About the www.Alaskool.org project and its developers

Alaskool Director Paul Ongtooguk's address to the
2001 Bering Strait Regional Conference
February 23, 2001

I have been asked to talk about the Alaska Native communities of the Bering Straits region - our histories, our lives.

For more than two centuries a people had large sections of their commonly shared lands taken by outsiders and their religion was attacked and suppressed. The use of a language that had been spoken for thousands of years was forbidden. History documents that punishment was imposed on those who dared to speak the ancient tongue. People who had for generations taught their young how to become contributing members of their societies were forbidden to continue to educate their youth. Instead, schools were introduced with the goal of preparing the youth to become laborers and workers in businesses owned by people outside the traditional community. The youth were prepared to help other people accumulate wealth. Learning about the ancient laws, traditional skills, dance and oral history were pushed aside, suppressed, dismissed and nearly buried.

The new government, the new economy and the people it represented often paid locals half the salary for the same work done by others. Rarely were the locals given preference for the best and most secure jobs. Over several generations the indigenous people continued to have their lands stolen, as the newcomers ignored their traditional boundaries of property. The fish were taken by commercial industries owned by outsiders. Quarries were opened and the ore was exported. Often alcohol both drowned and fed the sense of shame at being homeless in one's homeland. Anger often exploded into violence. Since, however, the violence rarely touched the powerful outsiders, it was mostly ignored. A few viewed the situation with pity from afar, judging that it justified the outsider's right to rule.

I am speaking not of the Alaska Native Bering Straits communities, but rather of the Irish and their recent history. As is apparent, the conditions and history of the Irish have many parallels with our own. In fact the idea of the modern colonial system was constructed on the backs of the Irish. This is the same system that was imported to the 'new world' and imposed on the indigenous people here. It is ironic that the American War for Independence was so narrowly defined. The result of the war was that property owning white males became empowered to govern. Part of the governance system of
these property owning white males was to continue the colonial system of the British. What is significant for this country, and for our region, is to realize that race became the stigma, but a caste system of colonialism was the cause.

Here, in the Bering Straits region, Alaska Natives were not allowed to stake legal mining claims and outsiders took areas traditionally used and occupied by Alaska Natives. Alaska Natives were offered the lowest pay and the least secure jobs. Alaska Natives were second-class citizens in the industrial economy and were not legal citizens of the new government until the power structures were well established.

Across an ocean and a continent, the Irish might have looked on and recognized a familiar pattern. Ireland, eventually, and at great cost in lives and property, won independence in the 1920's. However, the scars of history run deep and the economic
and educational damage was deep and has taken several generations to undo. At one time in rural and remote areas of Ireland official unemployment ran 80% or higher, as most people lived outside the cash economy. As a new country, Ireland attempted to modernize fishing into a commercial venture. Millions of dollars were spent on developing commercial fleets and processing centers. Unfortunately, other European countries also spent millions of dollars on modernizing their commercial fleets, and the end result was the strip mining of the North seas and the devastation of the fish and the people who depended on them.

By the early 1980's rural Ireland had endured several generations of people who had few job opportunities and who lived on the dole. Predictable social problems had emerged - alcoholism, crime and abuse. There seemed to be little hope for any changes for the better.

Yet in the course of the last nine years many parts of rural Ireland have been dramatically transformed. In many regions employment is now above 70% and is still rising. Even more, the average wage has climbed from one new peak to another. All this in a very brief period of time.

For those who look at the current issues of rural Alaska and see little hope for change, perhaps Ireland can provide some measure of hope. How did this transformation occur in rural Ireland? Education was one contributing factor. For whatever reason, a surprising number of individuals in rural Ireland would leave their communities to earn college degrees and then return to farming. The farmers of rural Ireland were sometimes referred to as the most over educated "sheep herders" in Europe. According to some estimates, farmers in Ireland were third in per capita of college graduates on the European continent. Added to this educational mix is the fact that while receiving public welfare in Ireland, people were actively encouraged to learn skills for the future. For many, these skills came in the form of computer classes.

As the Internet expanded, it crossed the oceans and created a demand for an educated and computer literate work force. There are now computer programmers, software developers, and hardware designers in rural India, on islands in Malaysia, along the northern regions of Europe and in Ireland.

What does this mean, for us, the people whose homeland is the Bering Straits region? Whatever our destiny, it means rejecting a view that to be Alaska Native is only to be traditional. Being a part of the modern world is not at odds with being Alaska Native. The Irish are still Irish, as they develop software, work on computers and participate in the modern economy. Using a laptop, as I am now doing, should not be a surprise or viewed as anything unusual. We must have our students learn that it is within our traditions to develop tools, to develop technology, and to consider how they will improve our lives. Adaptation is one of the central lessons of William Oquilluk's book People of Kawerak. We must apply this theme to our lives today.

We must also demand a new kind of education for our children. When I attended school in Nome, there was very little that allowed me to learn about how our communities developed, about our traditional cycle of life, about the Mining Act that excluded Alaska Natives from making valid claims, about the segregated schools, movie houses, bars and even churches. Rather, the schools taught what I have come to regard as commemorative white pioneer history. Such a commemorative history ignores the avarice, theft, greed, needless destruction and ignorance that accompanied the good work
that pioneers brought to Alaska. I do not wish for a reverse history or a negative history. But, we must discard the kind of school history that buries mistakes, ignores injustice and panders to the worst aspects of white preference, as somehow historically justified. We need our schools to begin to help all of our children to grapple with the nature of history and with the question of how history can be applied to the transformation of our current condition, while we continue as distinct peoples in the world.

Our communities need to move from schools that train workers for factories that our communities do not own. Are the schools educating the next generation to take the lead in comprehending and transforming our communities? Or, are the schools still defined as little more than life support systems for basketball teams? Look at the test scores for our students' performance. Too many of our young people are leaving schools unable to read, unable to fill out an employment application, a license application, or many of the other everyday requirements of an independent citizen. This situation must change. It must change soon or we, as a people, and as a State will continue suffer.

The next generation of Alaska Native students needs to learn independence of thought. They need to learn how to research issues and how to take notes. They need to learn how to shape, develop, document and share ideas in public speech and through public writing. Alaska Native students should be taught about the Internet, computers, and wider expanses of ideas and the world. The next generation must develop and apply our ancient tradition of learning how to become contributing members of our communities and to be both creative and thoughtful. We need people who are well prepared for working together in understanding and overcoming problems, as well as people who know how to identify and create new opportunities, new structures, and new views. We must condemn teaching and learning that ignores our societies, our histories, and the circumstances we face here and now as a people. We must understand that the next generation of Alaska Native students has the talent, the capabilities, and the heritage to manage challenges, to understand the world and to work for mutual benefit. We must demand an education that regards our students as thoughtful people who can change the
conditions they have inherited. We can and should have no less.

Thank you.