Kaivaġniqput Iñuuniahuni – Our Circle of Life. The Purpose of Schooling in Nunaqatigiich

The following paper was written for a graduate school course about school reform. These are my views, as an urban Native from Anchorage, writing about a school system I did not grow up within. However, based on research I have read and work experience and conversations I have had with friends, relatives, and acquaintances in the region of interest, I believe the following words have some relevance.  

The purpose of schooling for the Iñupiat (Inuit) of Nunaqatigiich (Northwest Alaska) is to reinforce local knowledge, values, and beliefs and provide our children with the tools and experiences needed to fulfill our ancestral obligations to future generations of Iñupiat. These ancestral obligations include land and environmental stewardship, language and cultural maintenance and transmission, and improvements to the health and wellbeing of our people. These obligations are “ancestral” because fulfilling them enfolds past, present, and future generations of Iñupiat within the cycle of intergenerational reciprocity that defines our purpose on this planet. Intergenerational reciprocity means maintaining our language, culture, and land base from one generation to the next. Schools in Nunaqatigiich can do much more to help ensure that these obligation are met by changing underlying attitudes about the purpose of schooling, in addition to what is actually taught and how. By doing so, schools will be able to function as genuine tools we can use to help ensure our survival as a distinct people and culture on this continent.

My beliefs about the purpose of schooling are shaped by numerous conversations I have had with Iñupiat elders, youth, friends and relatives, as well as my evolving worldview as an Iñupiaq male working with others for the social, political, and cultural self-determination of Alaska Native peoples. They arise from years of personal reflection and attempts to make meaning of the tremendous changes our people have experienced in the last century, and how these past experiences are translating into contemporary social challenges that at times seem insurmountable. In the following section (section 1) of this paper, I provide historical and contemporary context for my beliefs about the purpose of schooling in Nunaqatigiich. This context provides important frames of reference as I describe what my vision for Iñupiat schooling might look like in practice in section 2 of this paper, as embodied by a fictional school, Sivuniksraqput Iḷisaġvik (“Our Future” School).

Section 1: Background

In the blink of an eye, Iñupiat have transitioned from living in seasonal camps on the land as self-reliant, self-governing, self-determining autonomous nations, to American citizens living in sedentary communities. In my mother’s generation, snowmobiles replaced dog teams as the main mode of winter transportation, and in my great, great grandfather’s lifetime, Nalauġmiut (Western) medicine and religion supplanted his role as an Aŋatkuq (shaman) in his community. Schools have been at the nexus of social, economic, and political changes in the region as the institutions primarily responsible for extending American hegemony over Iñupiat. In the recent past, schools exercised this power overtly and with impunity, employing physically and psychically violent tactics (such as the universal abuse and humiliation of Iñupiaq language speaking children) in order to expedite our complete assimilation into white-stream society. Schools have only been partially successful at accomplishing this pernicious goal.

Iñupiat have lacked real control over our own schooling for the entire 100-year period of government-run schooling in our communities. Today, power imbalances remain between schools staffed primarily by white teachers and administrators, and ethnically homogenous Iñupiat communities. Proficiency in Nalauġmiut language and ways lead to academic success, higher education, and job opportunities, whereas no such access is associated with Iñupiat cultural competencies. Teachers and administrators generally lack Iñupiat social and cultural competencies, compounding feelings of distrust and apathy toward schools among parents and community members (Dinero, 2004: 414). Iñupiaq language, knowledge, and life-ways largely remain marginalized or tokenized within schools, and lacking the power and stature accorded Nalauġmiut ways of speaking, thinking, and valuing by the dominating society, face the real possibility of extinction.

The shrinking number of Iñupiaq language speakers in our region (just 14% of regional residents indicated language fluency in 2005) is perhaps the most disconcerting signal that we lack coherent direction as a people. Yet for decades elders in Nunaqatigiich have expressed deep concern that the incidental manner in which language, knowledge, and life-ways are transmitted from one generation to the next are not sustainable. Iñupiat youth generally express a strong desire to learn our language and gain the requisite skills, knowledge, and experiences needed to fulfill cultural expectations and responsibilities, but opportunities to do so are piecemeal. Iñupiat students and parents understand schools for the socializing and acculturative forces they bring to bear on our society. This contributes to mistrust of teachers and schools, yet elements of Nalauġmiut education are needed to survive. This ambivalence toward schools partially helps explain the region’s low high school graduation rate (55% in 2009-10) (Alaska Department of Education & Early Development, 2011).

