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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