Straddling Cultures

There is a lot to be learned from Paul Berg’s example of the Sami of Norway and the Maori of New Zealand, both of which reversed their policies of enforced acculturation with promising results. The big question is, can the same be done for Alaska Natives? Can Americans, who seldom import any other educational models, import one for Alaska Natives successfully?

The problem for Anglo/American culture does seem to be one of cultural superiority.   This probably goes along with that missionary mindset of “saving’ indigenous people from themselves.   Having said this, I can’t agree with Berg’s point that the current philosophy of Native education “appears to be a continuation of 19th century Social Darwinism.’ There is evidence it has moved beyond that–of course, with still much room for improvement. I also don’t agree with Berg’s comments that “Alaska Natives have become an industry of the middle class.   There is big money to be made by thousands of non-Native professional providing services in rural Alaska.’   Just evaluating the scant population of Native areas, I can’t comprehend that the numbers lead to big money for the middle classes.   Besides, companies doing business with Native villages agree to employ Alaska Natives wherever possible.   The Native corporations earn a good deal subcontracting with various firms.

I think the most operational word here is “disempowered.’   When a culture feels disempowered, it loses hope, which leads to unfortunate symptoms such as dependency, alcoholism, vandalism, and suicide.

In Judith Kleinfeld’s article, she calls those teachers “supportive gadflies’ who display personal warmth but at the same time are demanding of Alaska Native students.   These teachers were the most successful.   This reminds me of another of Kleinfeld’s articles that I read for another class on the issue of boarding schools.   While that era in educational history is pretty depressing, the conclusion seemed to be that progress is being made, however slowly, in educating Alaska Natives.

In the book Conflicting Landscapes  by  Bates & Oleksa, a very complete picture of Alaska Native education, the consensus seemed to be that Alaska Natives needed to be more involved in education and teachers who wished to locate in the Bush needed more training.

One well-known Alaska Native, Willie Hensley, describes his educational experience as showcasing the dilemma of having to straddle two clashing cultures, not wishing to abandon one in favor of the other.

All of these authors emphasize that there are no easy answers.   Ideally, the educational system would take into account the culture and language of Alaska Natives necessary for survival in Bush Alaska while offering English and other subjects necessary for survival in the world today

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