Public health researcher Lisa Wexler studies patterns of Iñupiat youth suicide in our region, where the rate of suicide for youth ages 15 to 19 was 185/100,000 between 1990 and 2000, nearly 16 times higher than the national rate (11.6) (Wexler, 2006: 2938). Wexler argues that schools contribute to conditions that increase the likelihood of youth suicide by maintaining “Blindness to current forms of oppression” which “perpetuates individual and collective subjugation” (Wexler, 2005: 232-33). I agree with Wexler that schools’ failure to provide students with the lenses needed to interpret and counteract the immediate challenges in our world is a form of oppression. As a consequence, when students fail in school, their failure is more likely to be internalized as personal, community, and cultural failure rather than that of institutions, despite having “little control over the institutional or structural frames that increase the likelihood of their failure” (Wexler, 2006: 233).

In his 1969 case study of acculturation and education in Kotzebue, the largest community in Nunaqatigiich, Hippler (1969: 51) observes: “The education thus far provided native students, so far as we can determine, has produced uncertain, anxiety-ridden and unhappy young people, paying a terrible price for what little they have “achieved.”” These negative outcomes, though not entirely attributable to students’ schooling, manifests in low self-esteem, and ultimately the self-destructive conviction that “White ways of life are considered better and more respectable than Eskimo” (Hippler, 1969: 52). It appears little has changed in the past forty years. In section 2, I describe my vision of schooling in relation to this background, as embodied by a fictional school, Sivuniksraqput Iḷisaġvik.

Section 2: Sivuniksraqput Iisaġvik

Sivuniksraqput Iḷisaġvik (“Our Future” School) is a charter middle-high school located in Kotzebue, AK, a predominantly Iñupiat community of approximately 3,200 located in Northwest Alaska, 33 miles above the Arctic Circle. Approximately 100 students are enrolled in the school, the overwhelming majority of them Iñupiat. The school’s physical structure reflects Iñupiat architectural aesthetics, with five classrooms divided by removable partitions surrounding a circular open space at the center of the building. This communal space is used for school and community events such as Iñupiaq language classes, Iñupiat dancing, a women’s sewing group, and to prepare for hunting trips and school outings. The school’s large woodshop is open to the public, and is frequently used to repair hunting, fishing, and related equipment. All signage is written in the Iñupiaq language.

Organization: Relationships between the school, parents, and community are fluid, and monthly meetings of the school’s nine-member board of directors are open to the public. Board members are parents of students limited to three-year terms, and are advised by a five-member Elder council. A curriculum development team, acting on the guidance of the school board and director, oversees development of school curricula and professional development activities. Monthly board meetings double as community potlucks, and are opportunities for students, parents, and community members to comment and voice concerns, as well as to learn about what is being taught, how, and why. The school board and elder council are responsible for selecting the school’s director. Classroom teachers hold university degrees and are Iñupiaq language learners, each working in equal partnership with a fluent elder aide due to the scarcity of certified fluent speakers. This work involves contextualizing lessons within the Iñupiaq language and worldview, such as discussing the different properties of snow, ice, and wind conditions in an Iñupiaq science context. Elder aides are respected as resident experts, much as a visiting fellow would be at a prestigious university, and teachers are responsible for helping to facilitate their knowledge to students.

Curriculum: Iñupiat are a circumpolar people, and curriculum is consequently developed through the lens of circumpolar Arctic and local affairs. Course content largely focuses on differences and similarities between Alaska Native and Inuit governments, institutions, organizations, and contemporary developments in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, as well as how these different entities impact the lives of our respective peoples. These international comparisons and contrasts help facilitate critical thinking about state and federal policy. Teachers, parents, and community members help bring this vision to fruition by including students as much as possible in relevant community and regional meetings, events, and organizations in order to reinforce classroom learning. For example, select tribal council meetings give real-life dimension to issues students learn about in middle and high school courses, such as Alaska tribes’ evolving relationship with the federal government, and issues related to federal funding allocations for tribal health care services and the reach of tribes’ legal jurisdiction. The school curriculum also tasks students with confronting and developing solutions to local challenges, such as suicide, language shift, climate change, and economic development.

The centricity of land to Sivuniksraqput Iḷisaġvik’s curriculum is unusual. Because the relationship between school and community is fluid, regular hunting, fishing, and camping trips, as well as visits to historical sites in and around Kotzebue, are financially and logistically possible. Elders and community knowledge bearers share insight about the significance of our surroundings while on the land, where classroom lessons about major battles, trade routes, and animal behavior are reinforced. Through these experiences, the school aims to cultivate in students an appreciation of land as a sentient source of identity and empowerment, with which comes enormous, intergenerational responsibility to past, present, and future generations. These ideas are buoyed by students’ grasp of the oral, political, and social history of Nunaqatigiich, a history which is well documented by elders, explorers, and anthropologists such as Burch (1998, 2005, 2006). Lessons based on these documents are designed to enhance students’ self-esteem, pride, and sense of agency, direction, and responsibility as members of our community.

