Taken to Extremes: Education in the Far North

Frank Darnell and Anton Hom

Chapter 4

Historical Development of Schooling

From Anton Hoem and Frank Darnell: Taken to Extremes, Chapter 4: Historical Development of Schooling, pages 57-77. Reprinted with permission from the copyright holder: Scandinavian University Press (Universitetsforlaget).

The historical development of schooling reported in this chapter is not intended to be a definitive history of education in the Far North. Instead it is a survey of events that have contributed to the most notable characteristics and problems of schooling as we now find them. As might be expected, covering as broad a geographic area as we do here, historical events are found to vary from place to place, but, remarkably, there is greater similarity among them than there is difference. In each of the countries we cover, similar cultural conflicts and institutional forces have shaped education policies. Furthermore, throughout the history of formal education school systems have, for the most part, been designed as instruments for the assimilation of the Native population into the dominant national culture. Seldom, until recent times, did they provide a means to maintain or enhance the distinctive cultures of Native groups.


The history of formal schooling in Alaska can be divided into four parts: the Russian period; the early American period; the period during which Alaska was a territory of the United States; and, finally, the years since Alaska became a state of the United States.1

The Russian period

The first instance of Western schooling in Alaska occurred at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island in 1784, site of the first permanent Russian settlement. The Russian presence in Alaska was then, and throughout the Russian occupation, primarily for the purpose of exploiting natural resources, mostly the harvesting of marine fur animals. As private entrepreneurs acting with profit motives, and with little interest in establishing permanent settlements or carrying on scientific work, there emerged "one of the most shameful chapters in the annals of white man’s conquest."2 It has been estimated that in the first hundred years of Russian occupation the number of Aleuts, the Native group most affected by enslavement and other adverse effects of the Russian occupation, declined from a pre-contact population of 16,000 to 2,200.3

There were random efforts, however, on the part of some Russians, particularly through the Russian Orthodox Church, to change the tyrannical methods of the fur traders. Catherine II made these efforts official in 1766 when she ordered, "make it clear to the promyshlennicks [fur hunters] that they are to treat their new brothers, the inhabitants of these islands, kindly and without the slightest persecution and deceit."4

The founder of the first school, Gregory Shelikov, as head of the fur-trading company seeking a monopoly on all fur-harvesting activities, reported that the Aleut Natives were starting to imitate Russian customs as a result of his efforts at schooling, which was seen as a positive consequence of their presence because, in his opinion, "only literate people can be good and accurate interpreters, so needed in this country." In order to further this trend he stressed the need to train the Natives so as to make them good navigators and seamen and to teach them crafts, especially carpentry.5

Nevertheless, efforts to start the first school, as altruistic as the motives of the founder may or may not have been, were primarily inspired by the need to demonstrate to the empress and the head of the Church that the organizers were worthy of being granted a monopoly in the fur trade and to better equip the Natives to work for the company.

With Western European and American traders arriving in Alaska on a regular basis and with Russian vessels over-extending their range, the need for permanent Russian bases became more acute. In 1799 the formation of the Russian-American Company was accomplished by imperial charter from the Russian government and an element of Russian permanence in North America was established. The company was to become the dominant force in Alaska for the next 68 years and, due to the terms of its charter from the Russian monarch, the de facto government.

The charter required the company to establish schools in connection with its trading activities. Subsequently, a primary goal of education from the point of view of the Russian-American Company was to benefit itself by providing schooling that would support company middle management and clerical skills. For the privilege of attending school some students were required to remain in the service of the Company for a period of 15 years.6 Church schools, which taught the rudiments of reading, writing, and Christian doctrine at several missions, a few of which were located in remote Native villages, were established in addition to company schools.

Natives were allowed to attend company schools, but no special effort was made to use the schools as a "civilizing" force. For the most part, company officials were only interested in the forced labor of Natives and at times were compelled to find ways to discourage increased conversions by the Church, especially because the company had to support the mission schools.7

Throughout the Russian period, one figure stands out as the exception to Russian ruthlessness. Ivan Veniaminov, a Russian priest who lived and worked among the Native people for many years during the first half of the 19th century, considered the overall intellectual as well as spiritual welfare of the Native people the responsibility of the Church. He developed an Aleut alphabet and compiled a grammar of the Aleut language as well as similar work among the Tlingit. In this way he predated the movement for bilingual education in Alaska by more than one hundred years. Eventually, Veniaminov became metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church at Moscow, which may explain in part why Russia continued to support mission schools in Alaska until 1916, long after the United States purchased Alaska.

