Rowan’s Response to The Future of Alaska Native Education

In his article, Paul Berg begins by asserting that “Alaska continues to be wedded to the practices of the past…the philosophy of the education system appears to be a continuation of 19th century Social Darwinism — the doctrine of the superiority of Anglo/Western culture. The goal of rural education remains to acculturate the Native student to the dominant culture” and makes the point that policies that come from the outside can lead to an unhealthy dependence on that outside culture, which can lead to loss of initiative, growing frustration and anger, and eventually self-destructive behavior especially in situations when educators from the dominant culture are treated in a way that is superior to those from the village (3/15/2012). He proposes that alternatives to this cycle of dependency involve a healing and wellness journey for the community that is lead from within the community rather than imposed by outsiders. The vision for the future for Native Education proposed by elders according to this article includes 1) allowing future generations to have the independence to become their own experts as they negotiate their way between dominant and indigenous cultures, 2) allowing native people to control and take responsibility for their own school system, and 3) restricting the role of majority culture educators as expert so they take a backseat more. There is a call for a shift in education that 1) honestly confronts the past, 2) gives guidance and purpose to life, 3) uses cultural wisdom and traditions, and 4) provides a positive vision and hope for the future. Berg calls for more placed-based education models and reminds us that we need to reject ideas of Western or majority culture superiority.

While many comments responding to this article were in accord with Berg, there were some people who were critical of his vision, calling it a step backwards. Jo MacNamara argued, “Isn’t the main purpose of a school to prepare younger people for the life ahead of them instead of the life of their ancestors?” (3/15/12 1:12 pm), while Skirtz points out that, “Even if ‘experts’ ‘back off’, the rest of the world of business and industry is not obliged to do the same…There must be guidelines to make sure these kids have the basic tools they need to be cross-cultural. Not for the purpose of assimilation into a ‘dominant’ culture, but, to give them a chance to negotiate that culture” (3/15/12 12:55 pm). In my own response, I would agree that the new vision should 1) promote inter-cultural understanding and compassion rather then continue an “us” versus “them” dichotomy, 2) address issues of educational equality and national standards, 3) involve both elders and young people in the shaping of a new system, and 4) encourage all educators to live and work in a different culture for at least a year to experience what it is like to be a minority having to operate with a new language and way of being. Cross-cultural understanding can only really happen when people value it and take the time to challenge themselves to view the world via paradigms other than their own. I particularly enjoyed Jimmy J’s observation that “The Western view point is that the individual is the strongest unity and the Native viewpoint places the strongest unit as a group (house, Clan). When one person of a Clan commits a crime the entire Clan has to pay the price” (3/16/12 5:32 am). This reminded me of the Interdependent Group Contingency Strategies from our handbook.

In my own vision for the future of Native education, I agree that changes must come from, and be lead, from within the local, Native community, but I think it is important to address the following questions:

1) How do we develop a system that incorporates indigenous knowledge systems and language but also prepares children for life outside of the village as some students may wish to leave?

2) How would the curriculum be nationally accredited and recognized to ensure equal opportunities to graduates of this system?

3) How can this new system work towards decreasing the gap between philosophies of “us” and “them” to cultivate a sense of inter-cultural respect and understanding?

I would involve young Native students in the decision making process rather than differ only to elders as I think it is important for cross-generational communication to happen so that the vision can respect the ways of the past while pointing into modern visions of the future.


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