Apart of the World

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Teachers in the Alaskan Bush strive to offer their native students the appropriate curriculum mix of Eskimo culture and the American mainstream.

Akiachak, Alaska

Standing in calf-high slush as snow machines whiz by, Helen Eckelman recounts how she learned an important lesson about Yup'ik Eskimo culture more than a decade ago.

After she had taught for several months in this village of about 400, some families invited her to visit. But they were apparently reluctant to extend another invitation. "Finally, someone told me, 'You don't know when it's time to leave, and you talk so much!'" says Eckelman, the frozen Kuskokwim River visible behind her through a thin stand of alders. "Their idea of hospitality is that the visitors sit down and eat, and then they go home."

These days, Eckelman is clearly at ease in her adopted village, exchanging waves with everyone who passes on the town's only road. But her pale skin and curly brown hair will always mark her as an outsider here, where very few educators last as long as she has in the Bush, Alaskans' word for their remote rural areas.

These teachers are working against the familiar litany of social ills that accompany low incomes and welfare dependence, whether the setting is the slums of Detroit, the tenant farms of Alabama, or the banks of the Kuskokwim. But they also face an array of more unusual challenges, from water that stains everything orange to a subsistence culture where words are spoken sparingly and where the solutions to social problems are not as obvious. Moreover, Bush teachers, who frequently come from elsewhere, face philosophical and curricular questions that would not have arisen back home.

These questions, in fact, are not wholly resolved among the residents of the Yupiit school district's three villages. Located 390 miles west of Anchorage, they have a total of 396 K-12 students and a teaching staff of 40. For them, remaking schools in an Alaskan image is a vital part of the larger struggle to cope with the benefits, dangers, and demands of the ever-encroaching 21st century mainstream while preserving the gentle rewards of an ancient subsistence culture.

Alexandra Appel, who teaches 3rd and 4th graders in the village of Akiak, puts it this way: "How do you validate what someone is while giving them the tools to be whatever they want to be?"

That dual goal is embraced in the district's official mission statement. And though many of the educators here accept its desirability, they wonder if they can truly achieve either objective, and if the two ideals are at odds with each other.

Although the larger high schools and multiple smaller buildings that house elementary classrooms in Akiachak, Akiak, and Tuluksak are built on stilts to keep their heat from sinking them into the permafrost, they look like any other well-equipped American school on the inside--from the computers to the basketball court. The important differences aren't easily visible, as many an educator can document.

Eckelman, the principal of the Akiachak schools, says that students who perceive their future as a life of salmon fishing and caribou hunting often do not see much value in algebra and are not motivated to tackle advanced subjects.

"They say, 'I've got my snow machine; I know how to hunt and fish.' The boys in particular are quite satisfied with that," she says. "We just don't have anything to offer them."

Steve Dodson, a tall blond who may be the only man in America who teaches kindergarten and home economics and coaches a boys' basketball team, says his players in Akiak are often late to practice because they have to chop wood or pack water, which means carrying it home from a hole in the river ice.

And William Marley, Akiachak's assistant principal, recalls a student he had helped get a great tuition deal at a technical school in the Lower 48: $50 a semester. "He went hunting two days before he was supposed to leave for school," Marley says. "He just looked at me blankly when I asked him about it. That was subsistence. That was important."

Yet, some residents fear that children who spend their time in classrooms are not learning traditional skills. "They're in school during the time they would be learning to make fish traps, and the older people complain the kids don't respect traditions, don't respect their elders. Well, I can't teach them that. It's not my job," says another Akiachak teacher.

"I can't teach some of them much of anything else, either," the teacher continues. "I'm not sure we're preparing these kids for anything."

Most villagers are subsistence hunters and fishermen like their ancestors, heavily dependent on salmon. Their reliance on the modern cash economy for items such as snow machines is steadily growing, but the cash comes from seasonal work, supplementary commercial fishing, and, especially, government checks.

