Tag Archives: Critical Theory

The Politics of Dispossession – Alaska Context

For the past 10 years I have closely read federal Indian law, from the Supreme Court “Marshall Trilogy” cases to the latest amendments made to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.  I have even compared Aboriginal law and policies between Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.  There are many similarities between all of the former British colonies, or the indigenous peoples’ lands occupied by Euro-Americans.  The League of Nations, of which the Covenant was signed and entered into force in 1920, and the modern-day version United Nations, organized in 1945, would not recognize the unique rights of indigenous peoples across the globe until 2007, when the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was agreed to by the UN General Assembly.  Even then, the declaration is not legally-binding, and only provides guidelines or a framework for nation-states to “begin on the right foot” recognizing indigenous peoples’ relations within fluid laws and policies.  I say “fluid,” because the aim of many indigenous peoples – around the globe, not just in Alaska, not just in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and many countries elsewhere – is to further improve upon the accommodation of indigenous peoples within Western legal regimes.  In this modern day and age, should the Marshall Trilogy really be the pillar of US federal Indian law?  Should Native Americans across the US really allow themselves to continue to be characterized by racial and discriminatory stereotypes, like savages, hunter-gatherers, and plain uncivilized?

Simultaneously, the bilateral Treaty of Cession of 1867 between the US and the Russian Crown made a distinction between “civilized” and “uncivilized” Alaska Natives.  According to ourselves, as Alaska Natives, we were never less than civilized.  The Treaty of Cession also included brief mention of “creoles,” as a social and cultural class.  In the fall of 2006 I attended a doctoral dissertation lecture in anthropology by a young Russian lady from St. Petersburg, and her work only included those of “full-blooded” Russians in what is sometimes labelled Russian America.  After she gave her practiced lecture, I raised my hand and asked about Russian creoles or mix-bloods.  She commented it was an interesting question, and replied “I haven’t considered that.”  How can one spend an academic career examining Russian America history and not consider the implications of blood, social, and cultural creoles?  My paternal ancestral line descends from such a lineage.  I had never met nor heard of the young lady prior to her lecture, but how could I not be personally offended by the occlusion of Alaska Natives from such an in-depth, broad historical academic treatment of government and Russian America Company records?  I am still to this day nine years later incredulous and dumbfounded.

All of my grandparents, whom none were non-Native, were born before 1936, the year the Indian Reorganization Act was implemented in Alaska, creating “tribal governments” which the federal government would recognize and treat with on a government-to-government basis.  I imagine all of my grandparents were enrolled into one tribal government or another, even though they all moved from seasonal camp to seasonal camp and did not stay in one place for long.  I also imagine Bureau of Indian Affairs “Indian agents” also pushed on their parents, whom six out of eight were Koyukon Athabascan, to apply for Indian allotments from the 1898 congressional Dawes Act, where individual Native Americans could apply for and receive up to 140 acres of land within their home regions.  From these applications, my four grandparents inherited acreage and so too my parents.  I believe my father inherited a parceled allotment in Galena, and my mother her own parceled allotment in Tanana.  In 2008 I went to Tanana for the first time in twelve years since my grandmother Maudrey’s memorial potlatch in 1996.  I walked around and reminisced and visited with family friends whom were long lost to me, but they knew who I was and never left Tanana for a single day as far as they were concerned.  One of the elders reminded me to look into allotments my grandmother’s family had held and inherited over the years.  Apparently the deeds to several parcels were not accounted for, down the Yukon River from town, as she explained to me.  My cousin and I went for a boat ride down that way to take a look around for animals and stopped at grandma’s old camp to check it out.  Maybe that is where parcels are held in name, I’m not really sure.  I haven’t had the time, nor the expertise, to look into the record, but I imagine from time to time, when I get inheritance papers and identity verification and other such records on my desk, as is temporally required for all of us humans, I will have to look into the record and work with many others to set it straight.  It would only serve our ascendants right.

