Alaska Is Failing Its Indigenous Students
For Alaska Native students, culturally relevant instruction is key
"You are more likely to end up dead or in jail by the time you are 25 years old than you are to finish high school as an Alaska Native male." It was 1989, we were 7th graders, many of us freshly relocated from isolated villages surrounding the interior settlement town of Fairbanks, Alaska. I was one of them, having just arrived from Vashraii K'oo (Arctic Village) with a thick village accent. School staff had pulled about 13 of us out of class to meet with a counselor. Those were his words to us as Alaska Native boys, part of a "scared straight"-type program.
Today, the underlying statistics of this threat remain similar. Alaska Native students have a graduation rate just above 60 percent—and a majority of the dropouts are male. I was one of those who dropped out of high school, but it wasn't due to a lack of cognitive ability or interest in learning, as later demonstrated by my graduate degree and current role as a university vice chancellor.
The knowledge that my Alaska Native peers were also more than capable of graduating from high school raised the question: Why are Alaska schools failing Alaska Native children at such alarming rates? More importantly, what can we do to address the issue? The answers are complicated.
The immediate answer to the first question includes an annual teacher-turnover rate of around 30 percent in rural school districts with the highest percentage of Alaska Native students, and a severe lack of culturally relevant curriculum and pedagogy. But to appreciate the full complexity of this picture, we must place the role of Western education in the broader historical context of the Alaska Native experience.
Our homeland was claimed by Russia in 1741 and then sold to the United States through the Treaty of Cession in 1867. That was in the time of my great-grandparents, when Indigenous peoples were not consulted on matters pertaining to their lives, lands, or resources. Following the Treaty of Cession, which referred to Alaska Native nations as the "uncivilized native tribes," education was introduced to our peoples as a tool of U.S. colonization and assimilation.
Schools and religion were the primary mechanisms to attempt to eradicate Alaska Native languages, ceremonies, social systems, cultural practices, values, and identity. This legacy included isolated boarding schools—such as the Wrangell Institute, which my mother attended—that were rooted in the tenet "Kill the Indian, save the man." This introduction to education was traumatic for many Alaska Native peoples, and it contributes to current issues of intergenerational trauma and tension in our peoples' relationship with Western education.
At the same time, many of our grandparents saw the potential benefits of Western education. It was becoming a tool Alaska Natives used to advocate for human and civil rights. The late Dene' Chief Peter John of Minto, born in 1900, recognized the power in education and shared his vision that our people would one day harness that power.
From an Indigenous perspective, we can view education on an evolving spectrum, with colonization and assimilation on one end and cultural revitalization and empowerment on the other. In Alaska, I believe that we will see increased student success as we move across the spectrum.
There is academic and administrative evidence that supports this belief. In Hawaii, a P-12 Hawaiian-language medium school, Nāwahī School, epitomizes the transformation of education along this spectrum. The students are not only taught their Indigenous language, but learn cultural knowledge as well as core standards through the language. Nāwahī School has an average high school graduation rate of 100 percent and a college-going rate of 80 percent. This starkly contrasts with the state's public schools, with their high school graduation rate at 82 percent and college attendance at 54 percent.
Over the past 50 years, Alaska Natives have been on a journey toward increased self-determination in governance, business, and health care, and now is the time for self-determination in education. Our students' success, and the future of our 20 distinct Alaska Native languages—all currently endangered—depend upon our being in the driver's seat of our educational systems.
Considerable work has already been accomplished that helps move us in this direction. Since 1989, the University of Alaska system has awarded 2,405 Alaska Natives with bachelor's degrees, 552 with master's degrees, and 16 with Ph.D.s. And those numbers increase annually. The Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska has developed an Alaskan Inuit Education Improvement Strategy to support transformation of P-12 education for Alaskan Inuit children. And the Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Yup'ik-language immersion school in Bethel has been running a K-6 program since the late 1990s. These are just a few of the educational foundations from across the state on which we can build. This is no small task, but substantive progress could be possible with a few key developments.
We need federal legislative amendments to allow Alaska Native tribes access to all Bureau of Indian Education programs, and new congressional appropriations to accompany the expansion of service. We need a partnership with the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development to support an Alaskan tribal school system. For example, schools with a majority of Alaska Native students could be placed under tribal control while maintaining the same amount of their state funding. Finally, we would benefit greatly through increased partnership and investment from the University of Alaska system to support Indigenous teacher training, language-revitalization programs, and culturally relevant curriculum development.
Just as important, current efforts to advance Indigenous schools, programs, and initiatives must continue to grow. Together, we will transform Indigenous education in the Arctic and perhaps inspire the rethinking of how we educate our young people across the United States.
Vol. 36, Issue 14, Page 28Published in Print: November 30, 2016, as Indigenizing Education in The Arctic