Located 390 miles west of Anchorage, the Yupiit school district has a total of 396 K-12 students and a teaching staff of 40.

Educators in Tuluksak, the farthest upriver of the three Yupiit villages, are running into that reality as they discuss how to respond to state initiatives encouraging school-to-work programs. "There are some carpenters, and there's some need for welders," says Gilbert Campbell, the town's school counselor and physical education teacher. "I hear Akiachak has got a restaurant now. But there's just not much. I don't know if either goal [vocational training or college] is a realistic one at this point."

While they do not deny the obstacles, the residents who are active in school affairs want nothing less than the best of both worlds.

Michael Williams is one such leader who has learned to maintain his balance while leaping between different worlds. As a member of both the Yupiit district's school board and the state school board, he talks education reform and finance equity in English laced with education policy argot. As a breeder and racer of competitive sled dogs, he is a member of Alaska's fraternity of serious mushers, which has become predominantly white. And as a substance-abuse counselor, he is employed by a government bureaucracy. But his first language--and his primary identity--is Yup'ik. He lives in a house that he built himself in Akiak, the village of about 350 where he was born.

"I could live anywhere," Williams says, "but I wanted to raise my children here so they know who they are and they keep their language and culture."

Until the 1970s, Alaska's education system was a hodgepodge. The state eventually took steps to organize rural schools.

Educators in Tuluksak, the farthest upriver of the three Yupiit villages, are running into that reality as they discuss how to respond to state initiatives encouraging school-to-work programs. "There are some carpenters, and there's some need for welders," says Gilbert Campbell, the town's school counselor and physical education teacher. "I hear Akiachak has got a restaurant now. But there's just not much. I don't know if either goal [vocational training or college] is a realistic one at this point."

While they do not deny the obstacles, the residents who are active in school affairs want nothing less than the best of both worlds.

Michael Williams is one such leader who has learned to maintain his balance while leaping between different worlds. As a member of both the Yupiit district's school board and the state school board, he talks education reform and finance equity in English laced with education policy argot. As a breeder and racer of competitive sled dogs, he is a member of Alaska's fraternity of serious mushers, which has become predominantly white. And as a substance-abuse counselor, he is employed by a government bureaucracy. But his first language--and his primary identity--is Yup'ik. He lives in a house that he built himself in Akiak, the village of about 350 where he was born.

"I could live anywhere," Williams says, "but I wanted to raise my children here so they know who they are and they keep their language and culture."

But he also wants his five children, as well as the other village children, to have "the best education possible," whether they stay in the community or go on to postsecondary school or vocational training. Indeed, Williams says, "education is the key to the survival of my people."

Nonetheless, it is obvious that Alaska's Bush schools have a long road to travel if they are to achieve any goal worth striving for.

Standardized-test scores in the Bush are very low. Most of the students in the Yupiit district score below the 25th percentile on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, according to state statistics, and educators say averages in some years and some subjects are in single digits.

While virtually everyone graduates from high school, teachers and administrators who have worked in the Yupiit villages for five to 10 years can recall only one or two students who went on to college.

Outcomes in the other districts in the region are similar. The much larger neighboring Lower Kuskokwim district has somewhat higher scores and more college-bound students, but it includes the comparatively cosmopolitan enrollment of Bethel, a regional hub of 5,000 with a population that is one-third white.

"We know we have to do better," says John Weise, the superintendent of the Yupiit district. "There was certainly a time when you could survive very well without having a certain level of reading proficiency or writing proficiency, but those days are behind us."

Observers say they can see progress, slow though as it may be. After all, the task of improving Bush education--and defining its mission--is part of the transition of Alaska's indigenous people from an isolated subsistence lifestyle to a more extensive, and still evolving, relationship with the dominant American culture.

Until the 1970s, Alaska's education system was a hodgepodge. The first rural schools were organized by missionaries. Later, two parallel school systems were operatedone by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and the other by the state governmentwhile some larger towns had locally run schools.

