The Future of Alaska Native Education?

I personally have only lived in Alaska for a year and a half, and the community that I will call home for the next three years is in the Southeast called, Yakutat. In regards to other small, rural communities throughout this huge State, I can’t say much about their realities since I haven’t visited them (yet), so the author has me beat with his 35 years of experience. So my view point i guided through a very narrow range of experience coupled with a minuscule amount of time spent in this
State, which doesn’t give a very holistic view about the future of Alaska Native Education. That being said, I did pick up on something that the author seemingly either forgot to mention or just didn’t quite figure into the entire equation: non-native/non-outsider people who have lived in some of these communities (at least in Yakutat) for not only their entire lives but for generations. They are just as connected to the land as the Natives, have children in the school systems, feel at home just like everyone else but do not share the same culture with the Natives. So, what about them? I guess that may be besides the point.

Yakutat, a small fishing community of about 600 people or so, is still very connected and striving to maintain its Tlingit roots. There are a multitude of examples but I’ll just stick to the education side of things. The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe (YTT) received a grant to implement Tlingit language classes into the school. The language instructors design the lessons, which must get approved by the elders, before the teachers can go in and teach. Cultural components are also addressed in these lessons and from what I have seen the kids (being kids) have already begun to pick up bits and pieces of the language. It is quite amazing actually, and the school has allowed these classes to be implemented. A summer culture camp (sleep away) has been organized in the community for years, which receives a high attendance of youth from all age levels. My friend from the community recalled this camp fondly when she was in high school; they do everything from teaching the kids how to weave baskets out of cedar bark to making drums from the hides of animals. Native and local kids a like attend this camp.

My point in addressing these examples is that I agree with the author in that I do see a resurgence in my community that strives to incorporate place-based lessons into the curriculum that address the local language and culture. The community is very proud of their culture and will maintain these roots because they have taken the initiative to educate the youth through classes as well as maintaining the presence of culture camp over the years. Now, did the school curriculum have to change in order to implement these Tlingit language lessons? Sure, but not drastically, and students are still being taught the age-old themes of mathematics, language arts and science. Did all of the non-Native teachers have to be booted from the school so that this type of integration could take place? Not in the least, in fact the school has a blend of Native, non-Native but local, and teachers from “the lower 48” that are there for one purpose: to teach and give their students the best education possible. I’m sure the incorporation of these lessons didn’t happen with a few bumps in the road (and what doesn’t?), and maybe not all of the non-Native students have a strong drive to learn the Tlingit language, but this was important for the community and the school worked with YTT to make it happen.

I agree with a comment from wmolson on Paul Berg’s article: “We need to respect the past. But at the same time, we have to educate, instruct and prepare the current younger generation for a whole different way of life that the world has never seen nor experienced before.” I do think we need to arm our students with the knowledge and skills that will allow them to get to wherever it is they want to get to in life. If they want to stay in the community and become a commercial fisherman, great…if they want to graduate from high school and become an investment banker in New York City, well that is just fine too, but the education system of Alaska should allow students to strive for whatever path is their calling. That is the job of an educator in my opinion, and it is the student’s right to have the world at their feet. I am also a strong opponent of place-based education, in fact I am going to work with the Tlingit language instructors to implement lessons that will present Tlingit legends and stories from the community that have conservation messages (which will be told by one of the language instructors or an elder) and than follow it up with short science lesson that pertains to the same message. To me: best of both worlds.


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