Next comes the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which dates to my parents’ generation.  In 1971 only my grandmothers survived with their children.  My two younger brothers and I grew up with twenty-one aunts and uncles and countless first cousins.  I have decided I am nothing without my first cousins in the same town, Juneau, where I currently reside.  I tell people, besides law or graduate school, this is the first and only time I will ever live away from my first cousins.  I have decided we are that important to each other, in so many respects, for identity and support as all-too-brief examples.  Rewinding to ANCSA, my grandmothers and my parents and their siblings, in addition to tribal enrollment – my father in Louden Tribal Council and and mother in Tanana Tribal Council, all enrolled into Doyon, Inc, the regional corporation for Interior Athabascan peoples.  My dad and his siblings were enrolled into Gana-A ‘Yoo, Ltd, the village corporation for Galena, and my mother and her siblings enrolled into Tozitna, Ltd, the village corporation for Tanana.  Concurrently, my mother’s maternal uncle Morris Thompson was the Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.  Governor of Alaska and soon-after Department of Interior Secretary Wally Hickel and US Senator Ted Stevens at the time had a hand in appointing him to the national position of working with federally recognized tribal governments.  BIA was the federal agency that organized and footed the bill for public hearings on ANCSA and community referenda held across the State of Alaska and even in some Northwest states like Washington, Oregon, and California for Alaska Natives living out of state.  “Uncle Big” would then go on to lead Doyon, Ltd and sit in various statewide leadership positions like the University of Alaska Board of Regents.  I remember him well from my childhood, and would very much appreciate the benefit of his views and insights to this day on state and Native politics, as do many others around the state I’m sure.  I do not hear the label “tribal shareholders” very often, but it does ring a bell: it denotes the dual-recognition Alaska Natives receive from the federal and state governments, and also a sense of unity between ANCSA corporations and tribal governments, which in reality is not always the case.  Either way, many Alaska Natives are both tribal members and ANCSA corporation shareholders, and we all have the right to vote in either forms of elected leadership of our peoples.

Continuing on to my personal experiences and engagement in federal Indian laws and policies, I have worked for Doyon Drilling, Inc, a subsidiary of Doyon, Ltd, and also for the Tanana Chiefs Conference wildland firefighting crew.  Because I am a shareholder of Doyon, I receive a preference for hire in business enterprise like Doyon Drilling, Inc.  The Tanana Tribal Council is a consortia member of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, and since I am an enrolled member of the Tanana Tribal Council, I receive a “Native preference” for hire under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, where tribal members are preferential ahead of non-Natives for hire in tribal governments and federal government agencies like BIA.  Uncle Big coordinated efforts on behalf of tribal governments around the country during the Congressional push for the ISDEAA, when he was BIA Commissioner.  I have worked for many other businesses around the state, and with many good people Native and non-Native, but the qualities of working for and with my fellow Native peoples is invaluable.  How easy it would have been for me as an impressionable young-twenty-something kid in the City and Municipality of Anchorage to make it in the non-Native world, not at all cognizant of “Native pride” or a sense of family history going back further – millennia – than “Western expansion.”  It sounds beyond cheesy, but if the preferential-hire programs did not exist, I would not be where I am today in my career, and prideful as I am of my family history.  At 21 years old going to work for Doyon Drilling put me next to people who have known my family for generations, and I now know and enjoy friendship with many of those people, even though I had grown up in Anchorage.  My first fire season in 2010 I was a member of an all Native squad of five members.  I never enjoyed working 16 hour days for two weeks straight than that experience with those four guys from a different region than I.  I can go to their villages at any given time and their friends and family would treat me as one of their own.

Recently, I was employed by a village corporation to process share transfers from the deceased to their named or by probate inheritors of stock. In the last decade the board of the village corporation decided on transferring whole shares to inheritors, to keep shares from becoming highly fractionated. Some shareholders hold stock up to three decimals, or essentially irrational amounts of shares, not to be equally divided until the shares return to the corporation itself. I was able to tabulate which classes of shares belonged to different age groups, and the board appreciated the work. We’re hoping the board can draft up new policies like creating a new class of shares for the “afterborns,” or descendants of original shareholders born after December 18th, 1971. Even with new enrollment of afterborns, much like fractionated Indian allotments from the 1898 Dawes Act, ANCSA shares are due to become just as complicated as the generations of shareholders age and new enrollees come into the fold. What is especially difficult is for an aged shareholder naming inheritors of their ANCSA stock, where some descendants might be favored and others left out. These are paradoxes concerning individual property vs. collective property.