The state eventually took steps to organize rural schools in the 1970s and 1980s, at the same time the BIA began to turn over control of its Alaskan schools to the state government. In 1977, most of the Kuskokwim Delta came under the jurisdiction of the "rural education area" that later became the Lower Kuskokwim school district. Meanwhile, the state, flush with oil money, settled a lawsuit filed by a group of Eskimos and agreed to build high schools in virtually every village. Before that, older students in many villages had to go away to an urban high school or a BIA boarding school.

In 1985, residents of Akiachak, Akiak, and Tuluksak--who were also pushing for greater local sovereignty powers in general--voted to create their own school district rather than be part of the Lower Kuskokwim.

"When the BIA pulled out of education in Alaska, we looked for ways to get control over our schools," says Willie Kasayulie, an influential local leader who is the longtime chairman of the Yupiit school board.

But local control has proved to be a difficult stretch for people who never had any say in school policy and often viewed the schools as an alien, or even hostile, institution.

"They have had to reinvent a system that has existed elsewhere in the United States since Horace Mann," says David Williams, the director of the University of Alaska's Kuskokwim campus in Bethel.

While many children who attended the BIA schools never got beyond the basics of reading and arithmetic, and relatively few graduated from high school, most observers say that village students who did stick it out probably got a better education than students in today's Bush schools.

"When they started the village schools, the quality of education went down considerably while the number of students who completed went up," says David Williams, who taught at a boarding high school in Bethel that drew students from the region. "Over time, the quality of that education has improved."

Of the approximately 300 seniors who graduate from village high schools in the Yukon and Kuskokwim each year, he says, about 40 enroll on his campus. Their still-low scores on college-entrance exams have been steadily rising, he says, as have their basic skills.

Local educators can see slow progress, too. "When I got here in the early 1980s, test scores were below the first percentile, says Eckelman, the Akiachak principal. "We had kids testing at grade levels that were negative numbers. Now, we're up to the 20's in some things."

At teacher's eye level, however, progress that slow can be hard to see at all, and the obstacles look daunting.

Eckelman, a Montana native with an affinity for rural settings, packed her bags for Alaska after reading I Heard the Owl Call My Name, a book set in the Arctic. She didn't realize until much later that the story was about Canadian Eskimos.

To elementary teacher Appel, "it's an adventure, like being in the Peace Corps."

'When they started the village schools, the quality of education went down considerably while the number of students who completed went up.'

David Williams director,
University of Alaska, Kushokwim

Counselor and PE teacher Campbell had a more mundane motivation. A native of Fairbanks, Alaska's second-largest city, he wanted a job in his home state. Despite the high rural turnover statewide, Alaska is still a very competitive market for educators because wages are high--though so are costs--and many people are interested in working here.

Every educator faces some level of culture shock in an area as remote as the Kuskokwim Delta.

"I remember my son pushing the [television] remote-control button, and I had to explain to him that there's only one channel," Steve Dodson, the kindergarten and home economics teacher, says.

Any serious shopping--not to mention a trip to a doctor or a restaurant--requires traveling to Bethel. It is only 15 miles from Akiachak and 40 miles from Tuluksak, but that distance looms large, as there are no roads. In the winter, the trip can be made by dog sled or snow machine, or in one of the taxis that drive up and down the riverine "ice road" when conditions permit. These transit modes disappear in the spring and fall with the ice.

Villagers also tend to be leery of newcomers, including teachers, because experience has shown them that the recent arrivals won't stick around.

Teachers' housing has hot running water, modern kitchens, and central heating--luxury items in Bush villages. But they pay high prices for what would be low-rent housing in a city; the cabinets show wear, pipes are visible, and many fixtures are stained a rusty orange.

"Can you believe this cost $6?" Appel says, as she snaps a plastic shade over a bare bulb hanging from her apartment's low ceiling. She warns a visitor to boil water before drinking and think twice before throwing anything light-colored in the washer.

The isolation has its financial consequences for the schools as well. Per-pupil expenditures in rural Alaska are high--about $16,000 in the Yupiit district. But the money goes quickly when an away basketball game means putting the team on a plane.

