Toward an Alaska Native Critical Pedagogy?

Native Hawaiian scholar Jonathan Kamakawiwo‘ole Osorio makes sobering observations about the future course of Native Hawaiian political development and society at the conclusion of his 2002 history, Dismembering Lahui: A History of the Hawaiian Nation to 1887. “We, the Kanaka Maoli of the twenty-first century are still divided, and we continue to assert positions that deal merely with the edges of the problems of our survival,” he writes. “It is as though we have come to believe that we are the ones living on the edges of American life, the center of which contains the true and legitimate criteria for our existence. Though we send our children to immersion schools, we worry when they score poorly in standardized English examinations. Though we demand self-government, the proponents of complete independence are often scorned by those of us who believe that to be an unrealistic dream.”[1]

Osorio’s comments should strongly resonate with Alaska Natives, who are experiencing similar divisions and frustrations within our own communities. To think seriously about the future of Alaska Native societies in the twenty-first century is to consider a barrage of challenges that threaten our survival as distinct peoples. Dramatic climate change is altering the landscapes and ecosystems we have grown to intimately understand and depend on; tribal jurisdiction and sovereignty are often contended; Alaska Native languages are now critically endangered, transmission of traditional knowledge from elders to youth remains incidental, and the economic and social viability of our communities hangs in the balance. We must ensure that current and future generations of Alaska Natives are equipped with the tools, knowledge, and wisdom needed to proactively surmount these and other difficult challenges which lay at the center of our survival as peoples. The intention of any school system operating in Alaska Native communities today must be to produce “word warriors”[2] – individuals rooted in their respective languages, cultures and communities and whose primary function is to safeguard what is essential to our cultural continuity while navigating the course foreward for future generations.

Not to do so would be to consign ourselves to a state of perpetual reaction, rather than proactively committing ourselves to long-term change. The political diversions that act as barriers to realizing the state of critical consciousness described by Paulo Freire is what Maori educator Graham Hingangaroa Smith calls the “politics of distraction.” The politics of distraction is “the colonizing process of being kept busy by the colonizer, of always being on the ‘back-foot’, ‘responding’, ‘engaging’, ‘accounting’, ‘following’ and ‘explaining’,” Smith explains. “These are typical strategies often used over indigenous people. The ‘logic’… seems to be that if the ‘natives’ are kept busy doing ‘trivial pursuits’ there will little time left to complain, question or rebel against the ‘status quo’ conditions.” [3] 

In order to avoid these pitfalls and accomplish the vital task of establishing a more proactive pedagogy and political environment in which to self-determine our futures, we must actively reconsider and reshape the priorities and purposes of education in our communities to directly correspond to the needs of current and future generations of Alaska Natives. We can no longer content ourselves with education systems that are neutral in outlook, harboring the dim hope that such schools will sporadically produce college educated leaders committed to the survival and strengthening of our communities and cultures. Alaska Native communities, leaders, organizations and tribes must take a more active stance in this area by working as equal partners with educators and schools, pooling our economic, human, and intellectual capital to help reengineer education systems to meet our needs by producing secondary school graduates who are aware of these issues and prepared for higher education and service to their people.

The late Brazillian educator Paulo Freire described this practice as an “education for critical consciousness,” which would enable men and women “to discuss courageously the problems of their context – and to intervene in that context; it would warn men of the dangers of the time and offer them the confidence and the strength to confront those dangers instead of surrendering their sense of self through submission to the decisions of others.”[4] If our children are given space to begin engaging the critical issues their communities face using school curricula facilitated by a culturally responsive critical pedagogy, there is strong evidence to believe that student and community engagement will rise, frequency and level of educational attainment will improve, and student giveback to their communities will be more consistent. In the long term, it is possible for Alaska Natives to exercise more control of Alaska Native education as teachers and administrators, with returning community members understanding the many, interrelated social , cultural and economic outcomes determined by the availability and quality of education we receive.

The future of Alaska Native societies as distinct political and cultural entities hinges on whether or not we choose to look at education with fresh eyes and undertake to rebuild schools in the image of our own communities. It will take all of us working together to be successful.

[1] Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwo‘ole Osorio, Dismembering Lahui: A History of the Hawaiian Nation to 1887 (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002), p. 255

 [2] See: Dale Turner, This Is Not a Peace Pipe: Toward a Critical Indigenous Philosophy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006)

[3] Graham Hingangaroa Smith, “Indigenous Struggle for the Transformation of Education and Schooling: Keynote Address to the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention” (paper presented at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, Anchorage, AK, October 2003), accessed May 4, 2011,

 [4] Paulo Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness (London, New York: Continuum, 2008), p. 30



Filed under Author: aqukkasuk

5 responses to “Toward an Alaska Native Critical Pedagogy?

  1. deennaa

    While I am able to grasp your core points, I find that most of your writing is an exercise in groping through a jungle of words set up in a structure that is very trying to read through. In other words, it is not easy or smooth reading. Too many of our Native people do not have college educations. Who are you writing for anyway? I’m always looking for our Native input in cyber world; after all, its the largest library on earth and we should have a huge contribution. I’m not putting down your “style”, but I want less didactic wording and more, well, clear cut writing. Its frustrating to say the least, to wade through too much verbiage. Some of the greatest of our orator’s spoke in beautiful and simple straight-forward talk. Its really the best way to grab the attention of more of our people and the “others” out there on the world’s best communicative tool now in existence. One thing I have observed in my life as an educator, and as an indigenous (Dene) human, and that is that our people have a genius for expression. Language. It shows up in your writing as being very erudite, but that also (to me), shows that its a replica of the white system of education. I think you can express your particular genius of writing into a more Native way of expression: simplify. With less emphasis on formality and less on the high wording that so drove me crazy as a student in non native educational system. I have more to say on this, but this will do for now.

    • Awesome and constructive feedback. This is something I’ve been wrestling with lately. I was trained to write this way, because this “formal” style has stature in Western educational institutions. But Writing in an academic way is useless for reaching the target audience because it sounds arrogant and long-winded, and in the future I’ll do my best to modify how the message is being communicated. I see a lot of the research journal articles and wonder how an IRA employee in a village would make use of them. You’re right about our elders, some do have an explosive way of communicating, and you don’t need a thesaurus to appreciate that. Quyaana for your helpful feedback. – Tim

    • alaskaindigenous

      Hello, I have sent e-mail correspondence from: Thank you for your interest.

  2. This is a wonderful blog post which brings up a very important issue. Many points you make are thoughts that I have struggled to articulate in my own mind and feel refreshed to see them brought so clearly to light. May I ask, could you possibly expand on a the idea to, as you put it, “rebuild schools in the image of our own communities.” What do you mean by “in the image”? Do you have further thoughts on how this might be accomplished? Qagaasakuq, thank you. I very much enjoyed reading this.

    • Quyaana Kdam Idigaa. Maybe “image” sounds too superficial – something can be in the “image” of but without actual substance, which it seems has been the extent of community and cultural inclusion in Alaska Native education in the last few decades. What I mean is, what if instead of trying to “include” the community knowledge, practices, and skills into the American public education systems we are confined by, we used those things as the basis from which to build a new education system? There will always be tremendous power imbalance as long as we have to negotiate the inclusion of what defines our humanity into classrooms. I have some thoughts about how this might be accomplished, but I will save them for another post :)

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