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Traditional forms of education

Every culture has some way of passing on to its younger members all the kinds of information they need to become functioning adults in that society. This is called "education." In modern American culture, education takes place in formal institutions at specific times and places. We should not assume that because our method of education is formal, it is superior (or inferior) to any other. It is merely different.

Traditional Athabaskan education is far less institutionalized and formal. It is also less direct and explicit, but this is not to say it is less effective. Life in the northern forest is very difficult. In older times especially, knowledge of skills related to subsistence was crucial for survival.

We cannot give a complete account of how each kind of cultural knowledge was passed on, nor do we want to urge the use of traditional Athabaskan educational methods in schools. We will simply present the basic principles of traditional education in the hope that readers can thus better understand community attitudes toward education and determine if and how the school program can benefit from the way students learn at home. We will discuss two forms of traditional Athabaskan education, observation, and storytelling.

If one asks older Athabaskan people how they learned skills like snowshoe-making, beading, sewing, or hunting, they will probably say they had to learn on their own. They learned such skills as children by watching adults carefully and eventually making their own attempts. Adults rarely gave them specific directions about how to do something. In traditional Athabaskan culture, children are taught from the earliest age always to observe what others are doing. A girl will watch her mother sew over the years, until the day her mother asks her to sew something herself. When the girl begins to sew, she is told to try to make as few mistakes as possible, because ripping out the seams too often will establish bad working habits. She will go to her mother for help only if she cannot figure out for herself how to proceed, and only then will her mother give her explicit directions.

The philosophy behind this is that people should become self-sufficient and think for themselves. There may be a time when there are no people around to ask, and one's survival may depend on being able to improvise.

Sometimes adults may deliberately tell children things that are not true. The purpose of this is to teach children not to believe everything they hear but to think and reason independently. For example, once two Tanaina Athabaskans were out hunting with the son of the teacher in their community. The two Indians were wearing rubber boots and the White boy had on mukluks. They circled around and came back on their own tracks. One man told the boy, "It looks like someone came by here; it looks like two White men and an Indian." The boy agreed. It was only when they followed the tracks back to their own gear that the boy realized he had been fooled. The purpose of this trick was not primarily to joke at the boy's expense; he was being taught in the Athabaskan manner how to think for himself.

An Athabaskan man told this story about his childhood. He was out with a bear-hunting party, and as they were pulling the bear out of its den, his grandfather told him, "Run! Run!" The boy knew the bear was dead but he backed off anyway. Later, when they were eating around the campfire, the men gave the boy some of the meat from near the eye. Eating this delicacy, the boy remarked, "This is good!" only to be asked, "Well, what did you run for?" The boy was not being mocked, he was being educated.

Oral Literature

The Athabaskans have a rich tradition of storytelling. Oral narratives in their culture fulfilled all the functions written literature does in ours, and one of these functions, of course, is education of the young. We will discuss only two of the many kinds of stories here: personal narratives, where the storyteller relates incidents of his own or some close associate's life; and stories of distant time, about events that occurred as the world was being shaped into its present form.

One of the primary functions of personal narratives is to educate the young. Rather than being an excuse to boast about personal achievements, these narratives often recount mistakes the narrator has made. The implied moral of these stories is that young people should not make the same mistakes.

This does not mean that all personal narratives deal with blunders. Many are the stories of very skilled and resourceful people. Narrators tell of successes and subtly emphasize the hard work and positive cultural values that contributed to them. Some narratives describe in detail practical ways of coping with challenges; for example, successful hunters may recount the techniques they used on a hunt.

Stories about the lives of others serve the same purposes. They may tell of others' mistakes, such as breaking a taboo and having to suffer the consequences. Other stories relate the rewards that follow upon courageous or generous behavior. Children usually find these stories frightening or impressive enough that their behavior is influenced for the better. In traditional Athabaskan culture, children were not usually told explicitly how to behave, but stories did a good job of getting points across indirectly.

Athabaskan people have, as part of their traditional heritage, stories said to have taken place long ago when animals lived much like people and animals and humans could understand one another's speech. Raven, a powerful but often comical character, dominated many of the events of that time. These stories were and are still used to educate the young.