Michael Patrick, who has taught high school in Akiak for seven years, points to an ordinary table and chair set his classroom. "The cost of this in Anchorage was about $400. The cost of shipping it from Anchorage was $650."

Distance learning and Internet access, which have obvious potential for Bush schools, also run into obstacles. The quality of telephone connections is low, and there is often a delay of several seconds between one party speaking and the other party hearing the words. "As you can imagine, [computer] modems don't like that at all," says Akiak Principal Pete Polson.

These material difficulties can pale in import, however, to the task of learning to live and teach in an alien culture where the primary language of some students and most parents is Yup'ik. Indeed, the lower Kuskokwim is the only region in the state where a significant number of children still grow up speaking a native tongue.

Principal Eckelman recalls being thrown together with a 1st grade class of Yup'ik speakers--who initially did nothing but hiss at her--and communicating with them through two children who spoke broken English. "I'd say something, those two kids would translate, they'd all confer in Yup'ik, and then they would relay the answer," she says.

No longer does that happen. What's more, elementary classrooms all have Yup'ik-speaking aides to help translate, if necessary .

Yet, more subtle barriers remain. Yup'ik Eskimos tend to speak only the number of words necessary for utilitarian purposes. They teach traditional skills through demonstration and pass on legends through ceremony and dance--traditions that do not mesh well with such standard teaching techniques as lectures or class discussions.

Young children here are as outgoing as any and literally jump on visitors with questions. But a high school class is surprisingly quiet, with teachers having to prod students to speak up.

"These are not linear, abstract thinkers," says Appel. "Unfortunately, we have a linear, abstract curriculum."

Teachers also have had to struggle with another cultural tenet--authority here is imbued through age and standing in the local kinship network. "It's a little difficult to be a teacher if nobody wants to listen to you," says Campbell, the counselor in Tuluksak.

Villagers also tend to be leery of newcomers, including teachers, because experience has shown them that the recent arrivals won't stick around. The average stay for a rural teacher in Alaska is about two years. All but two of the 11 teachers in Tuluksak were new this year.

Initially, some children "tested" the new teachers, especially the men, with misbehavior that went as far as a kick in the shins or spitting in a cup of coffee.

"It's not that they don't like you; they think you're going to leave," says high school teacher Patrick. "It took me two years, then I started getting invited to steam baths and to go hunting. The boys that gave me the most trouble at first are my buddies now."

The teachers who stay, like Patrick and Eckelman, inevitably become part of the community.

"It's a much more humanistic endeavor" than teaching in the Lower 48, says Patrick, who taught for many years in Zion, Ill. "You do things with people in the community after school, you do a lot more counseling. I get a lot more questions about daily living than about how to solve equations.

"You have to set limits if you don't want kids knocking on your door every 20 minutes," he adds.

The school is so much the center of the community that principals in particular inevitably find themselves fielding constant requests. "There's always someone who needs the key to the gym or something," says Polson. "You're just about on 24-hour call."

The cultural characteristic that ultimately has the most effect on educational achievement is arguably the Eskimos' powerful ties to their families and home communities. The close-knit relationships help explain why so few students go away to college or to find work.

"Leaving is like death to them," Eckelman says.

Only three Yupiit students have enrolled at Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka since 1985, when the former BIA boarding school reopened as an academically rigorous alternative aimed primarily at rural students. And those few did not stay.

One of them was none other than a daughter of school board Chairman Willie Kasayulie. "She lasted five months," he says. "The phone bills were more than the airline tickets."

When Campbell takes the girls' basketball team to a larger town about 50 miles north of Tuluksak, "they're on the phone to their parents as soon as the plane lands," he says. "They complain there's nothing to do, but when they go away, all they want to do is go home."

In addition to seeing the youths' commitment to home and family, educators see the darker side of this isolated, insular culture.

