No Such Thing As A One Sided Compromise

NOTE:  This blog post is long. I do not know why it is so long. If you want to just read the real condensed version, go down about two-thirds of the way and start reading at the bolded line. That’s where the real meat is, everything before that is just the side dishes. Believe it or not, I actually cut a sizable chunk out of the original post. By “sizable” I mean about 1000 words. It currently sits at about two-thirds of its original size. So, enjoy the theatrical cut:

Hello everybody. I guess it is time for another blog. This topic is especially difficult for me to write about, having grown up in Oklahoma I do not have much experience with Alaska Native students. The Native Americans in Oklahoma are so seemlessly blended into Oklahoma culture that it is at times very difficult to discern who is or is not of Native American descent. My own mother was born on one of the former Oklahoman Indian Reservations (they are OTSAs now) and I did not even know I had Native American blood until I was 15. Up here in Alaska it seems like things are so different, things are so much more tense.

Throughout most of human history, when two cultures meet the larger more powerful culture wipes out or enslaves the smaller, weaker one. This idea of cultural preservation is a relatively recent one, and like most young ideas people have sort of convoluted feelings about them. I do not agree with Berg in how he seems to assign responsibility for making this culture clash work. I am not, and have never been, a proponent of “white guilt”, any more than I am a proponent of “Native shame”. I believe that it should be the responsibility of both the white teachers and the Native communities to work together to make Alaska Native education work. It is not fair to put white teachers in front of Native students and expect them to do all the reach out – no more fair than it is to place white teachers in urban black schools and expect the African American students to just sit there and not engage with the teacher in any way. Cooperation is not a uniquely cultural idea – I have actually read articles about Natives who have to transition to University life at UAF, and they claim that the non-Natives have no sense of cooperation or community. Let me make this clear : Individualist societies have a very hard time (and are often resistant to) cooperating with groups. Likewise, collectivist cultures have a hard time welcoming individualists. I think this is a tough distinction to work around. Alaska Native education (indeed, all education) is dependent on the cooperation of multiple parties. To most people this would seem like a given, but that is not really the feeling I picked up from either article.

In an absolute sense, I understand and agree with the point that Berg’s article is making : we need to learn from the mistakes of others and make steps to avoid the total destruction of traditional Alaska Native culture. The future of Alaska Native education needs to ensure that Alaska Natives are, upon leaving the school system, both ready to continue village life if they so choose and to effectively integrate themselves into the modern world. A school is a place of learning. As a (prospective) English teacher, I see two clear distinctive sides in traditional education. Math and Science must be taught everywhere, they are absolutes and relate to everyone.  Knowledge  of the human body and the physical world is imperative, as is the reasoning behind it. Now, English, History, Art and Music can easily be altered to be more place-based. In addition to the current “Great Books” approach to English learning, traditional native stories and grammer can be taught alongside English. AK Studies is already mandatory in Alaska, but I believe it is only a semester long. US History, World History, AK History, and local Native History would be a good mix of traditional and place-based learning.  I would never support any curriculum, for any reason, that would elect not to teach students four years of science. I also do not think that village curriculum will ever be able to structured in any way that will allow village schools to develop their own curriculum without outside influence.

Our culture sometimes has a tendency to make things worse when trying to help, and we need to take things slow and be careful not to destroy Native culture the same way the  indigenous  Norwegiand and New Zealand cultures have been. Berg comes off as agressive, like he is attacking white teachers and that is not fair. As Kleinfeld points out in her article, there are different types of teachers that do well in different environments. You can not blame them, nor can you force them to change. Forcing people to change is how we got into this mess, but that seems to be exactly what Berg is suggesting. It’s sort of this really difficult, rock-and-a-hard-place situation that we are in. According to Berg, the white people are trying to help and are just making things worse, and they need to back off. If you do not agree with this, then you just don’t get it., because of your “western mind”. Berg leaves these accusations in no way open to interpretation. If you disagree with him, then you just don’t get it. Any middle school English student can tell you that this is a bad way to win your argument. It is sort of a variation of the “If you don’t X, then you are stupid”. His point is valid, his argument is poor. I have to wonder if Berg has read Kleinfeld’s article. If he had, maybe he would be less aggressive. I agree with Shannon, his accusations seem to go a little too far. He does not see the double standard in his own article. He criticizes non-Native teachers for being paid high, and that they apparently are part of some huge powerful, authoritative community. He says the Western mind can not handle giving up authority, that Native people need to have “direct control over their own destiny”. However, the feeling I get from most non-Natives I talk to is not a feeling that they are in any way “powerful” in the village. I feel this same way about Jo MacNamara, in the comments. He makes a lot of valid interesting points, but just comes off as an insensitive jerk in the way that he delivers them.

