These schools are selective about who they admit, and students and their families elect to apply for admission in competition with other students. These students and their families thus have the power of choice, whereas no such choice would exist if boarding schools became compulsory.

Given the legacy of schooling as a tool used to colonize and assimilate Indigenous peoples, taking away parents’ ability to choose what is best for their children yet again is unlikely to result in higher levels of educational attainment for students.

The little qualitative research data that do exist suggest that factors more complicated than apathetic parents and under-resourced schools contribute to education challenges. These factors include the power politics within schools and between schools, parents, and communities.  

Writing in 1969 about the affects of schooling on Kotzebue youth, social scientist Arthur E. Hippler observes: “The education thus far provided native students…has produced uncertain, anxiety-ridden and unhappy young people, paying a terrible price for what little they have “achieved.”” Thirty-one years later, professor of public health Lisa Wexler makes similar observations in her 2005 dissertation about Iñupiat youth suicide, noting that “schools carry with them a dark history of language stealing, community and family subjugation, and cultural repression, and this leaves many parents ambivalent about their children spending time there.”

Self-determination a solution

As Alaska Native peoples, we have successfully educated our children for millennia, transferring the skills and knowledge needed to flourish in our respective societies.

Students, parents, and community members remain capable of determining for themselves what is needed to bridge the opportunity gaps that exist between urban and rural Alaska, and should be empowered to do so.

From Hawaii to New Zealand to Greenland, the most promising schooling models for Indigenous students suggest that local control and Indigenous self-determination is key to improving school outcomes. The majority Iñupiat North Slope Borough School District is a rare example of an Alaskan public school district that recognizes the importance of earning community trust and developing partnerships in the process of improving student outcomes.   

A growing education research literature confirms what the North Slope leadership and many others intuitively know: that students succeed when parents and communities trust the schools serving them, and when teachers and administrators are unified in their work toward a common objective.

Beginning in 2006, the NSBSD visited each of the district’s eight communities and asked students, parents and community members about their expectations for schooling, and is working to meet those expectations. Under the leadership of Iñupiaq Education Department Director Pausauraq Jana Harcharek, and guided by a grassroots coalition of ten education stakeholders called Iḷiññaġnikun Apqusiuqtit (“people who break trail for learning”), these community consultations informed the development of the Iñupiaq Learning Framework (ILF) adopted by the North Slope’s Board of Education in October 2010.

The ILF establishes the expectations, guidelines, and education philosophy of an Iñupiat education system, and is the foundation upon which professional development and curricular and pedagogical content is being re-developed. “Five years ago the North Slope Borough School District finally decided that it was time to go to the people,” Harcharek stated in testimony before the United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in May 2011. “It was time to forgo the abysmal philosophical underpinnings of the district to impose a system created in white urban America for white urban children on Iñupiaq children because it was failing.”

The ILF is an empowering foundational document, stating: “as a people we have a strength and determination to effectuate change in our schools to make the education system meaningful and culturally responsive resulting in greater academic success for our students.” Harcharek believes that in the future, district reforms will cultivate a new generation of Iñupiat educators more capable of responding to local needs.

Moving forward

Schooling models such as regional boarding high schools have been imposed upon Alaska Native societies, and have in the process marginalized communities from decision-making about the education of their children. Reiterations of this and other schooling models that are fundamentally disempowering to rural students, parents, and communities will continue to fail and should not be seriously considered. Instead, more imaginative solutions are needed that are premised upon community self-determination and equity. The North Slope Borough School District offers a promising blueprint for how community consultations can inform policy changes within a public school district, and in the process ensure that students, parents, and community members own these changes.  

More innovative and imaginative community or region-based solutions may be expensive to finance in the short-term, but the potential for long-term success is worth it. We now have multi-billion dollar Alaska Native corporations with social and cultural responsibilities, and these corporations can help ensure that state funding streams do not limit possibilities. Few school districts or statewide policy makers have been willing to work with communities to achieve Alaska Native visions for schooling, but this is where viable solutions must come from. We cannot afford to continue financing different iterations of the same colonial schooling models that have failed us for the last century. Our ancestors, children and grandchildren deserve much better.  


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Collective bargaining in majority Alaska Native school districts: a window for reform?

This paper was originally written for a graduate school course about the role of teaches’ unions and school reform. It has been adapted for this post. 