Only about half the Yupiit district's adult residents are high school graduates, the lowest rate in the state. Rates of alcoholism, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency, and suicide are disproportionately high throughout rural Alaska. According to federal figures, some 20 percent of the district's students require special education; the national average is about 12 percent.

'I think a change is coming. [Parents] see that their children are going to be more a part of the world and need to be ready for it.'

John Weise superintendent,
Yupiit School District

Campbell believes that Tuluksak's high rate of special education placement--which he puts at about 30 percent--is probably related to fetal alcohol syndrome.

Even absent such social pathology, Yup'ik culture is based on group cooperation, social harmony, and equality, not individual competition, which, again, does not jibe well with traditional teaching methods.

"Nobody wants to stick out, to be a high achiever," Campbell says. "The kids who have the ability have no motivation. There's no competition for them."

Many teachers say that parents do not encourage high achievement and that some do not value schooling at all. When Campbell asked one mother why her son's attendance was so poor, he says she replied, "What does it matter? It won't make any difference, anyway."

"We can't force our world view on them," says Kelly Gerlach, who teaches 1st and 2nd grades in Akiak. "I don't take anything personally."

District Superintendent Weise says that the parents' own school experience was probably limited and largely negative, and they don't really believe their opinion is desired.

"It has a lot to do with parents' encouragement," agrees Karen Don, a kindergarten teacher who is one of three local women, including her mother, who earned degrees and came back to teach in Akiachak. Her father also pursued postsecondary training and is the district's maintenance chief.

'When you're working with kids who haven't seen apartment buildings, trains, cows and pigs, a lot of the things they read are foreign to them.'

Charles Kashatok director of Yup'ik studies,
Lower Kuskikwim School District

"I think [other villagers] stay because their families need help at home. I also think a lot of them didn't have the role models I did, and maybe weren't as exposed to the outside world," says Don, who took 10 years of intermittent attendance to earn her degree from Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, a common pattern among educated village residents.

"As a Yup'ik person, I think I'm being looked up to here," Don says. "You can go to college, you can graduate. I'm proof that it's possible."

Meanwhile, some Alaskans believe that the schools need to adapt more to the native culture, both to pass on the skills needed for village life and to make other options more possible by making school seem more relevant.

"We are trying," says Polson, Akiak's principal, as he is interrupted to sign a purchase order for rabbit snares.

Adult residents come to the Yupiit and the Lower Kuskokwim schools to teach traditional skills like trapping, fishing, and skinning a caribou.

Some of the schools have paid staff members who teach Yup'ik studies. Mary Ann Lomack teaches high school girls in Akiachak to make items like quilts and Eskimo dolls. She also teaches the Yup'ik language, which is taught in all the schools in the region. The Lower Kuskokwim district has launched Yup'ik immersion programs in a few schools that the Yupiit district is considering emulating--if officials can find enough Yup'ik-speaking teachers.

In the larger Lower Kuskokwim, 74 of 268 certified teaching positions are filled by natives, the highest percentage in the state. The districts offer scholarships to teachers' aides who seek degrees. The University of Alaska also has a program that aims to recruit natives and offers summer training programs for white teachers who intend to work in rural Alaska.

Finding relevant instructional materials to support the cultural work also is a challenge. The Yupiit district commissioned a custom-made set of readers about 10 years ago that focuses on local topics. Teachers also try to make lessons more relevant with projects and examples that students can more easily relate to. Shop students in Akiachak, for example, make dog sleds and gun racks. The hallway of Akiak's high school is lined with a mural depicting tundra animals.

"When you're working with kids who haven't seen apartment buildings, trains, cows or pigs, a lot of the things they read are foreign to them," says Charles Kashatok, the director of Yup'ik studies for the Lower Kuskokwim district and a native of the village of Kipnuk, located on the seacoast about 100 miles from Bethel.

"It won't make sense, it's not going to seem important, it's not going to help them learn to think, reason, and solve problems," Kashatok says. "They may not be able to solve a problem that talks about the space shuttle, but they sure can understand a problem about a snow machine."