The educational activities of both the Church and the company are difficult to separate because the company financed the Church at the same time as it opposed its presence. Except for the work of Veniaminov, neither made any real attempt to bring education to large numbers of indigenous peoples for education’s sake, especially since it would not have been in their interests to provide Natives with the means of progressive self-improvement or an interest in a more egalitarian society.

In summarizing the activities of the company, Okun concluded that the ultimate reason educational efforts were deficient was because

the policy of the Company was identical with that of the government, and that it was actually the government which handed over the original inhabitants of the colonies to the Company in absolute bondage. And only when the question of liquidating the Company had been decided, did the government assume the attitude of a disinterested defender of the Natives and utilize facts, that it had known for decades, to accuse the company of the illegal exploitation of those Natives.8

With the Russian-American Company’s activities and influence waning in the final years of its operation, all educational activities of the company ceased. A few years previous to the transfer of Alaska to the United States, the Russian-American Company discontinued its schools as a result of increasing expenses and lack of purpose for their existence. However, that was not a great loss since the Russian-American Company, and even the Russian Orthodox Church, lacked purely munificent motives, being mostly concerned with replicating their cultural order to enhance Russian commercial enterprises.

The early American period: 1867-1918

Development of education during the early period of the American presence in Alaska was influenced by three factors: the cultural underpinning of the dominant society which defined the objectives and structure of schooling in general; Presbyterian Church officials, who were the controlling figures in the implementation of early schools; and the slow execution of any government policies across such a vast and inaccessible tract of land.

Under a treaty signed by the United States and Russia, concluded March 30, 1867, by which Alaska was sold to the United States, all inhabitants who did not reserve their natural allegiances to Russia, with the exception of so-called uncivilized Native tribes, were "admitted to the enjoyment of citizens of the United States." Unprepared for the acquisition of such an extensive territory and with such a small and inconsequential population in the view of most Americans, the US Congress gave little attention to Alaska.

Between 1867 and 1877 Alaska was placed under the control of the US Army, a ten-year period during which there were no government programs of any type. The US Collector of Customs in Alaska was the only official with authority to oversee government affairs for the next two years, 1877-79. During the next five years, until 1884, the commanding officer of a small unit of the US Navy represented the government. Failure of the US Congress to provide for any form of local government meant there were no provisions for education during the first 17 years following the purchase of Alaska by the United States. Schooling was left to the American missionary movement of the 19th century, and the few schools of the Russian Orthodox Church that remained active after the sale of Alaska to the United States.

During this period American attitudes toward racial and ethnic minorities were a powerful determinant in shaping public policy. There was widespread belief that the human race could be divided into higher and lower groups and that Caucasians "were the most lofty." Distinctions between ethnocentrism and racism were not clearly drawn and the concept of ethnic pluralism had not been set forth. The power elite came primarily from politically conservative, Protestant backgrounds, explaining in part why the federal government subscribed to the policy of full Native assimilation into white, American society. For example, a US Commissioner of Indian Affairs during this period declared,

They [Native Americans] must abandon tribal relations; they must give up their superstitions; they must forsake their savage habits and learn the arts of civilization; they must learn to labor, and must learn to rear their families as white people do, and know more of their obligations to the Government and society.9

Many of the leading protagonists of this policy were Protestant clergymen and missionary teachers. Attitudes prevalent among Indian reformers viewed American Native culture and life styles as inferior. These negative views of Native customs and their advocacy of cultural replacement put them at the forefront of the assimilationist movement. The head of the missionary movement in Alaska, Reverend Sheldon Jackson, who later became the US government’s first General Agent for Education in Alaska, continually stressed that "teachers must try to educate [the Natives] out of and away from the training of their home life," that they must be true to their mission, and "give prominence to moral as well as intellectual instruction."10 Jackson’s strongly rooted view of the role of schools were, in the tradition of sectarian Protestantism, at the time the prevailing moral force in much of American society. As put by Cremin,