This post explores the intersection between the collective bargaining process, Alaska Native communities and societies, and Alaska Native aspirations for self-determination over education. In doing so, I seek to answer the following question: Can Alaska Native peoples utilize the collective bargaining process to strengthen self-determination over education, and if so, how? I will answer this question first by closely examining Alaska’s collective bargaining statute and one contract between the North Slope Borough School District (NSBSD) and the North Slope Borough Education Association (NSBEA). This district is taking unprecedented measures to re-conceptualize and deliver schooling in a manner consistent with the culture and values of the region’s majority Iñupiat (Inuit) population, and thus represents an exciting step toward greater Alaska Native self-determination over Alaska Native education. I chose to examine this district because it offers a potential model for best practices for majority Alaska Native school districts. I then examine the role of the Alaska NEA in rural, local unions, and frame this involvement within an alternative vision for collective bargaining in majority Alaska Native school districts. Finally, I conclude with a discussion of possibilities for moving forward. The following analysis is enriched by interviews conducted with the district’s school board president, the president of the Alaska NEA, and more cursory examinations of additional rural Alaska contracts. 

Alaska’s unique educational landscape: Alaska Native peoples are organized into 223 federally recognized tribes and 10 distinct cultural groups. Native peoples represent 15% of the state population, the largest proportion of Native to non-Native residents in the U.S., and Native students account for 22% of enrolled K-12 students (AKDEED, 2011). The proportion of Native students is highest in rural districts and communities not connected to Alaska’s road system: more than half of Alaska’s 54 school districts are majority Alaska Native, and these districts correspond to cultural regions that contain distinct languages, histories, and customs. Schools have historically been – and arguably remain – institutions advancing colonialism and cultural assimilation in Indigenous homelands. Alaska Native peoples have lacked complete control over our own schooling for the entire 100-year period of government-run schooling in Alaska Native communities, evident by the fact that less than 5% of certified teachers in Alaska are Indigenous, and fewer yet are administrators (Hirshberg and Hill, 2012). Teacher turnover is highest in rural Alaska, with 24 percent of teachers leaving their jobs on average each year for one reason or another (Hirshberg and Hill, 2006). This impermanence, coupled with financial and cultural power imbalances between Native communities and teachers, contribute to feelings of distrust between communities and schools (Dinero, 2004).  

Alaska’s collective bargaining statute: Alaska’s collective bargaining statute permits collective bargaining between school districts and representative bargaining organizations, and striking by labor organizations representing employees of municipal school districts. The statute’s scope of bargaining states that “a matter is more susceptible to bargaining the more it deals with the economic interests of employees and the less it concerns professional goals and methods,” and, notably, identifies extra-curricular activities and duties and professional development as mandatory subjects of bargaining. The following subjects are non-negotiable under the current statute: relief from non-instructional chores, class size, teacher load and preparation time, evaluation of administrators, numbers of teacher aides, paraprofessionals, and specialists, and the school calendar. This vague language regarding extra-curricular activities and duties and professional development is a potential window of opportunity for Native communities to shape the role teachers play. 

North Slope Borough School District: The North Slope Borough School District (NSBSD) encompasses 11 schools in eight Iñupiat (Inuit) communities in northern Alaska, spanning an area larger than the state of Minnesota. In 2010, 9,430 people were living in the region, and 80% of the district’s 1,605 students were Iñupiat. The high school graduation rate for NSBSD students is about 59% overall and 54% for Iñupiat, a number slightly higher than the Alaska Native statewide average of 50.9% for 2010-2011 (AKDEED, 2011). The NSBSD is unusual in that the district has taken unprecedented strides in the last five years to center the district’s pedagogy and curricula within Iñupiat cultural and societal knowledge. Achieving Iñupiat self-determination over schooling was a catalyst for establishing a Home Rule government in the region in 1972. This aspiration was best articulated by North Slope Borough mayor and renowned Iñupiaq leader Eben Hopson in a well-known 1976 speech: “Political control over our schools must include “professional control” as well, if our academic institutions are to become an Iñupiat school system able to transmit our Iñupiat traditional values and ideals” (Hopson, 1976). In an effort to operationalize this longstanding aspiration, the school board adopted the Iñupiaq Learning Framework (ILF) in 2009, which are district standards informed by a series of region-wide community consultations about what outcomes parents desire from schooling. The ILF establishes a baseline of Iñupiaq academic and societal standards into which state content and performance standards and national standards are integrated. The ILF represents – at least in principle – a sharp turn from the past, in which Iñupiaq language and cultural content was incorporated piecemeal into the curriculum rather than the other way around. 