Distant-time stories give explanations for the present form of the world. More importantly, they instruct as to how one should behave toward the natural environment and toward other beings, both animal and human. In other words, these stories set forth the cosmology and morality of Athabaskan culture. Probably every culture in the world has a body of stories that do this; from the cultures of Europe and the Near East, we are familiar with Greek and Roman mythology and the New Testament.

Besides these functions, the stories provided entertainment and creative activity for people. Listeners delight in the outrageous but predictable behavior of Raven. Many stories are exciting, frightening, or romantic; many depict real situations people still have to deal with at times. The stories were, however, to be taken very seriously; children as well as adults were expected to be quiet and pay attention during storytelling. Bad luck could result from falling asleep or leaving before the story ended.

Children learned the stories by hearing them over and over again. When they had memorized a story, they would be asked to retell it. First they learned simple, short stories with a lot of repetition, and later moved on to longer, more complicated stories.

High Language

The creative use of language in Athabaskan culture occurred in other genres besides stories. We will discuss here riddles, songs, and oratory. It is sometimes difficult for non-Athabaskans to understand what we may call the Athabaskan literary tradition (although "oral literature" is a somewhat contradictory phrase), partly because of the oral nature of this tradition and partly because its genres do not entirely match those of European-American tradition. Distant-time stories, for example, have been variously compared with myth, fiction, poetry, and drama; and there are elements of all these types in most performances of stories. Riddles and songs are similar to European-American lyric poetry; oratory is a genre common to both cultures.

Just as in English, in Athabaskan there are different levels of language. Athabaskans speaking English may refer to the special vocabulary and techniques of creative literature as "high language" or "high words." This kind of speech utilizes metaphorical images and unusual, often archaic words. This kind of language is used primarily by older, experienced speakers in songs, speeches, stories, and riddles; younger, less experienced speakers may have difficulty understanding it. The beauty and meaning of such language is extremely difficult to translate into English, especially because there is almost no one who commands what we may call the highest registers of both Athabaskan and English.


Riddles are the form of Athabaskan oral literature which most directly employ metaphorical language. Each riddle, in fact, is a single, brief metaphor; this form is used to train people in the use of "high language."

While riddling was an important tradition among some Athabaskan groups, it was infrequent or absent in others. The Koyukon, Tanaina, Ahtna, and Upper Tanana all had riddling traditions, but it appears that the Deg Hit'an and the Kutchin did not. There has been no documentation of the tradition in other Alaskan Athabaskan groups.

Riddling was once a serious tradition in European oral literature, too; in folklore, answering a riddle is often a matter of life or death. In American culture today, however, riddles are told primarily by children as jokes, often depending for their effect not on metaphor but on puns (for example, "What's green and sings rock-and-roll music?" "Elvis Parsley").

Athabaskan riddles, on the other hand, are not meant to be jokes, although they can be delightfully entertaining. The answers to them often depend on subtle images and grammatical clues. The pleasure people take in riddling comes from discovering something previously unsuspected or unexperienced in imaginative language.

Riddles were traditionally told at the time of the winter solstice, when people spent much of their time assembled in villages or camps. Here they gathered to tell riddles. Although the riddles themselves were not jokes, riddling sessions were full of merriment. When someone guessed completely incorrectly or made up a comical answer, everyone laughed.

Here are a few examples of Athabaskan riddles. You will notice from these and those in other sources that many riddles refer to the natural environment. Another characteristic is that the images in riddles tend to be visual.

Chief Henry of Huslia told this riddle: "Wait, I see something. Something is acting like a dog that's lapping up broth." (Answer:) "Fire flaring up and down." Here the person guessing must visualize the same image the riddler has, in this case something tongue-like going up and down. Since the Koyukon word for "flame" is itself metaphorical, kkun' tloola', literally "fire's tongue," knowing the Koyukon term helps in guessing the answer.

