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Their Silence About Us:

Why We Need an Alaska Native Curriculum

By Paul Ongtooguk

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In 1981, I began my career as a teacher in rural Alaska—a circumstance that no doubt would have surprised my high school teachers and counselors. I am Inupiat, and when I attended high school in northwest Alaska in the early 1970s, teachers and counselors gave me little attention and no encouragement about my future. As was true for many other Alaska Natives at that time, school officials never mentioned college as a possibility for me and even discouraged me when I broached the subject myself.

The curriculum at my high school in Nome was virtually silent about us, our society, and the many issues and challenges we faced as a people caught between two worlds. In fact, educational policy since the turn of the century had been to suppress Native culture and "assimilate" us into the broader society. Everything that was required—everything that had status—in the curriculum was centered on white people and was remarkably like what might have been found anywhere in the U.S.

Many things have changed for the better since my days as a student. Native communities now have some control over their schools, Native cultures are no longer suppressed, and Native students are encouraged to go on to college. But aside from a few Native studies programs, the standard curriculum in Alaska’s rural schools is much the same as it has always been. I’m not suggesting that Native students should bypass American history or other subjects taught throughout the U.S. I am saying that Native students also need a curriculum that teaches them about themselves.

The Native Studies Curriculum Development Project is creating such Native curricula. Native educators and school districts are developing curricula to help Native students not only understand their own histories but also see their cultures as very much alive, capable of grappling with contemporary problems. My own experiences in the school system—as both student and teacher—shed light on why we need such curricula.

As recently as the mid-1970s, the teachers and counselors at my high school in Nome had quite different expectations about the future of white students and of Alaska Native students. In a certain sense, they didn’t need to worry much about the future of Native students. At that time, close to half the students from Native villages dropped out well before graduating. And suicide rates among male Native students—like myself—were 10 times higher than among white students. In my own school, students who had died were initially given their own pages in the yearbook—but when so many died that the yearbook was becoming a virtual obituary column, the policy was dropped.

But even for Native students who made it to high-school graduation, teachers and counselors generally assumed that we were all best suited for vocational-technical programs—programs that trained us to be secretaries, carpenters, heavy-equipment operators—rather than for college. The only direct counseling I received was to take the military vocational aptitude test, or to become a truck driver. Still, despite the denigration of Alaska Native societies in school, I began to see through the veil of silence about our history and culture. I learned, in places other than school, that we were a courageous and ingenious people who had made a rich life under sometimes inhospitable conditions.

And I was one of the fortunate few Alaska Natives from my generation who went on to college and graduated. I think I succeeded because I had two things that most Native students didn’t. I had parents whose love of books gave me the grounding I needed—and I had a friend who believed I could succeed when I wasn’t sure myself.

While studying to become a social studies and history teacher at the University of Washington, I discovered the Pacific Northwest collection at the Suzzallo Library. I was amazed to find thou-sands of volumes written by European and American explorers, linguists, anthropologists, educators, missionaries, and adventurers about the history, culture, and life patterns of Alaska Natives. Until then, I had not realized how much of our history had been written, how much of our lives had been described, and how important we—as a people—were to the rest of the world.

But as I became acquainted with the literature, I was also surprised at what was not included: Alaska Native perspectives about the gold miners, the commercial fisheries, the sale of Alaska, and other critical aspects of Alaskan history. In fact, the perspective of Alaska Natives, particularly during the contact period of modern times, was almost entirely absent.

I became determined to find ways of giving Natives students an informed perspective about the circumstances of Inupiat history and the issues Native people face today. By the early 1980s, when I came back to northwest Alaska to teach, the recently-created Native school board in my district had required that an Inupiat studies course be added to the curriculum. I was assigned to teach that course, and at first I was puzzled because my Native students often spoke of the Inupiat in the third person—as "them" rather than "us." Then I realized that all the previous teachers had been non-Natives—and that the students had adopted the teachers’ perspective of Natives as "others." One of my first goals became to have my students say "we" and "our" when they talked about Inupiat—a shift in language that would indicate an implicit change in perspective.

The curriculum guide for the course, prepared primarily by white teachers and administrators, was mostly a "how to" guide for traditional Native crafts like ivory carving, basket making, and skin sewing. The issues important to our people were almost entirely overlooked: there was no coherent picture of continuity, conflict, and transformation by which to understand the Inupiat community, the region, and the challenges Inupiat students faced. I radically reorganized the curriculum, shifting the emphasis from arts and crafts to readings, discussions, and investigations about Inupiat culture and history—from the Inupiat perspective as well as other perspectives.

The course I modified is still taught in northwest Alaska. It is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. As an Alaska Native educator, I want broad Native studies curricula that incorporate an informed Native perspective. I do not want to see curricula that are parodies of who we are or that portray our cultures as things of the past.

In recent years we have begun to break the silence about us in the schools. We ask that the next generation of Alaska Native students be able to attend schools where our history and our societies are included in lessons about people, history, and the world. We believe the Native Studies Curriculum Development Project will help us reach that goal.

Paul Ongtooguk is currently a senior research associate at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is a project director for the Native Studies Curriculum Development Project.

For other Alaska Native views on the importance of changing what is taught and learned about Alaska Natives see the statements of Willie Hensley, Eben Hopson, Georgianna Lincoln, and John Pingayak's introduction to the Chevak curriculum.