03/16/2012 11:26 am ET Updated Aug 03, 2012

Alaska Native Education: More Than Kidʼs Stuff

A thought came to me as my class was discussing Alaska Native civil rights leaders this semester. We were talking about the lives and work of William Paul and Elizabeth & Roy Peratrovich, and students began acknowledging that this was the first time they had taken a close look at any of these important Alaskans. The students who were not from Alaska had never heard of any of them. Nearly all of those from Alaska had heard of Elizabeth & Roy Peratrovich, but not William Paul. This was not surprising, but is certainly worth exploring because Paul worked on desegregating schools and establishing voting rights for Alaska Natives starting the 1920s, and Roy & Elizabeth Peratrovich were instrumental in the passage of the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945, which provided equal access to facilities and ended the "No Indians Allowed" policies that existed in many local businesses and public places in Alaska. It was the first civil rights bill of its kind, establishing penalties for public discrimination based on ethnicity.

Through the course of our discussion, it became clear that the Alaskan students had talked about Alaska Native history and cultures in school until around the seventh grade. At that point, their classes seemed to exclude Alaskan Native stories, cultures, history and people. The light bulb began to sparkle. There is a trend in education to allow the existence of indigenous thought and narratives until more adult subjects take over the agenda after leaving elementary school. This exposes a viewpoint of the education system, which is likely reflected in the general population: Native American subjects are not items of serious study for adults. Itʼs kidʼs stuff.

As an educator, I am disturbed by the overall lack of knowledge about the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA), the complexities of Alaska Native systems of governance and the steady death of Alaska Native languages. I suspect that Alaska is not alone in ignoring and silencing Native American people through omission. We can look at something like a sign that says, "No Indians Allowed," and determine that one group considers themselves more privileged or human than the other, and are exerting their power by restricting access to public places. But modern acts of omission are harder to see, often because the excluded have never really been there to begin with, especially when it comes to academics.

When elevated terminology is attached to an institution, then decisions have historically been made about what becomes elevated and what stays at the lower levels. If it is "high" school or "higher" education, then the subject matter must narrow to fit the accepted scope of "higher" forms of thought or consciousness. Many of the missionaries who came to Alaska reported to their superiors that Alaska Native languages were not capable of expressing complexities of the modern world, and they made these remarks without taking the time and energy necessary to understand the complexities of the language they were talking about. They came with prejudiced views of indigenous people, and their philosophies echo through current systems of education. So while we are looking back at important legislation that opened the doors for equality decades ago, we need to think about the actual application of those philosophies to the classroom today.

When we take a serious look at Alaska Native languages, literature, philosophy and understanding of the natural world, we will see world views that differ radically from what is typically studied in high schools and colleges. These ways of seeing the world developed over thousands of years in specific places, so it makes sense to study those knowledge systems on the lands on which they developed and see how they apply today.

The leading cause of death among Alaska Native youth is suicide, and educators need to acknowledge that if we stop talking about Alaska Native history, people, cultures and languages, then we are stating that those things are no longer important once we grow up. In actuality, those are the most important things when we grow up. We have inherited a complicated world. We have chosen, in many cases, to keep things the way they are because that is how we know them. But when we can see them for what they are -- forms of omission and contributors to the death of languages and indigenous ways of knowing -- then we can achieve higher forms of thinking by removing the discrimination that limits our education systems and the students we hope will continue making this world a better place, one generation at a time.

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