But the core of the curriculum would be familiar to educators from the Lower 48.

"There are some who argue that it should be different, but we try to give them the same thing kids are taught everywhere," Polson says.

There is a growing movement among native Alaskan educators to weave the indigenous culture more tightly into the curriculum by "teaching in the culture, rather than teaching about the culture," in the words of Oscar Kawagley, a University of Alaska education professor who is the acknowledged leader of this movement.

His 1993 book, A Yupiaq World View: Implications for Cultural, Educational and Technological Adaptation in a Contemporary World, has been influential in spreading the idea that "native ways of knowing" should be given equal footing in rural schools with the more linear, compartmentalized, fact-driven Western curriculum.

Sometimes, it appears that the priorities of teaching traditional values and contemporary knowledge are in opposition.

For example, at the Yupiit district's annual education summit in March, Kawagley was a featured speaker. He said students should be taught to blend traditional and Western knowledge and that too much dependence on textbooks "destroys curiosity and creativity." He said that children should be taught "from the perspective of the Yup'ik--a connection to Mother Earth" and that children should be taken out into the tundra to learn.

Superintendent Weise followed, taking a decidedly different tack. Despite years of effort, he said, the district's test scores are "still at the bottom."

"Parents' reading levels often determine the children's reading level," he told the gathering of about 200 educators and parents. "Yes, I agree with Dr. Kawagley--go out into the tundra--but when you go, take a book!"

But the debate itself was deceiving--with the educators on the same side in actuality.

Weise, a part Eskimo who hails from Bethel, agrees with Kawagley that traditional values and knowledge should be taught along with the Western curriculum that students must master if they aspire to the kind of success the educators have enjoyed themselves.

"I was trying to get their attention," he says later. "I'm in increasing-awareness mode. I think there's been a tendency to assume the tests from the Lower 48 aren't relevant here and dismiss the results."

But he, too, sees progress. When he visits families, more parents "are expressing concern about where their children are in reading, writing, and arithmetic. I think a change is coming. They see that their children are going to be more a part of the world and need to be ready for it."

The bottom-line question for educators is what future the Yup'ik children are being prepared for. Will they live in the American mainstream or in the village? Educators are particularly concerned about the villages' ability to survive, especially once the new federal welfare reforms kick in this summer that give most adults only two more years of benefits. Alaska, however, is trying to find community-service alternatives for the unemployed in the Bush.

"We have to give our people the kind of education that will make their lives more meaningful and help them not be dependent on public assistance or other programs," says state and local school board member Michael Williams.

"We need teachers and medical providers. We need accountants and administrators, we need equipment operators, we need pilots. We need carpenters, and we need accountants to run businesses in our villages," Williams says. "We also need to have the best-educated hunters and fishermen around."

Educators are particularly concerned about the villages' ability to survive, especially once the new welfare reforms kick in this summer.

When Carole Seyfrit, a sociology professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., surveyed students in rural Alaska about their aspirations in 1995, a whopping 90 percent in the Yupiit high schools said that they planned to attend college. The response rate stands in stark contrast with the handful of residents who have actually taken the jump.

"One of the things we're looking at is the conflict between the push to go to college and the pull of staying in the village," says Seyfrit. "There's ambivalence in the responses. You could interpret it to mean they plan to do different things at different times in their lives or they just don't know." But, she says, it also "could be evidence that attitudes are changing and big social changes are on the way. What this means for the villages is a good question."

Others look for meaning in far less clinical ways. "These are the children we will depend on in the future to run the villages. It's very important for them to have some understanding of the native culture and way as well as the American way of life," school board Chairman Kasayulie says. "Our mission is to provide understanding of survival [techniques] as well as to help people who get out of the communities to seek jobs in larger cities.

"Some will leave and not come back," he says. "Some will come back, and we'll be waiting for them."

Vol. 16, Issue 35, Page 28-34

Published in Print: May 28, 1997, as Apart of the World
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