Another of Chief Henry's riddles is, "Wait, I see something. It looks like a cache that's leaning over in the other world." (Answer:) "A salmonberry." The salmonberry or cloudberry, which grows only one berry to a plant, stands up straight until it ripens and then leans over. Similarly, a cache is built erect but with time may lean to one side. Answering this riddle requires not only a good imagination but also good knowledge of the natural environment.

Athabaskan people sometimes say that they talk in riddles. This is literally true in certain contexts. When someone does not wish to speak of something directly, he or she may use a metaphor as indirect and imaginative as a riddle. There are examples of this kind of speech in Richard Nelson's Make Prayers to the Raven (pages 156, 172, 198). Another example occurs in an unpublished narrative by Chief Henry as he relates what he heard from a Nulato man. In Eliza Jones's translation,

. . . he said, "Something string-like snapped inside the one who sits by my thigh this spring when we were staying in camp at Kk'odaaloyagha." I didn't know what he meant, but my friend William explained to me that he meant his wife had died last spring when they were in spring camp at Kk'odaaloyagha.

The string-like thing referred to is the breath of life. It is not uncommon for people to use figurative language when speaking of deeply serious matters like death; there are a number of such expressions in English, too, which young speakers of the language may not at first understand.

Eliza Jones, in an interview on the KUAC-FM radio program "Chinook," refers to the necessity of imagination in riddling:

You really have to use your imagination for this kind of thing. You see things so differently, like when you look at a snowshoe and think of it as having a head and a tail and all those things. It refers to being really aware of things when you're out walking in the woods ...the birch bark flapping in the wind and so on.

Another of Chief Henry's riddles is, "Wait, I see something. We're whistling along the edge of the bank. (But we never used to whistle a long time ago.)" (Answer:) "The wind blowing on a half-detached piece of birch bark. You know how a half-detached piece of birch bark whistles when the wind is blowing against it."


"High language" is also commonly used when people give speeches. We will give one example of the use of figurative speech in oratory, a speech by Shem Pete, a Tanaina Athabaskan. This speech was given in English and published in the book Exploration in Alaska (Cook Inlet Historical Society). Here Mr. Pete tells of his father's brother who was a medicine man and made a two-part prophecy before the arrival of Americans in Alaska. The first part of the prophecy, that White people would come with boats and flying machines and that many Native people would die of disease, has come true. The second part was that all the Whites would leave Alaska. Mr. Pete quotes his uncle:

"There gonna be white man just like this sand," he pick it up in his hand, the sand. "You fellows gonna be not one place. Few here, few there, all over just scattered along like little berries between them white people. You all the Natives not gonna be staying one place. Be here, there, all over Alaska . . .." (p. 196)

He then tells how the White people will have to leave because of lack of food:

"So I think, what the white man gonna eat out of? They can't live on the berries. They don't know how to hunt. It's gonna be tough for the white man . . .." (p. 196)

In the first statement we see two metaphors, the Whites as numerous as grains of sand and the Natives scattered around like little berries. Although he says "little berries" and describes them as being scattered about, berries are a prized part of the Native diet, so this metaphor expresses the value of the Native people, too. The significance of this image is stressed in the second statement where he says Whites "can't live on the berries," expressing the fact that the Natives will not be able to support the White people.

In former days, Athabaskan people who were adept at using high language would participate in oratorical contests at potlatches and other gatherings. One person would give a speech containing one or more riddles or metaphors, and then another would do the same, answering the first speaker's riddles and posing one of his own. Different people made speeches until one of them could say no more or speak no better than the one before. Winning such a contest was called "sitting somebody down" by the Koyukon Athabaskans.

The oratorical style is not part of the dead past. At almost any potlatch or formal meeting of Athabaskans today, one can hear speeches embodying many elements of the traditional style, even though today the language of the speech may be English to accommodate listeners from other regions or younger generations.


Like riddles, songs use elaborate, controlled poetic or "high" language. Athabaskan cultures everywhere have many songs, some of them passed down from time immemorial and others composed by people of today. The best collection of Alaskan Athabaskan songs that has been published is that by Madeline Solomon, Koyukon, which includes nineteen songs and detailed notes on each.