In their attempt to create a new republican individual of virtuous character, abiding patriotism, and prudent wisdom, the churches developed an American paideia that was for all intents and purposes a Protestant paideia. Indeed, they did everything in their power to render the two indistinguishable and therefore interchangeable.11

Regardless of how motives of American missionaries may now be perceived, they alone were the first American teachers in Alaska, the first school having been established in 1877 by a Presbyterian missionary. By 1884 several other Presbyterian mission schools had been established along the southeast coast, staffed by 17 teachers working with 500 pupils. Missionaries from other denominations, including Roman Catholics and Anglicans, were also at work during this time with the introduction of Western education in a few interior villages. Early on an informal agreement had been struck between the major religious denominations to divide Alaska regionally among themselves to avoid sectarian competition and duplication of effort.

With pressure from a scattering of new American settlers, mostly miners and fishermen, and the Presbyterian Church, the US Congress, after 17 years of neglect, took action and established Alaska as a judicial District of the United States with a restricted civil government that included a court system and the first provision for local government and schools. Specifically, the act that established these governmental services, as meager as they were, provided "that the Secretary of Interior make needed and proper provision for the education of children of school age . . . without reference to race, until such time as permanent provisions shall be made for the same."12

With schools provided for by Congress, the US Commissioner of Education, as expected, appointed Reverend Jackson to the position of General Agent of Education in Alaska. Schools were to be 4,000 to 6,000 miles from his headquarters in Washington and from 100 to 1,000 miles from one another. A large majority of the students did not speak English. School facilities had to be constructed and teachers recruited from outside Alaska. Only $25,000 was appropriated to enable this work to get under way.

As inadequate as the act proved to be, it did appropriate the first American funds for education. However, the provision "without reference to race" in the legislation set the stage for confrontation between miners and missionaries and competition for those funds that was to last for years. It eventually led to a dual federal territorial/state system of education.

Because of insufficient funds to establish and maintain a school system in a vast, unsettled area, a policy that proved to have a long-lasting effect was adopted. The Reverend Jackson persuaded federal government officials that the American constitutional principle of separation of Church and state should be ignored and his office be allowed to subsidize mission schools with government funds. The goals of education promoted by Jackson further advanced the development of schools along religious lines and closely aligned government programs with the aims of the missionary movement.

The policy of stressing distinct Protestant moral attitudes and Western social values and educating Natives "out of their home life" became as much part of the programs of education as the teaching of basic subject matter. Advertisements placed in newspapers for teachers in the government schools illustrate this point: "The work being both educational and missionary, applicants will send not only certificates as to the their aptness as teachers but also testimonials from their pastor or others as to their Christian activity."13

The policy of subsidizing Church-related schools did have the desired effect of rapidly building an education system, although it was not always made clear in official reports which schools were mission schools and which were government schools. By 1890 the total number of Alaska schools had increased to 54, but of this number only 16 appeared to be wholly controlled by the government.14 They were scattered over thousands of miles, mostly along the coast, which made it impossible for the General Agent to visit them all, as stipulated in the rules for governing the schools.

It was inevitable that once the school system consisted of so many elements from missionary societies that there would be objections. A broader cross section of the American population was arriving in Alaska. There was extensive governmental exploration during the last two decades of the 19th century and increased development in fisheries and mining. Gold rushes in the interior as well as along the coasts had resulted in a large influx of population from throughout the United States, a population not necessarily inclined toward the missionaries’ point of view. Thus, with a broader-based population and with Congress better informed about conditions in Alaska, the practice of subsidizing missions schools became increasingly criticized. As a consequence the practice was discontinued by order of the Secretary of Interior.

Although the Act of Congress in 1884 had specified an educational system "without reference to race," it became apparent at an early date that the emphasis in government schools was on Native education. As Reverend Jackson, as a government agent as well as a missionary, became more concerned with "civilizing" the Native population, the white population came to look upon the system as biased against their interests. From the outset of the appointment of a Presbyterian missionary to the position of General Agent for Education, fears had been expressed by whites that education for their children would be slighted.

Pressure from new residents, especially miners, and a better-informed Congress resulted, in 1900, in new federal legislation that provided, among other things, for the incorporation of towns and establishment of school districts for white children within incorporated towns. City schools were established specifically for white children, thus further assuring that the federal schools would become exclusively schools for Natives, regardless of the fact that the law in 1884 that established them specified that they were to be without reference to race.