NSBSD school board president Debbie Edwardson shares Hopson’s vision for culturally responsive schooling on the North Slope, and is a champion of the ILF. “Educational systems live in the cultures they serve, and if they don’t live in the cultures they serve, we shouldn’t be surprised if they’re unsuccessful,” Edwardson stated in an interview I conducted with her. “But apparently that’s not a common understanding among a lot of people. We’re trying to deliver the same [mainstream education] system that we deliver everywhere. It’s an odd thing but it’s true” (Edwardson, March 30, 2012). Edwardson is non-Iñupiaq, but has lived in Barrow (the region’s largest community) for decades, and is married to a prominent Iñupiaq leader. Edwardson identifies the social and cultural divide between Iñupiat communities and schools as deeply rooted in the assimilationist, boarding school-era, which came to a close in Alaska in the late 1970s. During this time, students had to leave their communities in order to access secondary schooling hundreds of miles from home, often at the expense of their languages, interpersonal relationships, and physical, psychological, and spiritual health and wellbeing.

This discontinuity between “mainstream” American schooling and the Iñupiat communities they serve is evident in the North Slope Borough School District’s 2009-2012 contract with the North Slope Borough Education Association. The distinct learning needs of Iñupiat students, such as transmission of Iñupiaq language and local knowledge, and the necessity of school-community partnership, are not reflected in this agreement, nor is the role of schooling as a colonial force in the region problematized. In short, the contract lacks indication that the North Slope is a culturally and linguistically distinct society, whose citizens’ values and conceptions of success may not be consistent with white-stream American schooling. When asked if she perceives opportunities in the collective bargaining process to improve the relationship between communities and schools, Edwardson highlights the contract’s pay-for-performance plan (Appendix I) as a measure designed to help close the trust gap between communities and schools. The district’s pay-for-performance plan financially rewards teachers who, in designing Individualized Education Plans for their students, must consult with parents or family members of students, in addition to rewarding completed university coursework, teacher development plans, and professional collaboration. It is unclear whether such meetings have brought communities and schools closer together, or helped to foster the trusting relationships that researchers identify as elemental to student success (Bryk and Schneider, 2003; Bryk and Schneider, 2002; Reynolds and Clements, 2005; Chao and Hill, 2009).

Edwardson is hesitant to place faith in the collective bargaining process as a mechanism that can fundamentally change teachers’ values and practices: “I’m not sure to what degree you can make your negotiated agreement become the vehicle for systemic change or academic performance or whatever you want to call it…I don’t know that you can legislate that into an agreement. It’s just like that old joke about leadership: ‘if you think you’re a leader look behind, if nobodies following you then you’re just taking a walk.’” In Edwardson’s experience, the NSBEA and Alaska NEA have played a less than positive role in the district by reducing students to “bargaining chips” in a process that, in her view, focuses almost exclusively on teacher wages. She is emphatic that, just as good teachers understand community involvement and trust between parents and teachers as necessary – regardless of what is formalized contractually – there are teachers whose fundamental beliefs and practices cannot be influenced by contractual language. Edwardson believes that high quality professional development can play a key role in changing teacher perspectives and practices, but sees teacher dissention and pushback to district reforms as inevitable so long as non- Iñupiat comprise the bulk of the district’s teaching force. This view is shared by Jana Pausauraq Harcharek, Director of Iñupiaq Education in the district. Harcharek played a central role in the conceptualization, development, and implementation of the ILF. “By no means are we where I believe we need to be, and I don’t think we will be there until we have raised a cohort of teachers who are born and raised here,” Harcharek told me in 2011. “And even then, depending on how well we do at the district to inculcate our history, our language into the minds of our young people, we’ll still have a lot of work to do to bring them up to speed with those pieces” (Harcharek, June 1, 2011).