This is how deep and important and vital Native identities are.  I carry around with me at all times my tribal enrollment card.  Because of the ID card, I can freely use Southeast Alaska Region Health Consortium healthcare services, an Indian Health Service “638” Self-Determination compacting and contracting consortia of Southeast Alaska tribes.  Despite all of this success, what is still at stake – and this is in closing – is subsistence.  ANCSA “extinguished” the exclusive subsistence, hunting and gathering rights of Alaska Natives.  It is our way of life, is in no way an understatement.  Federal lands, fish, and game management agencies recognize rural residency for subsistence harvesting, unless exclusive rights are explicit like the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Alaska Native rights to hunt seals and waterfowl.  State lands, fish, and game management, however, recognize no exclusive Alaska Native right to hunt and gather.  Some say state agency managers even work to stall and obstruct federal agency management of subsistence harvesting by Alaska Natives.  When Alaska Natives participate in state agency decision-making fora, we are forced to explain our subsistence practices to sport and commercial fisherman, who often view these practices as “poor,” or “wanting.”  Our way of life has never been poor or wanting, nor do we wish to take animals simply for sport.  The best intersection is commercial fishing between Native and non-Native.  The State of Alaska has one of the longest coast-lines in the world, and all of the regions practice commercial fishing in one form or another.  Even so, local fisherman need protections like the state “limited entry” program, where locals receive and enjoy exclusive commercial fishing rights to a region, and the federal Community Development Quota program, much like the state’s limited entry, but for three miles offshore and beyond to 225 miles in the US Exclusive Economic Zone.  The State of Alaska Board of Game, which manages big game hunting like moose, in the past three decades only allowed for exclusive Alaska Native subsistence harvesting for memorial potlatches in the Interior.  The State of Alaska Board of Fish only has one designated “subsistence” expert seat out of seven total.  The same interests carry their weight in the Federal Subsistence Board to integrate as much as possible state management laws and policies for federal lands like National Parks and Wildlife Refuges around the state.  The political, social, and cultural voices and participation of Alaska Natives have almost been reduced to nothing in the modern lands, fish, and wildlife management in the State of Alaska.  I think about this, a lot, just about on a daily basis.  I can go before the boards and state similarities between the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia for subsistence harvesting, but I would only be patted on the head and be sent on my way.  There has to be a core, fundamental shift in how these boards operate and accommodate Alaska Native subsistence harvesting practices.  Maybe, just maybe, the unreachable ideological heights of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples can find some form of applicability in the State of Alaska when it comes to Alaska Native subsistence practices.  The guidelines have to come from somewhere.


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Education for “Progress,” and “Progress” for Education

Tyack and Cuban [1] raise important questions about what purposes and interests it is possible or desirable for formal education systems to serve, and for whom. Declining public faith in schools seem to hint that most of the public has a specific set of expectations when it comes to education, namely that education systems evolve along some vague, linear progression that the two authors call an “animating ideal that gave direction and coherence to reform.” If schools are products and progenitors of progress in our society, it is valuable to consider what constitutes “progress” for schools and society, and who is held responsible for preserving the privileges and institutions that uphold this concept.