By further urging of settlers, the law of 1900 was subsequently strengthened five years later to assure that white children would have a distinctly different (and, by implication, better) school system. The new law provided

that the schools specified and provided in the act shall be devoted to the education of white children and children of mixed blood who lead a civilized life. The education of Eskimos and Indians in the District of Alaska shall remain under the direction and control of the [federal] Secretary to the Interior.15

Thus, resentment by white settlers against missionary controlled schools and fear that an inferior education was the norm in integrated schools gave rise to a new government policy in 1905 that resulted in a dual system of education. The federal Bureau of Education was responsible only for the education of the Native population and independent city schools became responsible for the education of "white children and children of mixed blood who live civilized lives." Where there was both a Native and a non-Native population in the same town, two government schools, one for Natives, one for whites, were maintained alongside each other, a condition that lasted until 1967 when the remaining two schools in a single village were consolidated. Early efforts to change this system, especially if they were efforts to merge schools, often resulted in friction between the two populations and failed. The social/political accommodation of this period, then, created a unique paradox: students in one segment of the population received an education based on the culture of the home; in the other, students received an education alien to the culture of the home.

Although these developments and his advancing years brought the active participation of Reverend Jackson to an end, they did not end his influence or the influence of Protestantism on Alaska Native education. The tradition of the mission schools that required education to be congruent with the American/Protestant ethic prevalent at the time had become well established. Consequently, a philosophy of education that lacked sensitivity to cultural differences and the patrimony of indigenous cultures instituted in the 1870s was to prevail in many Native classrooms well into the 20th century.

Alaska as a territory of the United States: 1912-1959

The legislation of 1905 that gave birth to a dual system of education failed to provide for local control sufficient to meet the demands of a growing non-Native population. Responding to this condition, Congress extended territorial status to Alaska. Territories are lesser political units than states, but have some of their characteristics, including provisions for a governor appointed by the president and an elected legislature. However, territorial control of education was not among the powers granted in the act of 1912. It was not until 1917 that Congress, in response to a request of the new territorial government, amended the act so that the federal government relinquished responsibility for the education of "white children and children of mixed blood who lead a civilized life." It was made clear in that legislation that nothing in the act was to be construed as transferring schools for Alaska Natives to the territorial government; they remained under the control of the federal Bureau of Education, a unit of the US Interior Department.

The Alaska Territorial Legislature proceeded to establish a Territorial Department of Education, responsible for all education in Alaska other than for schools in the federal system for Native students. The first territorial Commissioner of Education had the job, on the one hand, of developing a system of control over city schools through processes similar to those found in the various states of the United States and, on the other, of performing all of the duties of administrator for the schools under territorial control in rural areas not incorporated as cities, nor a part of the federal system.

Although many of the rural schools in the territorial system were scattered over hundreds of square kilometers in regions with a large population of Native pupils, the programs of instruction made no provision for local conditions or Native cultures. It is ironical that although the federal school system was dedicated to Native education, eventually more Natives were enrolled in territorial/state schools than in the federal systems as new schools were added to the territorial system and the composition of village populations changed.

Growth in the number of schools and students enrolled had been rapid during the first two decades of the 20th century. When the Territorial Department of Education first became organized, there were 46 rural, unincorporated communities with territorial schools that enrolled 1,162 pupils and employed 58 teachers. At the same time, the Bureau of Education operated 71 rural schools with a total enrollment of 3,500 pupils and a faculty of 133 teachers.16

Although there were proponents of a single pan-Alaska system of schools for all Alaskans regardless of ethnicity, this idea was not to be realized for many years. The first Alaska Commissioner of Education expressed the view of most non-Native people of that time when in his first official report, he declared,

There are several objectives to the maintenance of a unified system of schools for white and Native children, the principal ones being the irregularity of the attendance of Natives and their inability to conform to the standard of the whites in the matter of health and sanitation. . . . The presence of two distinct races of people and the resulting mixing of blood creates difficulties in supervision and administration. . . . Where the races must mingle, there is usually a certain degrees of friction, the parents of white children often keeping them out of school and securing private teachers in order to avoid the close contact and what they consider the evil resulting therefrom.17

In Alaska as a whole there were few events of historic significance during the next two decades. The population had leveled off after economic activity due to the gold rushes at the turn of the century declined, and there was little further commercial development. Reports of the Commissioner of Education reflect the static nature of the population during this period, and there were few references made to the ethnic composition of village schools. Education programs in the territorial schools during the period 1920-40 reflected almost entirely the educational developments and goals of American schools in general.18 The official territorial courses of study were the same for all schools, from the largest urban district to the smallest rural village.