Alaska NEA: Barbara Angaiak is serving her fourth year as president and chief policy officer of the Alaska-NEA. Angaiak, a non-Native, is a veteran teacher in rural Alaska, having taught in the Lower Kuskokwim School District for decades. AK-NEA’s primary role is to support the state’s 67 local unions and their members by, for example, providing model contractual language and other forms of professional support upon request. Angaiak’s main responsibility is to act as the union’s spokesperson and to decide where the organization stands on specific issues. In a conversation I had with Angaiak, she expressed her view that the main purpose of collective bargaining is functionality, and that contracts serve to clarify basic expectations between labor and management. “Having a good contract, regardless of where you are, helps everyone with understanding what the expectations are for the employer and the employee,” she told me. “So that’s a fundamental need that we have in establishing a contract, is just knowing what the rules of the game are for everybody” (Angaiak, April 17, 2012).

Angaiak is vague when asked if the collective bargaining process is conducive to school reform: “I think there is a real place in collective bargaining agreements for education reform as long as there is real effort on both sides of the table to establish what we mean by certain terminology.” This need for clarification, Angaiak explains, is especially important given the failed reform policies of No Child Left Behind. However, she is clear in her acknowledgement of the growing desire in Indigenous communities for culturally responsive schooling, and that such approaches generally have salutary outcomes for students: “The more we can do to incorporate the knowledge base of our [Alaska Native] students into what we’re doing in the classroom, the better off everyone is, because the kids get a better connection to the lessons that they’re asked to learn about, and there’s greater understanding on the part of the culture of the school and the culture of the community coming together and understanding each other.” When asked if she could provide examples of provisions from rural contracts that speak to the unique features of rural Alaska Native education and life, Angaiak noted common provisions that deal with teacher housing, multi-graded classrooms, possible cross-cultural professional development needs, and travel between rural communities and Anchorage. She remarked that more specific measures, such as intentional scheduling of teacher participation in community activities, and incorporation of cultural activities into the school schedule were more likely to be aspects of the school culture than incorporated as provisions in local agreements.

Asked about the role the NEA plays with regard to high teacher turnover in rural Alaska, Angaiak cited somewhat surprising findings from NEA’s teacher exit polls.[1] Rather than salary, working conditions or feelings of isolation, the number one reason teachers leave their positions is because “They feel that they don’t get enough feedback and constructive criticism, positive reinforcement, from administration. That is really critical.” Interestingly, a 2002 study (McDiarmid, Larson, & Hill) of Alaska school leavers found that of a sample of 83 rural teachers leaving their positions,  48 percent cited dissatisfaction with the job of teaching, and 35 percent cited dissatisfaction with community support for the schools as a very important or somewhat important reason for leaving the profession.

Alaska Native self-determination over schooling: Whether for personal reasons or lack of community support, each year approximately 1,000 teaching positions must be filled in Alaska by recruiting teachers from Lower 48 states. A significant proportion of these teachers serve short tenures in majority Alaska Native school districts, and their lack of social and cultural familiarity with Native communities and cultures can present roadblocks for reformers seeking to tip the balance of school power in favor of Indigenous communities. Edwardson describes her experience teaching courses for credit at Barrow’s tribal college:

I get the response – I always get this in every class from a few students – and the response is, ‘we can’t just teach Alaska Native or Iñupiaq literature because we’ve got kids in our class who aren’t Alaska Native and aren’t Iñupiaq. See, my perspective is, which I think you probably share, is that we’re in Iñupiaq homeland, and that that’s the culture we’re in. All of us have to understand that and have to respect that. And the educational system should reflect that – it hasn’t, and with that kind of attitude it won’t…That’s a big block, if you’ve got teachers that think like that, and we do; talk about putting that in the negotiated agreement then. That’s a big, big stumbling block.

Ostensibly, changing teachers’ attitudes and assumptions about their role as educators in Indigenous communities, as well as setting behavioral expectations for their responsibilities within communities, tends to be a function of professional development rather than contractual agreements. The NSBSD is not unique in this respect: examination of three other majority Alaska Native school district contracts (Lower Kuskokwim School District 2003-2006, Lake and Peninsula School District 2010-2013, and Kake City School District 2010-2012) also reveals no mention of Alaska Native peoples, or the unique opportunities and responsibilities that teaching in Indigenous communities can present.