Many Athabaskan songs are composed in honor of a deceased person and performed on the occasion of the memorial potlatch. These songs often refer to some good quality of the deceased which the composer misses. A free translation of the first song in Mrs. Solomon's collection is:

My younger brother,
he was from a well-to-do family;
it was as if they leaned on riches.
Why did it (the water) take him?
Why did it take him?
My younger brother,
remember, people depended on them (his family) as a house needs corner-posts.

The third line and the final line both compare the deceased man and his family to a support on which others lean. The repeated central lines literally translate as, "Why did it (the water) take them." Thus the song praises not only the deceased but also his family. In a figurative sense, his death has meant the dissolution of what his family once was, so that the community grieves not only for the loss of an individual but also of a unified family. Either a literal or a free translation gives some of the sense of the song, but not its full meaning.

The Present Condition of Alaskan Athabaskan Languages

To understand the Athabaskan language situation in Alaska today, we must realize that it varies from region to region. To begin with, anyone who visits an Athabaskan area will observe that the Native language is spoken mostly by adults. There are, in fact, few children and teenagers anywhere in Alaska who can speak fluent Athabaskan. At Venetie and Arctic Village, there are small children who speak Kutchin; some children at Telida and Nikolai may understand Upper Kuskokwim; and some children in Tetlin and Northway can speak Upper Tanana. When we discuss the survival of a language, we must consider the age of the youngest speakers of the language. If the youngest generation does not speak a language this indicates that the language is not being passed on in the way it has traditionally been during its entire past history, as all languages are passed on, from parent to child, assuring the continuity of the language.

The process of language shift occurs when there is a discontinuity, when the child has a first language different from that of his parents. Most Alaskan Athabaskan children have English as their first language, even though their grandparents probably grew up speaking Athabaskan. The consequences of language shift vary with the situation. Among immigrants to the United States, for example, most grandchildren of immigrants learned to speak English better than the language of the "old country" (which they may not have learned at all), but this shift affected only the immigrant groups and not their ancestral language overall. That is, even if many or most Greek-Americans do not speak Greek, that language continues to be used in Greece as it has been for centuries. The kind of language shift occurring among Athabaskans functions similarly to that found among immigrants, but its effect is totally different. If a language does not continue to be used in its homeland, the shift could result in the death of the language. If an entire population—not mearly emigrants or particular segments of society—abandon their language, the language is not renewed by being passed on and will eventually have no speakers.

A language with few or no children who speak it is called a moribund language, and if this situation is not changed, it will be a dead language, one with no native speakers. When a language dies, extensive written records of it may remain (as with Latin), or else nothing may remain. Writing and modern devices like tape-recording and video recording serve to document a language, but they cannot maintain it as a creative medium. In Alaska, one language that has been recorded is already dead; this is Eyak, an Indian language of Prince William Sound distantly related to Athabaskan, of which only two partial speakers remain, living in different towns, so that the language is no longer used.

Language death is a tragic situation. People whose language is being lost may feel this loss very strongly. The last speakers of a language experience great loneliness, without people to communicate with in their native language and lamenting the end of a long cultural tradition. Anna Nelson Harry expressed this feeling of isolation very effectively in her "Lament for Eyak," published in In Honor of Eyak, pp. 155-157. Part of her lament, in English translation, is this:

Around here,
that's why this land,
a place to pray,
I walk around.
I try to go there.
alone around here I walk around on the beach at low tide.
I just break into tears.
I sit down on a rock.
Only the Eyaks,
the Eyaks,
they are all dying off. . .

why is it I alone,
just I alone have survived?
I survive.

Members of an ethnic group who have not learned the old language often feel deprived of their cultural tradition and feel alienated from their ancestral community. People outside the group who appreciate its culture regret the loss, for the loss of a language means the loss of a unique cultural treasure in the world, which thereby takes another step toward "monoculture," the prevalence of one dominant language and culture where once there were many.

If few or no children in Alaska speak Athabaskan, then almost no one here is learning an Athabaskan language as his native language and the future of the languages is at best uncertain. If it is any consolation, some Athabaskan languages in Canada and the southwestern United States remain quite strong. In fact, the number of Navajos who speak their Athabaskan language is larger than the entire Athabaskan population of Alaska.

