MAK Mitchell wrote this as a portion of her dissertation for Harvard University. Prior to this she had also been a teacher in the district at the community of Kivalina. The interview was done while I was both teaching at Kotzebue middle and high school and also working in curriculum development for the school district. My answers to some of the questions now would be somewhat different. The selection does however give an accurate picture of some issues we were trying to deal with while developing the Inupiat Studies curriculum for the district. ...Paul Ongtooguk

Questions about Inupiat Studies and Education from




A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of
The Graduate School of Education of Harvard University
in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of
Doctor of Education

Audience Socialization of the Inupiat Eskimo: An Ethnographic Study in Cultural Continuity, Chapter IV, The Professionals: Portraits with Divergent Voices, pp. 315-324. Used with permission of the author.

The Dualistic Vision of Inupiat Youth

When I asked Paul what changes he expects to see in his high school students after they have taken the Inupiat studies course, he targeted two current ailments with his adolescent audience, both of which were related to audience socialization problems. The first is the problem of cultural alienation often expressed through the use of the third person in the student’s references to native Eskimos. Paul hints at the fact that this self-dissociation from their own culture may be part of their own fragmented sense of audience. They purposefully place themselves as spectators of their own culture, when in reality they are living in the midst of an authentic, modern day Eskimo culture. Their inability to acknowledge or "image" their place within their peer Inupiat audience prevents them from addressing their audience directly:

When the students come in and they talk about Inupiat people, Eskimos, one common occurrence that I have seen is that they speak about them in the third person, ‘They did that’. The reason for that, I suspect, is that they have listened to teachers talk about Eskimos in the third person all the way through their grade school and middle school experience. By the end of the year, I would like to hear my students saying ‘we’. That sense of ownership, that sense of belonging, that being part of Inupiat society and realizing that it is not a zoo collection, not to be looked at as an anthropological study of the third person, but to feel a part of it and to have a sense of ownership in it and a sense of control that we can influence the direction that our culture is taking . . . It is only with this vision that students will be able to address their audiences more directly. The model that I encourage students to have is that of the Japanese. The Japanese have their own traditions, they have their own culture and their own language, but they use Western technology to their great advantage. Inupiat Eskimos could do likewise.

Both Inupiat youth and parents subscribe to this distancing use of the third person when describing their own culture. Grandparents and great grandparents are more prone to use "we" although this is not consistently true anymore; perhaps to the wave of cultural alienation which has swept through these fragile Eskimo Arctic villages in the past fifteen years.

The second problem that Paul bemoans is the mutually exclusive distinctions which the students make between modern and traditional Eskimos. He argues for a "blended" Inupiat youth, one who respects his past and selects the best of the Inupiat and the high tech world to create his future:

Paul: What the students come in with is an either/or proposition. Either you are a traditional Eskimo or you are a modern Eskimo. You can't be modern and Inupiat at the same time — I don't buy that and I don't want my students to buy that because it’s not realistic, it’s not practical. If you define Inupiat culture as everything that occurred before 1930 or before 1830, or whenever, then you’ve frozen it out. You’ve isolated it and it’s going to be a museum artifact. However, if you see the culture as a moving thing and you are part of this stream that you can control and influence and be a part of, then there’s a chance that you can be optimistic about the future.
MAK: That’s a real key in what you’re doing since you are being both Inupiat and modern at the same time in your role with the students.

A New Inupiat Language Goal

Literacy in Inupiat is the current goal of the Northwest Arctic District. Paul sees this approach as futile and equates it with "teaching Latin to English speakers". He calls for conversational Inupiat textbooks to enhance the everyday speaking capacity of the students:

What we need is a conversational Inupiat text. We don’t need a total literacy approach. You need some of that, but what I see is students that are learning a vocabulary list and then forgetting the words because they don’t tie into anything in their life. It is not appropriate to meet their current needs. They need an Inupiat language that is conversational and alive. Unless they can deal with three-wheeler snow machine parts, basketball, radio stations, etc., unless they can deal with those types of things, it’s not going to work. It’s like teaching Latin to English speakers. They are not going to talk about seal pokes when they get home, they’re going to talk about stereo parts.

