Northern Exposure

By Alan Richard — October 01, 2001 7 min read
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From her leaky classroom near the Arctic Circle, a Native Alaskan educator shows students the world.

For 23-year-old Myra Slwooko, going home to teach meant flying northwest from her college in Spokane, Washington, across part of the Pacific Ocean, over snowy mountains, and past Anchorage to a coastal village within a walrus-swim of the Arctic Circle.

Slwooko’s working in a place called Elim, a village of 300 Native Alaskans along oft-frozen Norton Bay, between a hilltop and a little bald mountain. It’s 80 miles from Unalakleet, the village where she grew up. Elim, at times, is completely silent. During the dead of winter, the temperature can drop to 40 degrees below zero, and it is dark-as-night all day. The snow can pile up taller than a person’s head. It’s not the kind of place many teachers Slwooko’s age would want to work: no bar or nightclub, no shopping mall, few dating possibilities. There’s a little library, two small stores, a gravel airstrip, maybe 50 homes, and that’s all.

The salmon are disappearing, so fishing—the main activity of every man in the village until a decade ago—isn’t the living it once was. Families fill in the gaps with informal jobs and government checks. The few steady jobs are with the town, a Native Alaskan economic development corporation, or the 100-student, preK-12 public school, which employs about 25 people.

But there is the bay, which the wintertime paints icy white and crystal blue, and there are the people, who are friendly and earnest. For Slwooko, there is family nearby. And perhaps most significantly, there are the children, many of whom have never seen a paved road. They’re kids who need all the knowledge a teacher can throw at them, for their lives are set to change more dramatically than their people have seen in centuries, with the decline of fishing, the advent of the Internet, and the lure of jobs in Alaska’s tourist sector.

Slwooko feels her presence as a successful Native Alaskan provides as valuable a lesson for her students as those she teaches from books. “I want to give them a sense of purpose,” she says, discussing the reasons for her return to the area two years ago. Growing up, Slwooko had only one Native teacher, but she says, “I had access to adults who knew what it took” to provide tools for a productive life. “Here in Elim, maybe a quarter of the parents understand.” That’s why she feels a duty to help out. “Being Native and from Alaska,” she says, “I knew I could connect with students.”

Alaska has about 627,000 residents. Although only 16 percent of them are Native Alaskan or Native American, in the Bering Strait, where Slwooko teaches, indigenous people account for 97 percent of the population. This is not, however, reflected in the teaching force. Out of the roughly 300 teachers and administrators in the Bering Strait School District—which is larger than Minnesota but has a mere 1,800 students, almost all of whom live in extremely remote villages—only 11 teachers and an assistant superintendent are Native Alaskan.

For John Davis, the district’s superintendent and an Alaska resident for the past 17 years, this is troubling. Native teachers “are people in the community who can say, ‘I’m an example of what education can do,’ ” he observes. Now more than at any other time in history, Native children need indigenous teachers to model moving between modern cities and rural communities. The Native “way of living is coming to an end,” says Ann Stokes, a part-time guidance counselor at the Elim school.

Unfortunately, administrators like Davis have little power to recruit indigenous educators. First of all, few Native teachers come out of the education pipeline each year: In 2000, for example, only a few dozen earned education degrees. Second, Native teachers don’t necessarily want to practice their craft in rural Alaska.

They are kids who need all the knowledge a teacher can throw at them, for their lives are set to change more dramatically than their people have seen in centuries.

In fact, few educators of any background do. Teaching up north is no picnic. Graduation rates can be as low as zero, since some villages are so remote that jobs and outside life don’t matter much to kids. (In Elim, a majority of teens do finish high school, though hardly any go on to college.) Students struggle with reading and other basic skills, and facilities are infamously shabby and neglected—so much so that in 1998 rural school districts sued the state to force repairs and new construction. Making matters worse, the district has no extra money for signing bonuses to draw more Natives, nor does the state offer loan forgiveness to college students who teach in rural areas. It’s not surprising, then, that teacher and principal turnover in the region is relentless, though Davis claims it’s slowing. “We’re now hiring 30 to 40 teachers a year, not 70 to 80,” as they did his first year, he says.