The concept of “progress” is loaded, and in considering its scope I am reminded of indigenous intellectual Waziyatawin’s powerful words in her essay, “Decolonizing Indigenous Diets,” featured in For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook: “In a society that values progress,” she writes, “our colonizers taught us that conditions are perpetually improving, that with each new technological advancement, each new discovery, each new way to utilize resources, each new way to alter the environment, that the world is getting better, that it is advancing. These are all lies…Microwave ovens and satellite television are poor compensation for the extinction of life-forms and a toxic earth.”[2]  Notions of social and economic progress differ in each culture and society, and education systems play a powerful role by denying, affirming, or regenerating these notions. Unequal power relations are evident between schools and communities in which community views of progress – imbedded with specific values and worldviews – have not been reconciled with those of schools.  Talk of educational progress cannot be divorced from specific views about what constitutes social progress in society as a whole, and these views must be interrogated for their latent political, economic, and cultural biases and motives.

Carter has taken the stance that the educational “playing field” for blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans can be equalized through student integration; that somehow, in keeping with the views of W.E.B. DuBois, blurring race and culture lines will lead to higher self-esteem and accomplishment for students. This view is simplistic at best, because it ignores the cultural, linguistic, and social capital that inform distinct views of human, and thus educational progress, and which should be reflected in the schooling of distinct cultures and societies. Maintaining this capital is vital for resisting the homogenizing forces of globalization and colonialism that favor Western societies and elide colonized ones. This view is assimilationist and colonialistic at worst, because it locates the sources of power and success for students of color in white, middle-class America, and seems to bow to the assumption that what constitutes educational success for whites is fundamentally the best thing for Latinos, Blacks, Native Americans, and other distinct peoples.

Indigenous societies have survived white conquest, for example, largely because our Constitutional right to maintain separate but equal polities and societies creates a degree of space for our own cultural, linguistic, and intellectual resilience and survival. Racial integration has defensible benefits for some, but is certainly not prerequisite to the educational success of all. Focus on greater integration as a goal can also miss more important opportunities to focus time and energy on the true sources of inequity, such as gentrification, colonial schooling, and inherent educational biases.

[1] Tyack, D. & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of school reform. Progress or regress. Chapter 2 (pp. 5-42) in The Jossey-Bass reader on school reform. San Francisco: Jossey- Bass.

[2] Wilson, W.A., & Yellow Bird, M. (2005: 67) For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook. Sana Fe, NM: School of American Research Press

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Mapkuqput: Our Blanket: Fostering a More Coordinated Approach to Alaska Native Advocacy

In recent years, research has revealed symbiosis between seemingly disparate public policy areas such as education, health, housing, indigenous political, cultural, and socio-economic self-determination and development, and suicide prevention. Some advocates and policy makers are utilizing this research to identify the web of through-lines that run across policy areas, with the policy implication being that as advocates and researchers, we can no longer focus exclusively on one area without considering its interrelation with a range of others. This more holistic understanding and approach to advocacy and public policy development places emphasis on developing whole communities and societies, rather than narrowly concentrating on progress within isolated policy areas. The idea is that improving the health and wellbeing of any society requires a more coordinated approach. In Indian Country, the term “nation building” is the metaphor used to describe this practice. In Alaska, we might think of this approach more appropriately as the mapkuq of policy making, research, and advocacy.

The mapkuq is the walrus or bearded sealskin blanket used by Inupiat coastal communities to throw community members high into the air during celebration, and in the past was also used to fling hunters into the air to spot whales breaching on the horizon. The metaphor is appropriate because it more accurately symbolizes the nature in which policy research and advocacy must be undertaken if there is to be improvement in the health and wellbeing of Alaska Native peoples. During celebration, community members surround the mapkuq, holding on to its rope rungs. They must work in perfect synchrony in order to hoist the participant on the blanket high into the air, and to hold the blanket bellowed upward in order to catch and ensure a graceful landing. These blankets are made from rawhide and are not soft, and participants are frequently injured when those holding the mapkuq are not able to move quickly enough as a coordinated unit to catch participants. Similarly, Alaska Native communities are being hurt by the inability of advocates, researchers, and policy makers to utilize policy through-lines cross cutting issues that negatively impact us, resulting in slowed progress toward healthy communities and societies. We are not moving in synchrony as a community, and as a result we are failing to catch our own people.

