A History of the Nome, Alaska Public Schools:1899 to 1958 From the Gold Rush To Statehood
A Thesis by John Poling
of the Schools:
The Native was regarded by the missionary as a benighted heathen, a lost pagan child of wicked ways, with a soul to be saved. To the commercial interests, he was producer of certain natural wealth to be exploited, and a source of labor, necessary but disdained for his indifference to the disciplines of the white man’s work. In the new city of Nome, as in other Alaskan cities, the Native was despised as a social embarrassment and a problem because of his lapses into drunkenness and his proneness to a new variety of diseases that forced him onto community charity. The Native walked in a blackout of white social blindness to his innate worth. But slowly in the years to come he would work in many ways his own acculturation on the white population and gain their recalcitrant respect for his abilities. In the meantime, white prejudice found expression.
In 1899, the Eskimos made a settlement on the sandspit outside the Anvil City encampment. There a son was born to Mr. And Mrs. Charles E. Gordon, probably a white man with a native wife, on December 9, 1899. The Nome News announced the event as the first birth in Nome.1 On January 1, 1900, Mr. And Mrs. J. Ginivan announced the birth of their son, "the first child of pure Caucasian blood," to be born in the camp.2 There is reason to believe that neither of these children was the first, but the order of racial precedence was established by their arrival. The white boy was named Nomie, and later appeared in the school rolls, but young Gordon’s future is unknown.
The sandspit natives complained in February that the white men had left them no wood. Indeed, the beaches were thoroughly cleaned of the primordial masses of driftwood that had been used by the natives as a perpetual supply of fuel.3 The editor excoriated them for their improvident ways and absolved the encampment of all responsibility. Patsy, an Eskimo, reported the murder of two miners in the Kougarok to Jerry Galvin. "Patsy is said to be a thoroughly reliable native, if any are to be relied upon," commented the editor.4
But the natives were useful, too. They arrived in large numbers at times, brought in for urgent heavy labor. "A number of the young men, in fact, were here last summer, when they were employed by the captain /Conrad Siem/ in unloading vessels, and were taken home /to King Island/ in the fall on the Albion," the Chronicle reported on August 31, 1900.
Sometimes the "trouble and suffering" was passed off as a vehicle for barroom wit, "A jocular individual entered the Second Class /Saloon/ and touched a match to an Indian’s hair. Had the Indian died, the crime might have been termed ‘passing the buck.’"5 The Eskimo had company, however: "A Jap who applied for his first citizenship papers last week, was properly informed that his race was tabooed as far as the granting of U. S. citizenship is concerned."6
In 1904, the school board was strongly anti-Eskimo on the question of enrolling native children in the city schools.7 When William Hamilton, assistant superintendent of the Bureau of Education in Alaska, visited the city in 1905, and suggested that it was the duty of the city to furnish educational facilities for resident natives, and to care for the sick, he was vigorously opposed.8 A soldier at Fort Davis married an Eskimo girl, and his commanding officer wired the War Department in Washington for advice on suitable disciplinary action. He was ordered to discharge the soldier immediately.9 However, the city health officer, on reading a government report that 40% of the Alaska natives had syphilis, expressed the opinion that for Nome the report was exaggerated. He admitted the existence of 18 cases of active tuberculosis in the native community.10
In 1917, during World War I, the Nugget published, with comment, a press exchange:
A recent number of the Seward Gateway announces that the "natives of Nome" have organized a home guard and are receiving military instructions by the officer of Fort Davis and drilling three times a week in the "gymnasium." Some patriotic savages up in this neck of the woods.11
When a respected newspaper editor in a city of hardly more than a thousand inhabitants, not more than half of them members of the dominant race, makes a prejudicial statement about the other half of the population, it is reasonable to assume that he represents the opinion of his local readers. Certainly, in the following issues of the Nugget no contradictory word or reprimand appeared over the signature of saint or sinner. But in the second war, in 1942, the Eskimo women of the Seward Peninsula sold slippers at Nome to raise money for the Red Cross, and were praised by the Nugget for doing so.12
Meanwhile, the Eskimo was insinuating himself into his new way of life by his cultural and commercial contributions. Eskimo fur clothing was better and warmer than wool and leather for the winter climate. Soon the white children were commonly wearing native parkas and mukluks to school. The beauty of these garments made them popular with high school students. In 1908, the basketball team, "the tall kids," were photographed for the Aurora in gym suits and short parkas. In 1941, most of the high school were dressed in native outdoor garb at the sweepstakes races and at an outing on the ice. The parka became the mode of Alaska winter wear.
Eskimo eventually began to compete in the dog races. Their splendid ivory carvings and art work were much sought after, and some of them became prominent in the reindeer business. However, the low literacy of the Native, his odor of rancid oil and fish – which was offensive to the white people – his lack of "soap and water" sanitation, and the poverty in which he lived, retarded his social acceptance on the level of public equality. In time, his qualities would make the Eskimo one of the most admired races of the world. But acculturation from a stone age hunting society into a highly structured, educationally based, economic order is by its nature a complex process in a racially and culturally segregated system. The first major breakthrough would be integration in the schools. This was accomplished, at the insistence of Governor Ernest Gruening, in 1947, by the passage in the territorial legislature of a non-discrimination act.