So how did Davis entice Slwooko to return? Quite simply, he kept in touch. The school district is headquartered in Slwooko’s hometown of Unalakleet, so the place boasts a larger and more diverse population than most Native villages. This allowed Slwooko to meet more college-educated adults than many other Eskimo children, including Davis and other district workers. An outstanding basketball player despite her high school’s limited facilities, Slwooko earned a scholarship to Whitworth College, a small Christian school, where she majored in history and secondary education. School district officials checked in with her periodically through e-mail, and when she started looking for jobs, they told her about an opening at the Aniguiin School in Elim.

For Slwooko, the decision to return to the area was an easy one. She says her evangelical faith led her to believe it’s what God wants for her. “I really felt, in a way, my call is teaching,” she says.

Slwooko’s enthusiasm and youth make her popular among the three middle school grades she teaches. When she speaks, her words sound contemporary to student ears. Her sentences often break with the word “like,” as in “Like, shouldn’t you be getting to work now?” She walks athletically, and she’s naturally attractive—confident, but rarely putting herself forward, which would be considered impolite in Native culture. Yet she has a sense of humor that balances her seriousness.

She talks to her students constantly about what it’s like beyond Norton Bay and even beyond Alaska. For visual reference, the kids can gaze at the photographs from a college trip to England that Slwooko’s strung across her room—pictures from the other side of the world.

‘Are you white?’ one of Slwooko’s kids asked last year. She was stunned to realize some see her as an outsider.

Still, despite her natural affinity for teaching in the village, the job often sends her spinning. Last year, she recalls, “One of the students asked me, ‘Are you a gussack?’ meaning, ‘Are you white?’ ” She blurted out, “No!” She was stunned to realize that, in spite of her similar background, some villagers see her as an outsider: She’s a woman with a professional job and a leadership role in a village traditionally run by men. However, the incident prompted her to remember what she felt like when she was young. Before she left Unalakleet, she says, the white educators and the Natives who had traveled outside her community at first seemed a little suspicious and condescending to her. Such classroom moments help clarify what she needs to teach her students, she says.

Above all, Slwooko believes she needs to encourage kids to steep themselves in their culture while being able to function in the modern world. That’s where she hopes she can serve as a role model. “They see I have a job, and I can provide for basic needs. I have wants and can provide for my wants,” she says. And she can move from village to city with ease: She recently flew to Fairbanks, the major town in east-central Alaska, to attend a wedding, and during the summer, she visited friends back in Spokane.

Of course, despite her relative sophistication, there have been events that no teaching college could have prepared her for—a recent series of student deaths, two of them in a snowmobile accident, and the death of a teaching assistant who expired from a brain aneurysm in the school’s entranceway. With no full-time counselor on staff, Slwooko and the other teachers have had to help their students deal with these tragedies. While difficult for everyone, Slwooko says, the deaths have tightened the relationships among the school’s faculty members, four of whom are Native Alaskan. “Everybody gets along,” she says. “We don’t look at race. We’re people. We’re human beings, and we treat each other that way.”

Looking ahead, Slwooko is optimistic. This winter, she’s planning to form a coed varsity basketball team—Elim’s first in several years. In 2002, the school will move into a new building. Pointing to the abundance of graffiti on students’ desktops, she says, “Once they see something nice, they’ll be able to respect what they’re learning a little bit better.”

As for her own goals, though Slwooko cares about raising test scores, she’d much rather influence other areas of her students’ lives. She can’t stop thinking about their futures: Will they raise healthy families? Attend college? Find new ways of earning money? Her leaky classroom and the icy days will have been worthwhile, she says, if she can help her students build their village into a prouder place.


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