Village English is Okay

Paul is an advocate of a sanctioned approach to Village English in the schools, combined with a standardized English alternative, taught side by side with separate purposes:

‘I think there needs to be a clear position on it put out by the School Board saying "If you don’t like Village English, then you’re not appropriate for teaching in our District.’ The Board statement should run along the lines that Village English is appropriate as it’s spoken and that students should learn how to speak standard English as an alternative. They should learn how to write standard English as a requirement, but that, in no case should a student be abused, kidded, teased or otherwise punished for using Village English. I think it’s inappropriate to treat students this way unless you want to start getting on the southern dialect too. You would have to sanitize the whole English language of dialects and accent patterns — good luck.

Social Darwinism: Attitudes Toward Inupiat Language Learning

Paul cites the social Darwinistic beliefs of the missionaries as the origin of the negative attitudes towards Inupiat language learning. His argument illuminates how a culture can lose sight of it’s accomplishments in an emic sense, when cultural assimilation hierarchies are imposed:

I don't think it was religion that the missionaries brought up to the Arctic that was so important, but rather the social Darwinistic outlook which stated that cultures are arranged on levels. One culture is supposedly superior to another and the criteria for judging superiority is based on technology. If you look at the Europeans with the steam engine and firearms, they go right to the top of the hierarchy. The Japanese culture is seated a little bit further down; they had stainless steel long before the Europeans. Further down the track you find the Chinese. And cavemen go on the bottom. And Inupiats go somewhere close to the cavemen, even though: 1) the sophistication of the technology of the Inupiat was not understood by the outside assessors since we are still in a traditional culture phase, and 2) it was never acknowledged that we as a culture didn’t screw things up, i.e. we didn’t radically alter the environment as most technological societies do, so they don’t see us as being sophisticated. This is the social Darwinistic outlook that you find at Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka where they are trying to introduce reindeer herding so that will bring people up to the grazing level of culture rather than the savage, barbarian hunting and gathering culture that we are living in currently. What has happened as a result of this is that we have quite a number of Alaskan native people who have bought into the idea that they are good in spite of the fact that they are Eskimo, in spite of their primitive culture which they have exited from. This explains their attitude towards rejecting the Inupiat language. They are willing to leave it behind because they see it as part of their primitive past. It certainly affects the young Eskimo’s ability to address their audiences of white folks since these young Eskimos perceive themselves as being foreigners to that society. When Inupiat parents are uncomfortable with Inupiat studies being taught in the school they say, ‘Why do our kids have to learn that?’ Under this regime of social Darwinism your own culture and your own language become hot potatoes, and you are anxious to be rid of them.

Alaskan Native Leaders: Audience Bridges

When I asked Paul how he would categorize a good modern native leader, he responded:

Paul: Right now the generation that constitutes Alaskan native leaders are the people who learn to deal with the outsiders. Because it is from the outside that the power structure flows. People that know how to deal with that are the people who are the leaders. They know how to speak to outside audiences in a clear and poignant way. I think the danger that's becoming more apparent is that we are in danger of developing a leadership that deals with the outside quite well but has lost touch with why they are dealing with it.
MAK: They become so enmeshed in it.
Paul: Yeah. They become part of the problem instead of part of the solution. I feel myself that same conflict all the time. It’s always there. To try to be a native leader now means basically that you are a bridge, that you are dealing with Anglo culture for the purposes of Inupiat society, so you are supposed to have your feet in both worlds. There’s a poster going around which is called "I Live In Two Worlds With One Spirit." I like it. Not just because my dad photographed it, but because I think it’s appropriate. What I fear is that many Alaskan natives actually have their feet in both worlds and they’re never going to win. They’re never going to score 100%. The thing is that you yourself may feel like you have found an appropriate balance, but other people looking at you will always find fault. "You don't know how to do this, i.e. a traditional skill, or you haven’t learned this or you haven’t learned that". And then when you are dealing with the outside culture they will say, "But you don’t have a Masters in business and you don’t have management skills.

In this segment Paul details the dilemma of being faced with a dual philosophy in two different political worlds. There is a new audience rationale that these Alaskan native leaders are operating under, i.e. that they need to please two different types of audiences and usually these audiences express very different expectations of their leaders. The challenge lies in trying to please both audiences, without alienating yourself.