In 1907, following the division of white and native schools by the provisions of the Nelson Act of 1905, the United States government took complete control of native schools in the Nome area. As the natives were semi-nomadic in their dependence of hunting and fishing for a livelihood, the average attendance in school, from 1907 to 1918, was only 33% of the average annual enrollment of 63 pupils in the government school at Nome.13 The first native schoolhouse was a small building on the west end of the sandspit, but later the old court house on Steadman and Third Streets, near the Nome Public School, was used as the government school. In 1932, a conventional school structure with a standard gymnasium was built on "D" Street, between First and Second Avenues, ad was used until 1947, when the Eskimo children were enrolled in the city schools.14
The custom of enrolling but not attending regularly was reinforced by the barrier of language, and made progress slow except in classes where manual skills were foremost.15 A factor in the tremendous drop in enrollment in rural schools composed of natives and mixed-blood children, was the lack of adaptation of subject matter taught in the grades to the needs of the pupils. Tikhon I. Lavrischeff remarked:
It is too much to expect that a primitive people will have the same zeal for the education provided by generations of civilization to the white children that will be manifest by the parents or children of the people for which this education is designed. Education, if it is to be effective must be adapted to the children it seeks to assist, and no amount of effort will make it effective under any other condition.16
Although this situation prevailed at Nome in the native school, it is also a pragmatic consideration that educational subject matter of any kind is sure to fail unless young healthy children are compelled to attend regularly. Here the customs of the Native often did not, and often still do not serve the best interests of his children. The early years were periods of adjustment for all concerned.
By 1935, most native schools in the Arctic and sub-Arctic Alaska had been in operation for at least thirty years. The United States Department of Education authorized a survey to be made under the direction of Stanford University to determine the effectiveness and success of the educational program for the natives of Alaska. A thorough survey was made by H. Dewey Anderson and Walter C. Eells, and the results were published in 1935.17
The Anderson and Eells survey showed a high percent of retardation for villages of the Seward Peninsula and adjacent areas, demonstrated by the following selected data on grade placement in elementary schools:18
After consolidation of the white and native schools in Nome, ten years following, in 1956-1957, testing results from Nome school records indicated some of the synthesis:
Mrs. Wilson commented, "The areas surveyed are not identical, but the trends in achievement are similar. This area /Nome/ continues to be one of low production in school achievement.20 As estimated by the residents of Nome, at that time, the school population was approximately 85% native and 15% non-native, i.e., non-aboriginal stock.21
It has been previously noted that as early as 1917-1918, 20% of the school children of Alaska enrolled in territorial schools were of native blood. In Nome, 17 children of mixed-blood were enrolled in a total of 123 pupils, or 13.8% of the whole. In 1927, the first of these students to be graduated from the high school was Charles Becker, and the second was his brother, Edward, in the class of 1928. The first girl of native origin to be graduated was Frances Nicholas, in 1930. While native students were accepted in the high school through the qualification of "leading a civilized life," and of graduation from the eighth grade, they suffered the embarrassment of segregation in the town movie theater, and were refused service in some restaurants, until the passage of the non-discrimination act of 1947. In school they enjoyed equality, participating fully in all activities.22 Between 1927 and 1958, the last class to receive territorial diplomas, 62 students classified as native completed the high school course in the Nome Public Schools.23 In prior years there were none.24
The rising number of native enrollments in the territorial school system gave alarm to the territorial Department of Education, because of the cost entailed. Revenue for the territorial school system came mainly from two sources, by far the greater from the Federal endowment of education from revenue derived from public lands, and from territorial taxes earmarked for the schools.25 Seeking additional funds to offset the increased enrollments, the Commissioner of Education, in 1934, voiced the consensus of the territorial Board of Education:
The Act of Congress approved January 27, 1905, provides that "schools for and among the Eskimos and Indians of Alaska shall be provided by an annual appropriation." The Federal Government later defined a native as one whose blood is one-quarter or more Indian or Eskimo. There are those who contend that this definition does not apply to natives who have become citizens /sic/. The fact that the Federal Government continues to appropriate moneys for schools and hospitals and medical care for the natives in Alaska must mean that its officials do not take this stand….It is the contention of this department that the Federal Government’s obligations should begin in accordance with its own laws and definitions.26
On the local level, the economic complaint was much the same. The natives owned very little taxable property, were considered "wards of the government," and were therefore not generally welcomed as a group into the city school system. But world-wide political events were forming that would accelerate changes in social patterns and force the breaking up of old sociological orders in Alaska and even in the controversial issues involving the schools at Nome. When the change came, it came suddenly, and the matter of financial support followed almost as an afterthought to the central fact of the civil right of the Native to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship without restriction. The development came to Nome in a dramatic way.