The Commissioner of Education continued to support the policy that Native education was the responsibility of the federal government, as did the federal Congress, although the number of Natives in territorial schools continued to increase. By 1934, however, enrollment of Native pupils had reached 1,874; approximately one Native pupil out of every three in Alaska was in a nonfederal school. Twenty years later, the territorial government continued to ignore the ethnic composition of its schools.19

During these years, while little attention was paid to characteristics of Native cultures in programs of the Territorial Department of Education, the federal government re-examined its policy of cultural assimilation of Native Americans. In the early 1920s there were limited efforts to introduce a few Native cultural elements, such as Native dance and games in the educational program, but these made little impact and by 1926 the federal course of study was the most paternalistic yet. The curriculum syllabuses that year stressed "Health and Sanitation; Agriculture and Industry; the Decencies [so called], Safety, and Comforts of the Rome; Healthful Recreation and Amusements; Basic Education and Industrial Schools."20

However, a national survey of Indian social and economic conditions initiated by the United States Senate in 1926 found fault with this type of program. Findings of the study, commonly called the Meriam Report, published in 1928, stressed that greater emphasis needed to be put on self-government of Indians, on the need for improved systems of education, and on the need for participation of state and local agencies in Indian affairs. The report emphasized the need for revised educational programs and stressed as imperative that the Bureau of Indian Affairs broaden its educational programs to reflect Native values.21

The most immediate result of the Meriam report in Alaska was realignment of federal responsibility for Native education. To assure that all Native programs were directed through a single federal agency and would be similar to Indian education in other states, Alaska Native affairs were transferred from the Bureau of Education to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (While agency names and programs at this time usually referred only to Indians, by common agreement, they also applied to Eskimos and Aleuts. Thus, the Bureau of Indian Affairs in reality was concerned with all Native Americans.)

Soon after the transfer of federal schools from the Bureau of Education to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president. John Collier, who served in his administration from 1934 to 1946, was appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Commissioner Collier, on taking office, declared,

I conceive that our task is to bring about liberty and positive opportunity for the Indian within an undiminished responsibility by the United States for their welfare. . . . it means that those Indians whose culture, civic tradition, and inherited institutions are still strong and virile should be encouraged and helped to develop their life in their own patterns, not as segregated minorities but as noble elements in our common life.22

A remarkable turn in policy had taken place. Improved conditions in many schools were, however, slow in coming, and did not come at all in others, Collier's policies notwithstanding. By the early 1940s the ill-suited traditional American college preparatory course of study remained in most schools. Just about the time the new policy might have had an effect on the curriculum, World War II intervened and government attention to Native schooling became a low priority. By the end of that decade, there was no semblance of the Collier philosophy remaining in official policy. The superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Alaska in 1949 declared that, in his view,

at one time our whole emphasis — in fact, when I came here in 1944 — was on an educational program that kept the native child in that community. We have seen the futility of that kind of philosophy, and have completely changed our approach to the education problem. We are now setting up a program that will take the boys and girls out of their community, and we don’t care if they ever go back at all. In fact, we urge them not to go back because the communities cannot support them. That is the purpose of Mount Edgecumbe [a BIA residential high school in Alaska] at the present time. Of course, we expect to try and train teachers, and we expect to try and train nurses. We are going to do our best to try and get some dentists, and that kind of professional personnel that is needed back in these communities to help alleviate the conditions that are there. But as far as taking this whole number of boys and girls that come out of these communities and expecting them to go back and live, we do not.23

Thus, the policies of the previous decade were reversed. The end result of such vacillation was that pupils could neither succeed economically or socially in the dominant society, should they so choose, nor were they able to preserve or feel comfortable with their Native culture.