Pedagogy: All students are addressed by their Iñupiaq names[1] in order to reinforce their Iñupiaq identity, and for non-Iñupiat students to appreciate their place as valued members and equals within our society. The hunter success and other accomplishments of students and their family members are acknowledged and celebrated as the accomplishments of our entire community. Consistent with our Iñupiat values, emphasis is placed on group rather than individual problem solving and accomplishments, and the value of individual accomplishments to the group. Teaching is tailored to each individual student, but generally utilizes what Gay (2001) calls “culturally responsive teaching methods,” utilizing “the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of… students as conduits for teaching” (Gay 2001). Teachers do so, for example, by modeling Iñupiaq language use in the classroom, and by reinforcing the values of sharing, respect, and humility through activities that require older students to teach younger students, assist elders in the community, and carry out selfless good deeds. Classroom learning is loosely based on curriculum units and plans developed by teachers, with discussion facilitated using the Socratic method of inquiry. Doing so is believed to facilitate critical thinking habits and cooperation as students develop new knowledge and solutions to pressing issues.

Assessment: Students are expected to meet internal assessments developed by the school board and elder’s council that measure variables such as community volunteerism, generosity toward peers and community, and compassion for others. Assessment of this kind complements the raw reading, writing, and math score data measured by state standardized testing. As a school, we work to ensure proficiency in these areas, but our main focus is on producing genuine human beings.

Conclusion: The largest weakness in my vision is the absence of significant numbers of certified Iñupiat or Alaska Native educators, underrepresented in the teaching field for reasons discussed in the first section of this paper. At least for a time, this would create reliance on non-Native teachers, who would need to be taught many of the subtleties (such as the significance of hunter success) that would help make this experiment more meaningful for students and communities. The enormous challenge of teaching students content that many of our own people (let alone outsiders) are unaware of, also presents significant problems, as would community sensitivity to relatively taboo subjects such as suicide and the dark legacy of American schooling in Alaska. Of course, opening up this can of worms is partly the point.

Schooling for Iñupiat and other Alaska Native peoples has had a profound effect on our cultures and societies. It has too often played a destructive role through attempts to pacify our resistance to power. I am optimistic, however, that if existing schools work in equal partnership with students, parents, and communities in an environment of humility and mutual respect, we can use our imaginations to turn schooling into a tool of empowerment for current and future generations of Iñupiat. Doing so will be necessary if we wish to coherently counteract the detrimental changes we have experienced as a people, and in order to help provide future generations with a rich heritage they can be proud of.

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Alaska Department of Education & Early Development (revised October 21, 2011), Report Card to the Public, accessed November 7, 2011: http://www.eed.state.ak.us/reportcardtothepublic/

Burch, E. S., Jr. (2006). Social Life in Northwest Alaska: The Structure of Inupiaq Eskimo Nations. University of Alaska Press

Burch, E.S., Jr. (1998). Inupiaq Eskimo Nations of Northwest Alaska. University of Alaska Press

Burch, E.S., Jr. (2005). Alliance and Conflict: The World System of the Inupiaq Eskimos. University of Nebraska Press

Dinero, S.C. (2004). The politics of education provision in rural Native Alaska: the case of Yukon Village. Race Ethnicity and Education, Vol. 7, No. 4

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 53, No. 2

Hippler, A.E. (1969). Barrow and Kotzebue: An Exploratory Comparison of Acculturation and Education in Two Large Northwestern Alaska Villages. Training Center for Community Programs in coordination with Office of Community Programs Center for Urban and Regional Affairs

Wexler, L. (March 2005). Suicide Prevention/Hope Project. PhD diss., University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Wexler, L.M. (September 2006). Inupiat youth suicide and culture loss: Changing community conversations for prevention. Social Science & Medicine, 63


[1] At birth, most Iñupiat are given an Iñupiaq name, often after a recently deceased relative. These names, cycled through the generations, tie us to past and future generations. Non- Iñupiat long-term residents in our communities are commonly given Iñupiaq names as a sign of their acculturation into our society.

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1 Comment

Filed under Author: aqukkasuk

One response to “Kaivaġniqput Iñuuniahuni – Our Circle of Life. The Purpose of Schooling in Nunaqatigiich

  1. Panigusiuup ataatanga

    Count my children in on this model of education. We need to adopt this type of coherent culturally-specific vision for the education of our young people, as it is not only our duty to our society but the clearest path to healing and success.

    Thank you for your inspiring article.

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