In the 1929 Aurora Borealis, Grace Swanberg observed that "the Eskimo population is much larger than that of the whites." As the 1930 census figure for Nome was 1213, it is probable that no other incorporated city in Alaska, with the possible exception of Sitka, had an equal number of native residents. During World War II, natives from more than twenty towns and villages of the Seward Peninsula and adjacent areas sought employment in Nome, and many remained as permanent residents, making the population predominantly Eskimo.27
To keep abreast with the war-time trend of migration from the villages to the larger towns and cities, as it affected school statistics, the Department of Education, in 1944, required a report annually of the number of students of native blood enrolled in all public schools.28 The first Nome school report of that year showed that 71% of the enrollment was of native origin, but only one of full blood parentage in the grade school and four in the high school.29
Wisely, the territorial Department of Education formulated a policy of transferring Bureau of Indian Affairs schools to the territorial system, under a favorable government support plan, wherever circumstances were mutually suitable. Following the department policy, a plan for closing the government school was agreed upon by the directors of the Nome schools and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.30 At the time this was done, Mrs. W. F. Baldwin, W. J. Dowd, and A. C. Steinwandel constituted the membership of the school board.
Under the plan, in the fall of 1945, grades five, six, seven, and eight were transferred from the B.I.A. school to the city school and the lower grades from one to four were transferred the following year. In the fall of 1947, after the passage of the non-discrimination act, the government school remained closed and the Bureau of Indian Affairs abdicated further responsibility for the educational support of its former pupils now under the aegis of the Nome school board. It was a shock. The federal government offered no financial help, nor any assistance by way of a replacement for the native school building which they had condemned.31 With a sudden total enrollment increase of 84.5% of the enrollment before the transfer began,32 consisting of children from various village cultural and dialectical backgrounds, the Nome public school system had assumed an acculturation problem of great magnitude that would challenge its efforts for many years to come – a challenge that has never been adequately met.
In a remarkable study made by Alice S. Wilson in 1958, at Nome, "to determine the degree of acculturation attained by the natives, the forces and drives which have caused these changes, and the extent to which the schools meet the educational needs of natives in this period of adaptation to Western Culture," a number of incisive analyses are made and conclusions drawn that it would be useful to summarize.
"Culture," quotes Mrs. Wilson, "refers to the social heritage or entire social tradition of a people."33 The elements of a culture may be put in three categories:
Further, "when a child enters school, he is already educated as a member of his society. On the first day of school, he brings the language, the ideas, ideals, aspirations, social techniques, mechanical skills, attitudes, and disposition that are fostered by his home environment…In the light of his cultural background, he will interpret all school situations."34
From the gradual change in a static society, the transition from one culture to another usually brings feelings of insecurity to an individual or a small group, but if the group is large enough to prevent rapid changes in the basic cultural pattern, a feeling of acceptance and belonging to the group sustains the character of the member.35 In practice, this means that the standard of achievement in a school will be compelled to conform in a measure to group resistance.
Mrs. Wilson continues:
Since our own culture is undergoing rapid change, the period of transition to the Western Culture creates an unusual number of adjustments for the natives of Alaska. It is not enough for our schools to teach facts. "There is a need of guidance, orientation in values, and an understanding of the meaning of choice."36
To present a meaningful and useful program to native boys and girls, she maintains that the schools must establish contact with the homes. The information obtained there concerning the cultural background of a child and his society should serve as a foundation for integrating his learning.
"As he advances from the known to the unknown, his progress will depend upon his ability to evaluate new ideas and integrate them into his thoughts and conduct."37
Pointing out in conclusion that theoretically all children have equal school opportunities, she states that the wide range in scholastic achievement between natives and non- natives remained in 1958. Whereas the enrollment of the Nome school was 7.4 times as large as the number enrolled in 1930, yet the number of students graduating from high school each year had not shown any consistent pattern of increase over the period of twenty-seven years.38 Also, that the number of eighth grade graduates was increasing, but not in percentage – as a percentage of total enrollment, the number of high school graduates showed a downward trend.39
The towns of origin of the Nome pupils in grades two through eight, in the acculturation study, were Nome, 38%; villages of the Seward Peninsula and adjacent areas, 54%; and the United States and foreign countries, 8%.40 In terms of group pressure bearing upon the standards of achievement, the implications point up the enormous task of administrative planning and continuous evaluation of curricular effectiveness in every classroom. Except for a three year period, under Superintendent Conrad Potter, beginning with statehood, this has been almost entirely lacking. Acculturation of native students in the Nome public schools deserves recognition as a "two-way street." All the acculturation does not proceed from the teacher in front of the chalkboard; he is not immune to the cultural forces facing him – if he is to be successful. But with no denial of the many failures of the school system, the amazing reality is the undeniable fact of the rising success of the schools commonly demonstrated in the able citizenry of the alumni engaged in a multiplicity of occupations in the town or elsewhere. "Rome wasn’t built in a day," but it was built progressively and with persistence. The Nome Public Schools must continue to be built to higher, more effective standards by every available means. The human elements is of good quality. The cost and the effort to develop it to potential is fully justifiable as a contribution of the Nome community to the high interests of American society.