Inupiat Teaching in the Schools

There was a sense of frustration in this segment of the conversation which reflected some of the advocacy positions which have blocked an implementation of a coherent Inupiat or bilingual program in the schools in the Arctic region. Paul stated:

Right now I am on a checkerboard mentally with the Inupiat question. People are talking about literacy and bilingualism. Bilingualism to me is somebody who is entirely fluent in two languages, and I think it’s a crock to even discuss that issue when you’ve got generation after generation that are not learning the language because the school administration is trying to decide whether or not they’re going to produce texts in three different dialects, in one dialect, or if they’re going to standardize the spelling according to the I.C.C. resolution or if they’re going to keep it in the Alaskan dialect. People are still rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while generations of kids are going down without any Inupiat language at all. So right now I’d say what we want is conversational Inupiat. Once we get that then we can move on from there, perhaps to the literacy goal. And I really think that a phase in approach is necessary towards this conversational Inupiat with an emphasis on oral language learning. The kids only need enough spelling so that they can write down the sounds that they hear. They need the real nuts and bolts right now. This language is not in danger of being lost as a written language because all the written materials live on. It is in danger of being lost conversationally. With the introduction of satellite television in the region you’re looking at a clock that is ticking. The day the satellite television came in the clock started ticking against Inupiat language retention in a big way. And all you have to do now is look at how much the kids watch English speaking television in the villages.

Recommended Teaching- Strategies

Paul was asked what he thought he was doing right in his teaching that was motivating the kids. He responded that the most important thing is to reflect your genuine interest in a subject.

I convey to the students that it is important to me and I do allow my personal side to show through. I encourage the students to take sides on issues and to argue. I purposely present conflicting situations that they have to make a decision about. Inupiat studies are historical but I’m always trying to key into its history and I try to get the kids to see that it’s recurring history, that one generation faced the dilemma but they themselves may face a similar dilemma in their lifetime. This serves to do several things. Number one, it helps them to identify with the history personally, and number two, it gives the students some sort of handle or way of thinking about problems; if you can put a label on the problem it helps you relate it to things in your own world.

What Paul described was an internal way of projecting some of his own interior attitudes and beliefs to the students. This becomes the moving force behind whether the kids will listen and get interested in the lesson or just become bored and fall asleep. Paul was basically trying to show the students rather than tell them about all these historical events. (He encourages them to become skilled in "transferring" past situations into present applications.) At times, all he had to show them was his own personal opinion but that was better than being didactic. Paul said, "I am teaching this to you because I believe it’s important and I’m not saying it to you, rather, I’m showing it to you." I equate Paul’s approach with some of the approaches characteristic of the village leaders that I interviewed in Kivalina. They all indicated a strong sense of urgency that caused them to rise up and share their vision with other people in the audience. They believe that this characteristic is also what causes people in the audience to listen to them. When people try to speak without this emotional appeal, they are merely imparting information and they have no emotional investment whatsoever.

Academic and Social Needs

I asked Paul what he thought about the fact that twelve students were graduating from high school in Kivalina and none of them were planning to go out to school or to live in the outside world. Paul felt that they had bought in to defeat and he explained it this way:

I think once you get the word from two generations of people who go out of the village and get ambushed, that it's going to make you stop and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, they are coming back and they are hurting. Do I want to do that too?' These students are realizing that they don’t have the tools. They aren’t being given the tools to survive, and I’m not just talking about academic preparation. I think an important part of it being overlooked is the real preparation, the personal preparation. Our students have differences of style or expression that make them significantly different.

They are uncomfortable with direct eye contact. It’s perceived to be presumptuous. Overall body language is low key. These students are not loud, not aggressive, not arrogant. Hopefully, they have been learning the traits that are appropriate for where they are at. As far as language patterns, tenses are a confusing issue which sometimes cause communication problems with outsiders. "They still need to know how to take lecture notes, how to take oral information and put it in written form, but more importantly they need to prepare them for some racial questions. People walking up to them asking, "What are you?" They’re not asking for their political stance, they want to know the racial background. That takes a little bit of getting used to and we need to coach the kids to be prepared for this sort of experience.

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