I must admit to really liking some of Jo’s points. I agree that it is a bad idea to have only Natives teach Native students. I agree that we need to get rid of the Native vs. Non-Native mentality – this exists on both sides. Progress can not be made until we all work together. I think the Native communities are frustrated with the predominately white education system. Likewise, and I mean no offense when I say this, a lot of white teachers and students are frustrated dealing with the Natives. There seems to be no give on either side, and that’s the real problem. MacNamara calls the Native way of life “backwards” – and this is the wrong attitude to take. He wraps his main point – the importance of advocating multiculturalism – in his apparent frustration with “white blame”. He brings up valid and important points in his second comment, but just yells and gets angry about things. This is not the attitude we need to take, if there is any positive future for the education of Alaska Natives then we need to advocate multiculturalism on both sides.

To finally get to the point: I think there is definitely a positive future ahead for Alaska Native education. I believe that pretty strongly. A lot has to happen for this to come to pass. I agree with Sherry, right now we are trying to fit square pegs into round holes. I agree with Kara that we need to remain realistic, knowing how to work a computer will be more beneficial to students than knowing how to make baskets out of baleen. The only way we can fit this peg into this hole is if the village elders, the Native students and the people in charge of the education system all get together and hash out, probably over several years, a comprehensive plan for the state of Alaska. I do not think this will create self-sufficient village education systems. Science textbooks will need to be brought in, as will well trained teachers. No student should go without math/science/world history education. No student in the United States should leave high school without an understanding of the English language and US History. No student in Alaska should leave high school without an understanding of AK History and their local culture. There is a hierarchy of educational needs that must be addressed. Of course village students have different needs than urban white students.

It is wrong to dismiss and demonize the  efforts  of those who are trying to help. The Christian missionaries in Alaska may have come into the state and forced a religion onto the Native people (which they have pretty happily adopted), and though some may see that as wrong it is important to remember that they were trying to help. That attitude is important. If you are willing to help, you are probably willing to listen to new ways to help. The non-Native teachers who go out into the village and stay for more than a year or two are the ones who need to be praised, not attacked. Their hearts are in the right place, they usually genuinely care about the well-beings and futures of their students. If they are going about these out things poorly, it is the duty of the informed to help correct their efforts. Kleinfeld offers advice: be aware of these cultural differences. Berg offers advice, wrapped in an attack. The future of Alaska Native education can be bright if everybody is willing to make it bright. If the Natives spend their time complaining about how the western education model does not fit them and the white people spend their time complaining about how the Natives are unwilling to make efforts to adapt, then neither side is in the right. I know this post has been long and has wound itself around many different thigns, but my point is this: Kleinfeld and Berg both make solid, valid points. Attacking and demonizing either side of this problem is not the way to go. We should not try to eliminate European culture from our schools any more than we should exclude Alaska Native (or any other) culture. The United States has a nasty racial track record, but we pride ourselves on our diversity. Everybody needs to work together to promote this sense of cultural harmony. Only then, when the needs of all people are met will the education of Alaska Natives be sufficient. This is a long, hard, expensive road to follow. Everybody will need to be willing to adapt and work together. Alaska Natives present an especially difficult educational situation. They need the skills and cultural background of their own people. They also need to be able survive in the cut-throat modern world, an economic and technological world much unlike the one in which they may be raised. Alaska Native students are presented with three options in life. They are faced with the monumental task of keeping alive their shrinking culture and somehow integrating into the increasingly global world.

The educational system in Alaska needs to be re-evaluated. Not a complete overhaul, because this would not be in the best interests of all students. It needs to be re-evaluated, by both the people in charge of the educational system and the people whom it affects. The future of Alaska Native education can be a fantastic one, but we have to make efforts to make that so. It is important to seamlessly blend place-based education into our traditional subject-based education system. I think this is a good way to make sure that all students are able to function in both their traditional, local community, and our modern, global community.

It is important to remember: There is no such thing as a one sided compromise.

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