Discussion and going forward: That Alaska Native students and communities tend to be rendered invisible within teacher contracts is deeply troubling, although perhaps not surprising, given the absence of Native teachers from the teaching field, the generally unchallenged predominance of white-stream curricula, pedagogy, and values in majority Alaska Native school districts, and the relatively narrow scope of Alaska’s collective bargaining statue. It is unrealistic to believe that such initiatives alone can sustain the systemic changes in teachers’ orientation toward Alaska Native communities that Edwardson, Angaiak, Harcharek and others recognize as necessary. The collective bargaining process is meant to help prevent the erosion of teachers’ professional status by management, yet this status matters little if parents and communities do not support teachers and schools, as teachers exiting rural Alaska have voiced. Proscriptive, contractually binding measures aimed at improving community-school relations in majority Alaska Native school districts could be mutually beneficial for labor and management, and may help ensure that teachers and schools receive the respect and support they desire from communities. Labor, management, and community members should work together to consider ways collective bargaining could help serve this purpose. 

Rural Alaska school boards such as the NSBSD are statewide leaders when it comes to Alaska Native education, and should be creative in their use of the collective bargaining process to reinforce district reforms during negotiations. Management can do so by articulating in agreements what responsible and responsive teachers and community members look like, in addition to establishing a shared commitment around the purpose of education in the region. Labor and management can do so by applying a liberal interpretation to the state’s mandatory subjects of bargaining (extra-curricular activities, teacher evaluations, and professional development) in order to incorporate community expectations for teachers into district agreements. Such expectations might include teacher participation in community events, local subsistence activities, or demonstrated efforts to learn Indigenous languages.  

Based on past conversations and work experience with NSBSD staff, non-Iñupiaq teachers are being given regular professional development opportunities designed to prepare them (in my interpretation) to share in a process of re-empowering and decolonizing schooling, with the long-term goal of staffing schools with local educators in mind. If this interpretation is accurate, management should work to establish this purpose as a shared understanding and commitment of labor and management. Such measures should not be interpreted as efforts to disturb what can sometimes be a tenuous balance of power between labor and management in the NSBSD or elsewhere. By using collective bargaining to hold teachers accountable for what community members identify as important to their success for the first time ever, parents and communities will reciprocate with trust and support in ways that ultimately benefit teachers and administrators, and are more conducive to teachers’ long-term employment in the region and the success of students.


Alaska Department of Education and Early Development (AKDEED). (2011). State Report Card 2010-2011. Juneau, AK.

Angaiak, B. (April 17, 2012). Personal interview.

Bryk, A.S. and Schneider, B. (March 2003). “Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for School Reform.” Educational Leadership, 60(6). 

Bryk, A. S. and Schneider, B. (2002). “Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement.” New York, NY: The Russell Sage Foundation.

Dinero, S.C. (December 2004). The politics of education provision in rural Native Alaska: the case of Yukon Village. Race Ethnicity and Education, 7(4).

Edwardson, D. (March 30, 2012). Personal interview.

Harcharek, J. P. (June 1, 2011). Personal interview.

Hill, N.E. and Chao, R.K. (Eds.) (2009). Families, Schools, and the Adolescent. New York and London: Teachers College Press.

Hirshberg, D. and Hill, A. (April 2006). Turnover among Alaska’s teachers: how many leave their jobs? Institute of Social and Economic Research, R.S. No. 66.

Hill, A. and Hirshberg, Diane. (May 2012). Personal communication. Institute for Social and Economic Research. Anchorage, AK.

Hopson, E. (January 21, 1976). Mayor Aims to Wrest North Slope Area from Assimilation Era. Tundra Times. Fairbanks, AK.

McDiarmid, G.W., Larson, E., & Hill, A. (2002). Retaining quality teachers for Alaska. University of Alaska and Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. Anchorage, AK.

Reynolds, A. J. and Clements, M. (2005).  Parental involvement and children’s school success.  In E. N. Patrikakou, R. P. Weisberg, S. Redding, and H. J. Walberg. (Eds). School-family partnerships for children’s success.  New York: Teachers College Press.

[1] Each district apparently conducts its own exit polls, and these data were unobtainable at the time of writing.

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My dad was visiting me recently, and while showing him around the library we decided to search the catalogue for “Kotzebue,” a Northwest Arctic Iñupiat community. We came up with some cool archival photos, and then this gem: Hippler 1969. To my knowledge, this is the only case study of acculturation and education in Northwest Alaska, and the only cross-community comparison of the acculturative effects of colonization in the Alaskan Arctic.