In the territorial schools during this same period, policies were also changing, but in just the opposite direction of the federal schools. Whereas the federal government returned to assimilationist policies, officials in the territorial school system, for the first time, attempted to get a better understanding of their responsibility to Native students. Faced with increasing instances of strife in the villages because of attempts to integrate Native and white students on the part of some and resistance to this trend on the part of others, the territorial Commissioner of Education requested, in 1943, an opinion from the Alaska Attorney General on the rights of Native children relative to school attendance. The opinion was remarkable for its directness, its unprejudiced view, and its time. In response to the request, the Attorney General wrote,

Since the question of the right of native children to admittance to the white schools has come up so often in recent years and is again to the fore, it seems proper to deal with the subject at some length, decisively. . . . The question to be answered is: Is the Territory required to furnish school facilities to children of pure native blood; and failing this, must such children be admitted to white schools when demand for admittance is made?24

Following a review of pertinent cases and statutes, the Attorney General concluded that

the objection raised against the admittance of native children into white schools is not fundamentally their color but rather because, it is said, they are not clean, are afflicted with disease or on account of other objectionable practices or habits. Such objections are not a basis for excluding all native children. The school authorities have ample power to exclude from attendance children of any color who are afflicted with infectious or contagious disease, or who are living under unsanitary conditions or practice filthy or vicious habits. A clean, wistful native child looks just as sweet in the school room as a white child similarly groomed, and therefore he may not be deprived of an education on account of his color alone.25

The opinion also directed the Territorial Legislature to provide adequate school facilities for all the youth of the territory and took the position that Native children are entitled to admittance to the white schools of Alaska, regardless of whether or not the federal government also was providing schools.

Although this opinion was enlightened for its time, and may have resolved problems of school choice in some instances, it did not address the question of curriculum choice; few provisions in programs of education took into account Native needs. In the 1954 report of the Alaska Commissioner of Education the territory’s programs were described in this way:

A common program of studies, or course of study, is basic for all Alaska public schools. The standards of instruction in the larger district schools, the larger schools outside districts, the schools on military reservations, and the remote one and two room schools are the same. . . . In general, the program of studies . . . compares favorably with those which are found in schools throughout the nation.26

Despite this condition, a shift away from an ethnocentric, assimilationist approach to Native American schooling had occurred during the 1930s and 1940s. Although it was not sustained in policy, the concept of Native values finding a place in education that had been espoused in the 1930s was given credibility in some governmental and academic circles. In effect, a policy of focusing solely on the cultural principles of the dominant society had begun to give way to the legitimacy of other cultures.

Alaska from statehood to the present

Alaska became a state of the United States in January of 1959. Accordingly, the rules of self-governance changed and Alaskans became legally empowered to make decisions at the state and local level heretofore denied to them. Principles embodied in the state’s constitution combined with changes that occurred in the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the previous decade and the civil rights activities that characterized the 1960s were to eventually lead to the development of a decentralized school system in rural Alaska.

The constitution of Alaska simply states as follows:

SECTION 1. The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State, and may provide for other public educational institutions. Schools and institutions so established shall be free from sectarian control. No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institutions.27

Soon after statehood there were two reports on rural education, one from the Office of the Governor of Alaska and one from the federal Department of Interior. Each expressed the need to consolidate the federal and state school systems and to change the overall purposes of education so as to make them more consistent with the needs of the Native population. For the first time in history, the state Department of Education, in its report for the 1965-66 biennium, declared the need for special provisions to accommodate extraordinary conditions in rural Alaska.

At the federal level of government, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed by Congress, and President Lyndon Johnson focused national attention on Indian education when he presented a special message to Congress in which he emphasized the need for an enriched curriculum that included Native culture, teachers trained in the ways of Native cultures and history, and a goal for Indian programs that "ends the old debate about ‘termination’ of Indian programs and stresses self-determination: a goal that erases old attitudes of paternalism and promotes partnership self-help."28

Recognition by national and state offices notwithstanding, of equal importance was the emergence at this time of Alaska Native leadership in educational and political circles. Mr. Emil Notti, first president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, commenting on new program proposals for rural schools declared, "I hope when the decisions are made, I hope we have Native people there because it is their children who are affected. . . . We have to insist that the Native people are there."29

The creation of the Alaska Federation of Natives, a powerful pan-Alaska voice for Native rights established in 1966, and the compelling position expressed by Mr. Notti, introduced a new and indispensable component in the education of Alaska’s Native population. It gave rise to a movement in education that is still under way, 25 years later.