Inadequate education for Alaska Native peoples and the absence of sustained advocacy and leadership on this issue is at the heart of social, economic, political, and cultural inequity for Alaska Native peoples. Not only does the quality of schooling that we receive suffer, but the ideological and philosophical orientation of schools in Alaska Native communities tend to be subtly racist, often evident in the conspicuous absence of curricula focused on local people, language, culture, history, and land. Shockingly, 22% of enrolled K to 12 students are Alaska Native and more than half of all school districts are majority Alaska Native, yet a mere 4% of teachers are Alaska Native. Many parents today are educational products of the present day power imbalances and tend to view the status quo as normative. In only two known cases have school districts – prompted by internal Alaska Native leadership – reached out to communities to seek direction and feedback in the development of schooling.

Formal schooling has always failed Alaska Natives, and our communities have never been equal partners in the conceptualization and development of school programs, with potentially debilitating socio-psychological consequences for children and families. It is within the education field that the urgent need for a mapkuq approach to research, advocacy, and policymaking is most clear to me. The need is clear because formal schooling has such profound, far reaching effects that permeate every layer of our respective societies, and yet when advocacy does happen, it almost always focuses on the need to close the achievement gap between Alaska Native students and their white peers. Below, I demonstrate the great potential for Alaska Native education by highlighting policy areas that correlate with the education field:

  • Suicide: In her 2005 dissertation about Inupiat youth suicide in Northwest Alaska, social scientist Lisa Wexler drew a casual relationship between schools’ persistent failure to arm Inupiat youth with the intellectual tools needed to understand our own subjectivity in relation to the larger framework of colonization in which our ongoing colonization and oppression take place, with prevailing social dysfunction the most obvious symptom. In a region with only a 50% high school graduation rate in 2010, Wexler questions the psychological impacts of school failure being interpreted by youth as an additional failure of themselves and their communities.
  • Mental Health: A longitudinal study of at-risk blacks who attended a high quality preschool program between 1972 and 1977 found that at age 21: those who had not attended the childcare program showed higher levels of depressive symptoms, and 37% met diagnostic criteria for clinical depression. Among the childcare attendees, 26% scored high enough on tests of depressive symptoms to be considered clinically depressed…[i] Significantly, the correlation between a bad home environment and depression risk did not apply to the young adults who had participated in the program because “The program buffered the effects of that difficult home environment.”[ii]
  • Life Expectancy: Between the 1980s and 2000, life expectancy increases in the U.S. occurred nearly exclusively among high-education groups.[iii] “Low education” was classified as 12 years or fewer of formal education while “high education” was classified as at least 13 years of schooling.
  • In 2000, a 25 year old with a high school diploma could expect to live until 75 while a person the same age but with some university education could expect to live until 82.
  • Smoking: By 2000, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) death rates were twice as high among low-education white men and women and black men, compared to the more educated in these groups. There are two main forms of COPD: chronic bronchitis, defined by a long-term cough with mucus, and emphysema, defined by destruction of the lungs over time. Smoking is the leading cause of COPD.[iv]
  • Housing: Social scientist Frank J. Tester has demonstrated a correlation between overcrowded housing and food insecurity for families in one Nunavut community, as well as domestic violence and other social issues that place stress on children and youth.[v] Food insecurity and social stress and trauma at home affect student performance in schools. And in turn, educational attainment determines economic security, mobility, and housing. Overcrowding is an issue in Alaska Native communities, especially in the Arctic. To what degree remains unclear as there are no available data, but the policy implication is that housing, social and economic indicators, and educational attainment are closely related.
  • Employment and income: In the most comprehensive longitudinal study of the long-term effects of pre-school found that at age 40: significantly more of the preschool program group than the no-program group were employed (76% vs. 62%), which continues the trend from age 27 (69% vs. 56%). The program group also had significantly higher median annual earnings than the no-program group at ages 27 and 40 ($12,000 vs. $10,000 at age 27 and $20,800 vs. $15,300 at age 40).
  • Culture and Language: American schooling for Alaska Natives has almost always prioritized language stealing as a first step toward the erosion of the cultural, intellectual, philosophical, and religious foundations of indigenous societies, weakening our spirits and expediting assimilation into the dominating society. This is ongoing today, obvious in the fact that K to 12 bilingual Alaska Native language schooling has never existed as an option, and all Alaska Native languages are either endangered or severely endangered, and at least in the case of Eyak, now extinct.
  • Leadership development:  For many Alaska Native high school and college students, learning about our history, cultures, political development and layers of governance, issues and challenges is a highly incidental, extra-curricular affair that often begins during an internship, or during employment with an Alaska Native organization. This lag time in understanding, the highly incidental nature in which it takes place, and the variability of action-oriented leaders in our community is preventing or slowing progress on key issues. We praise those who graduate from college and participate in the discourse on Alaska Native issues, yet have done little as a community to take sustained action to guarantee this same outcome for all Alaska Native students from K to post-secondary.