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Op-ed: Uqaġupsi naalaġniuruksraurusi: When we talk, you listen

I am writing in response to the article “Parents charged with crimes after kids repeatedly miss school” (Alaska Dispatch, August 30, 2011). The article describes the issue of student truancy in schools in some Western Alaska Native communities and the possible legal ramifications for parents, and yet the author of the article and those quoted by him do not address the more important question of whether the current schools have a legitimate place in Alaska Native communities, let alone an unquestionable moral authority that parents should bow to. Instead, the article privileges the socially, culturally, and politically biased views of the State, and misses an important opportunity to interrogate the historical and contemporary nature of American schooling for Alaska Native peoples, and the colonial perspectives and attitudes that have contributed to its evolution to the present day.

By failing to raise the question of “what is or should be the purpose of schooling for Alaska Native peoples?” talk of truancy in the article takes place within a historical and political vacuum, and we as readers are expected to take for granted that schools have and continue to play a benevolent role in Alaska Native communities. Parents should support schools and ensure that our children attend simply because we are told to. We are expected to unquestioningly support teachers and what is taught even though we are almost never asked what we think should be taught and how. This is problematic because as Alaska Native peoples, we have arguably lost more than we have gained from American education, despite the good (though often misguided) intentions of many teachers, administrators, and school board members.

Schooling is never a politically neutral act, but carries with it the political views and attitudes of those making decisions about what our children ought to learn, how they learn, and for what purposes. The balance of power always tips in favor of teachers and schools when parents are not consulted about what they believe should be prioritized in their child’s learning, and this creates distrust and apathy toward schooling. Trust matters, education researchers tell us, because it is foundational to the healthy functioning of schools in communities, to parent support, and to the academic success of students.

Alaska Native peoples have lacked real control over our own schooling for the entire 100-year period of government-run schooling in Alaska Native communities. Throughout this time, primarily non-Native educators from the Lower 48 have staffed schools and English has been the exclusive language of instruction. Except in rare cases, curricula and pedagogy are imported from the Lower 48 and used in culturally and ethnically homogenous Alaska Native classrooms. Stephen C. Dinero, an academic, has written (December 2004: “The politics of education provision in rural Native Alaska: the case of Yukon Village”) about his conversations with non-Native educators who do not view themselves as part of a systemic problem in Native education, but rather as a solution. Communities must work harder to welcome and accommodate new teachers, these educators say, while at the same time community members express deep frustration that what has stature, value, and relevance in our communities is not included in the education system. For many parents, there is little reason to invest in an education system that has done little to reconcile historical wrongs through the empowerment of indigenous communities to be culturally, politically, and economically self-determining.

When asked about their experiences in school in the first half of the 20th century, our Elders tell us about being physically abused, humiliated, and dehumanized by non-Native teachers for speaking our languages – the lifeblood and spiritual essence of our respective peoples and cultures – and about stark social, cultural, and linguistic separation between home life and school life. They note that the number of people speaking our languages is fast declining, as Elders who had their languages stolen by schools gradually replace those who did not. They tell us that in the past, our peoples were educated on the land in the traditional manner, and were deeply intelligent and resourceful. They tell us that this knowledge about our lands and how to live in our places is what makes us self-reliant, distinct peoples with dignity, but that this knowledge, too, has largely declined in their lifetimes due to disruptions in Alaska Native education, caused in large part by the imposition of compulsory American schooling.

This is what five generations of Alaska Natives have sacrificed by agreeing to send our children to American schools, where what is essential to our cultural continuity and survival on this continent is too often left outside of the classroom and outside of conversations about what it means to be a “successful” person, why our children leave school, or about why some parents seem apathetic toward schools. Yet consistently, parents are asked to give up their power and to send their children to schools that do little to develop in our children an appreciation for the rich civilizations that we come from, and an understanding of the historical sources and solutions to contemporary challenges faced by our communities.

It is no surprise, then, that only 4% of Alaska’s educators are Alaska Native, yet 22% of enrolled K to 12 students are Alaska Native and over half of Alaska’s school districts are majority Alaska Native. In 2007, 22% of teachers left their teaching positions, and this high rate of turnover also negatively impacts community perceptions of teachers and schools. The reasons behind Alaska Natives’ aversion to the teaching profession have never been examined from a research perspective, but 100 years of colonial education very likely plays a large role.

