Nations at Top of the World Share Schooling Tactics

By Debra Viadero — October 08, 2004 6 min read

In wintertime in the Alaskan village of Kwethluk, the temperature outside the Ket’acik/Aapalluk Memorial School can dip as low as 60 degrees below zero, and the sun barely peeks above the horizon for months.

Kindergartners and 1st graders enrolled in the public K-12 school learn to read first in Yup’ik, their parents’ tongue, and the school calendar cleaves to nature’s rhythms so that children can join their parents at fishing or berry picking when the weather warms.

While those conditions may sound exotic to educators living in the “lower 48” states, the teachers, administrators, and students at Ket’acik/Aapalluk Memorial have much in common with students living at the same latitudes in Russia, Greenland, or Scandinavia. In all those regions ringing the North Pole, the harsh climate, the effects of hundreds of years of life under colonization, and the encroaching influences of Western culture have combined to pose special educational challenges for the indigenous groups that make their homes there.

To help forge solutions to those mutual problems, scholars, government officials, and educators have formed an unusual international group. Going by the unwieldy name of the Steering Committee for a Series of International Cross-Cultural Education Seminars in the Circumpolar North, the group meets every two to three years to share experiences and discuss ways to improve schooling for the native peoples living in a part of the world often too inhospitable for trees to grow.

The committee draws its members from the United States, Canada and its Yukon and Northwest Territories, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Since its first meetings in the 1970s, the group has also spawned a second international organization, the Education Ministers of the Circumpolar North, which holds its meetings at the same times as the steering-committee seminars.

Reviving Languages

At the heart of the steering committee’s work is a twofold mission: to improve the academic achievement of indigenous children in the Arctic and sub-Arctic and, at the same time, preserve their native cultural traditions and languages.

“We don’t want our language and cultural heritage to fade into the background and disappear,” said William G. Demmert Jr., who leads both groups. “It’s a very high priority that a lot of state school systems do not understand or accept.”

Mr. Demmert, 70, is a fitting choice to head this loose federation. Born part Alaskan Tlingit and part Oglala-Lakota, he spent his boyhood winters attending a succession of schools, including an Alaskan territorial school, a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs school, and a religious school in Washington state. In the summer, as is the custom in his southeastern Alaskan village of Klawock, he learned fishing and other skills from his paternal uncles. He went on to graduate from Harvard University, become a deputy U.S. commissioner of education under President Gerald R. Ford, and serve as Alaska’s state education commissioner. Now, he’s an education professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

Yet, though he still considers Alaska his home, he cannot speak Tlingit.

Pauline Evon sees the same potential for native-language loss among the 239 students at Ket’acik/Aapalluk Memorial School. Even though the school does not formally phase in English instruction until after a few years in Yup’ik-only classrooms, students already come to school knowing English, she said.

In many circumpolar nations, the process of language loss was often accelerated by the establishment of boarding schools, which forced students to leave their villages and families to get an education, said Ruslan Hairullin, a steering-committee member and a former deputy education minister in Russia.

“In many places, only the elders still speak the language, and that is a very sad thing, to lose your culture,” he said.

Northern Russia’s Sakha Republic, a place that is home to what is reputedly the coldest spot on earth, in September of last year hosted the steering committee’s most recent meeting.

Mr. Hairullin said the northern part of his country is home to 30 different groups of indigenous people, most of whom make their living hunting, fishing, herding reindeer, or engaging in other sorts of subsistence activities. With a total population of 210,000, those groups range from the Nenets, with almost 30,000 members, to Enets, who number only about 350. Some of the groups span several continents. The Saamis, for instance, live in Norway, Sweden, and Russia, and Aleuts and Inuits inhabit North America and Greenland as well as Russia.

Most of the 30 different groups in his country, Mr. Hairullin said, speak different languages, including some with as many as 13 dialects.

Besides their disappearing languages, Russia’s northern native groups have seen central-government support for their schools dwindle since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Now, the burden of paying for those schools falls on the shoulders of local villages or administrative units, according to Mr. Hairullin. Where no such structures exist, native children may have no local schools at all.

“The interest of the government in the people of the circumpolar north is, I think, decreasing,” said Mr. Hairullin, now a professor of social pedagogy at Russian State Social University outside Moscow.

Through the steering committee and his visits to Alaska, Washington state, and Canada, Mr. Hairullin has collected textbooks and other education materials that show how native languages and cultural information can be incorporated into regular academic instruction. Also, in his part of the world—where villages lie as much as 300 kilometers, or 186 miles, apart—he thinks the kinds of distance-learning programs he’s seen in North American schools and teacher-training programs could pay off.

Lessons From Greenland

Mr. Demmert said U.S. educators may also have as much to learn, on the other hand, from a place such as Greenland, where native children are taught first in Greenlandic, the Greenlanders’ word for the Inuit language. Greenlanders also learn Danish and English in school, according to Karl Kristian Olsen, another steering-committee member. In addition, the government pays for students to attend universities in other countries to pursue studies not available in Greenland.

Greenland, which is now self-governing, was a longtime colony of Denmark. But Greenlandic remains an official language because the island’s native population far outnumbers citizens of Danish heritage, according to Mr. Olsen, a former deputy minister of culture, education, research, and state church in Greenland.

Mr. Olsen said the steering committee has had a hand in developing Greenland’s evolving education system. That’s because Greenland, which won home rule from Denmark in 1979, has made education a centerpiece of its development plans as a self-governing region. With Mr. Demmert’s help, Mr. Olsen said, American education researchers have been visiting Greenland in a steady stream to share techniques for teaching in diverse classrooms.

Steering-committee members also played a role in founding northern Norway’s first-ever Saami-language university, according to Mr. Demmert.

If nothing else, Mr. Olsen said, the international group’s members are “serving as people who can support education ministers so they have continuity in their work overall.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.


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