Alaska Native advocacy organizations need to exploit these areas of overlap in their work, and in doing so will ensure that other important issues such as suicide, housing, mental health, and leadership are not neglected. The mapkuq approach is not new – we have always worked in cooperation to adapt and move forward as distinct societies – yet we are currently exhausting our energy and resources attempting to surmount each obstacle individually. Beginning with the prioritization of educational reform as the most vital policy issue facing Alaska Natives, the mapkuq approach to policy advocacy will be the key to Alaska Native health and wellbeing.

[i] McLaughlin, A. E. et al, “Depressive Symptoms in Young Adults: The Influences of the Early Home Environment and Early Educational Child Care” (2007) Child Development, Vol. 78, Iss. 3, p. 746

[ii] Harding, A., “Good day care boosts poor kids’ later mental health” (May 22, 2007) Reuters, Retrieved: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2007/05/22/health-good-daycare-dc-idUKCOL24828920070522 February 25, 2011

[iii] Meara, E. R., Richards, S., and D.M. Cutler, “The Gap Gets Bigger: Changes in Mortality and Life-Expectancy, By Education, 1981-2000, (2008) Health Affairs, Vol. 27, No. 2, p. 353

[iv] National Center for Biotechnology Information (National Institute of Health: October, 9, 2009), Retrieved: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001153 February 3, 2011

[v] Tester, F. J., Iglutaq (in my room): A Case Study of Housing and Homelessness in Kinngait, Nunavut Territory (The Harvest Society, April 2006)

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Forced Intellectual Landscapes

“Mr. Chairman, you have heard our witnesses. This is our Land. From the Brooks range to the Arctic Ocean, and from Canada to the Native village of Pt. Hope. It has been just a few years ago when you white people started coming in to stay. Even for the exploration of oil within the 2 petroleum reserve number four you didn’t do anything until 1945.

Mr. Chairman, when we were in Washington four months ago you asked us to answer a number of questions, one of these related to “unproven aboriginal title”. In the first instance, the words unproven aboriginal title is a misconception. There is no such a thing as unproven aboriginal title. The mere fact that you say “aboriginal” implies that someone was there before you were. So we were offended by the use of that phrase. Perhaps they are not proven to you, but that is because you do not know us. These claims are proven, just look at these barren lands out of which we four thousand Eskimos made our living. You can see that we had to travel many times a hundred miles to our various hunting camps. We occupied the whole 55 million acres on the North Slope.”
“Unfortunately, there are intellectual landscapes that have been forced forced on Aboriginal peoples – for example, the languages of rights, sovereignty, and nationalism. These intellectual traditions, stained by colonialism, have created discourses on property, ethics, political sovereignty, and justice that have subjugated, distorted, and marginalized Aboriginal ways of thinking. Throughout the history of the relationship, these Eurocentric discourses have created for Aboriginal peoples an intellectual landscape that in some cases has been purposefully designed to exclude Aboriginal ways of thinking.”
Dale Turner, This Is Not a Peace Pipe: Toward a Critical Indigneous Philosophy 

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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, http://www.ankn.uaf.edu/curriculum/Articles/GrahamSmith.

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


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