Files of the State Department of Education from the mid-1960s onward reveal an increasing number of statements that express dissatisfaction with school programs. Much of this material came from Native leaders and village residents. Up until this time no effective voice of the Native consumer of educational services had been heard. Emergence of the Native population in the movement for improved schools had become the essential ingredient that eventually was to make a difference in schooling.

Patience with the old system was exhausted by the early 1970s. The State Department of Education and the Alaska Legislature endorsed a study done at the University of Alaska to identify ways to provide an alternative system that would be more sensitive to Native educational needs. Findings and recommendations of the study, done cooperatively with the Alaska Federation of Natives, resulted in legislation that created a new administrative structure for schools in rural Alaska.30

The system, called Regional Educational Attendance Areas (REAAs), divided rural Alaska into 21 autonomous school districts (now 23 because of 2 recent additions) along lines of regional ethnic and geographic identity, each with its own locally elected school board of directors charged with making local policy. REAAs became operational in 1976.

Initially, some REAA districts got off to an uncertain start, due in large measure to the magnitude of the enterprise and to a combination of inadequate school administrators and inexperienced school board members. As had been anticipated, mistakes were made, but so too were improved programs initiated. A secondary (some might say primary) feature of this situation was the realization of decision-making authority at the local level and its consequential effect on positive self-identity and self-confidence among village residents.

Although the advent of REAAs removed central state control of rural education, many Bureau of Indian Affairs schools were still active, since the legislation creating the REAAs had been silent on the subject of a state-federal school merger. Although there had been several plans over the years to merge BIA schools into the territorial or state system, none had been agreed to. Eventually, it was no single event or plan that brought about the end of Bureau of Indian Affairs schools in Alaska. Rather, it was a culmination of several self-determination efforts by the Native population and federal enabling legislation that made possible the closing of the remaining Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, one by one. The last school administered by the federal government was closed in 1985, one century after the first federal school had been organized and two centuries following the opening of the first Russian school.

Current government and its relationship to education

Just as Alaska has been divided into several regions based on particulars of nature, so too has it been divided politically by man. Accordingly, the Legislature has provided for political subdivisions in the form of cities, boroughs and school districts of various classes, all forms of local government. Provisions for delineating and empowering these divisions bear on the control of educational policy decisions and, consequently, are relative to our discussion. The diverse nature of these provisions, like differences in physical characteristics of the state, influence the lives and cultures of the Native population.

As a state of the United States, Alaska has, except for a few unique provisions of the federal act that established it as a state, the same relationship to the federal government of the United States as any of the other 49 states. Most importantly, in this regard, the Constitution of the United States is the primary controlling authority. However, its own state constitution controls a vast array of activities that enable Alaskans, like citizens of all other states, to enact legislation on an infinite variety of topics, as long as they are not reserved to the federal government by the federal constitution. Education as a function of government, the federal constitution being silent on this subject, is therefore, by default, a function of the state.

In the case of Alaska, as with all other American states except Hawaii, which has a single, state-wide school district, responsibility for daily operations of schools is delegated to local school boards (bodies empowered to make policy affecting the programs of local schools, but within the confines of general state laws and regulations). There are three types of these districts: 1) each first-class city in the unorganized borough is a district;31 2) each organized borough, regardless of size, is a borough school district; and 3) the area outside organized boroughs and outside first-class cities (the unorganized borough) is divided into 23 Regional Education Attendance Areas (in 1992). Although each class of school district functions under somewhat different rules, all schools in the state are regarded as a part of the Alaska system of education. In 1992, 54 districts comprised the system as a whole: 16 borough school districts, 18 first-class city school districts, and 23 Regional Education Attendance Areas. Collectively, they are regulated by 350 or so locally elected school board members.32

As straightforward as this arrangement may appear, there is a unique relationship between the Native population and the federal government that has complicated it in issues that pertain to education, along with other issues such as those that concern authority in land use and ownership, game management, and judicial procedures; in short, Native sovereignty in general. This topic is treated in greater detail in Chapter 5 in the section on "locus of control."

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