Deputy Attorney General Rick Svobodny is quoted in the Alaska Dispatch article describing the correlation between high school graduation and murder, with those not graduating more likely to commit murder than those who do. Correlation does not equal causality, however. Associate Professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education Vanessa L. Fong writes in a personal communication that this argument is fallible because there are other factors such as psychosis that make people more likely to commit murder and more likely to drop out of school, and you “would have to identify the factors that cause people to commit murder and then prove that staying in school reduces the likelihood of those factors occurring, and they haven’t done that.” Svobodny displays a cavalier and myopic attitude when he talks about punishing parents rather than working with them to get to the root of the issue. This attitude reflects deeply entrenched power imbalances between Alaska Native communities, schools, and the State. It is about forcing submission and exercising power, not about doing what is best for our children: “You do what we say, or else.” It is unlikely that sending parents of students to prison will help improve the self-perception of young people in a region where suicidal ideation and death by suicide are unacceptably common.

This authoritative stance and attitude differ little from that of the non-Native teachers who in the 1930s forced my auntie to stand with her nose in the corner of the school house in Deering for 15 minutes each time she spoke Iñupiaq with her friends.

Not all research has concluded that schools are a force for good. Lisa Wexler, assistant professor of public health at the University of Massachusetts, suggested in her 2005 dissertation (University of Minnesota: “Suicide Prevention/Hope Project”) about Iñupiat youth suicide in the Northwest Arctic that the colonial nature of schooling is a risk factor in Iñupiat youth suicide. Iñupiat failure in school “is understood as a personal failure, not an institutional one,
e.g. not the failing of the schools,” she writes. “Blindness to current forms of oppression perpetuates individual and collective subjugation” as individuals blame themselves and their communities for deficits that they are not responsible for, and this may contribute to suicidal ideation and death by suicide. Between 1999 and 2005, the Norton Sound region had the highest rate of suicide in Alaska, at 91.3 per 100,000 population, nearly ten times the U.S. rate of 10.7 per 100,000. If the Norton Sound region were a country, it would have the highest rate of suicide on earth. Is there a relationship between past and present forms of colonial schooling and the intergenerational trauma resulting from those experiences, and present day suicide rates? It’s worth thinking about.

Our peoples have educated our children for millennia, passing down the requisite knowledge needed not merely to survive, but to flourish in an environment that some would call harsh, and which was animated by dynamic political, economic, and cultural relationships.  Asking parents what they want their children to know and be able to do (as the North Slope Borough School District did in 2009 and 2010) and then working with communities as equal partners in order to implement those ideas will foster trust between communities, parents and schools and improve attendance rates and eventually graduation rates. There is reason to be optimistic that in the long-term, these changes will help improve the educational experiences of students, lead to more Alaska Natives entering the teaching field in our communities, and dramatically reduce teacher turnover.

The wheel need not be reinvented – from Aotearoa (New Zealand) to Hawai’i to Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) to Utkiaġvik (Barrow), schools are partnering with indigenous communities to create positive change, and former teachers such as Joanne Tompkins have written entire books (Teaching in a Cold and Windy Place, University of Toronto Press 1998) about how it can be done and why it must be done.

A more holistic understanding of American education for Alaska Natives can lead to more productive solutions that do not involve punishing parents for failing to submit to an institution that has never legitimated itself to our communities, but has in fact been a tool used to colonize and assimilate us into mainstream American society. As a first step, school districts can consult with parents and communities on an equal footing about what it is we want our children to know and be able to do. Districts that need close guidance can consult with Alaska Native advocacy organizations such as the Alaska Native Policy Center about healthy and productive ways to engage communities in meaningful dialogue. Communication with jurisdictions that are further along in this process, such as the North Slope Borough School District, can lend valuable insight and suggestions, and create opportunities for collaboration. The archive of research literature written about best practices in indigenous education can be utilized to help establish the theoretical and ethical basis for reform, as well as a framework for action.

Achieving equitable education for Alaska Native peoples is a social justice issue long overdue. Right now is a good time for schools to begin working toward that goal in equal partnership with communities. Education for Alaska Native peoples can be a powerful lever of social change if we use our imaginations to work together in a climate of humility and mutual respect.

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