History of contact with European-American society

The peoples and languages of Alaska were profoundly affected by European and European-American incursion. Contact can be divided into the Russian period, 1741-1867, and the American period, 1867 to the present. (See Michael Krauss's Native Languages of Alaska: Past, Present, and Future for a detailed historical account.) Russian rule in Alaska had the deepest impact on Aleuts and Yupik Eskimos, but also was important for some Athabaskans, especially the Tanaina of Cook Inlet, who were enslaved and exploited as fur-hunters for the Russian America Company. Other Athabaskans had contact with Russian traders and the technology they introduced.

We can get an idea of how much contact different Athabaskan groups had with the Russians by how many Russian loan words exist in each Athabaskan language. Most of these words are nouns borrowed to name items new to Athabaskans, like bullets, matches, flour, and sugar. There are approximately 350 Russian loan words in Tanaina, 85 in Koyukon, 65 in Upper Kuskokwim, and 50 each in Deg Hit'an, Tanana, and Ahtna. The Kutchin, who traded to the east with the Canadians, have none.

The period between 1867 and 1920 was one of military exploration and missionary activity. Explorers had little impact on Athabaskans, but missionaries were a major force of cultural change. Some churches used the Native languages in their literature and services. The Anglicans (Episcopalians) under Robert McDonald began publishing the Bible and other materials in Kutchin in 1873, establishing a minor tradition of Native literacy. They also published materials in Upper Koyukon. Roman Catholics, especially the Jesuit priests along the Yukon, studied Athabaskan languages and printed prayer books and liturgy in Deg Hit'an and Koyukon.

In the late nineteenth century, a concerted effort to influence and change Native Alaskan culture began in the form of missionization. There has been much debate about the role of missionaries and their long-term effects on Alaska, but in any case, it seems clear that most of them misunderstood and failed to respect the traditional systems of beliefs they encountered when they arrived. Of all the outsiders who came to Alaska, missionaries were the first whose goal it was to change the Natives into people like themselves.

The new religion profoundly disrupted traditional Native culture as missionaries introduced foreign ideas and values, presenting them as universal truths when they were actually artifacts of European cultures. They encouraged people to adopt the European-American lifestyle, including dress, table manners, and other kinds of behavior which the newcomers admired in themselves and wished to see mirrored in the people they encountered. This cultural chauvinism was especially merciless in some areas where religious groups fought to eradicate Native music and dancing and the memorial potlatch. At the first Inuit Circumpolar Conference in Barrow in 1977, an Indian leader from Canada told those assembled, "When they come to change you, the first thing they will try to take from you are your drums. Never give up your drums."

The native language was another target of those who thought they would "improve" the Native people of Alaska. Education was to move Native people into the mainstream of American society; this was, of course, not the traditional sort of education by which Naive people trained their children to take their adult roles in society, but European-style classroom education. The teachers were White people from the United States, and the language of instruction was English. The first students came to school speaking only the language of their home, so a bilingual member of the community had to translate in the classroom. Many people who went to school in the early days report that, very understandably, they did not learn much.

Less beneficial to the future of Athabaskan languages were the policies established by the first Commissioner of Education for Alaska (1885-1908), the Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson. He and his colleagues strongly opposed the use of Native languages in churches and schools and believed that Alaskan Natives should be assimilated as quickly as possible into mainstream American culture, which they conceived as an integral system including everything from Christianity and English to hygiene and table manners, all of these customs universally desirable for humanity. When the U.S. Bureau of Education and later the Bureau of Indian Affairs assumed control of Alaskan schools, they continued Jackson's policies. From 1910 on, the use of Native languages was expressly forbidden in American government and mission schools. Children were physically punished for using their own languages at school, and parents were urged to speak whatever English they commanded to their children at home.

Although Jackson's educational philosophy is no longer the official policy of Alaskan schools, many individuals in the educational system, even up to the present day, have been hostile to the use of Native languages.

No schools in Alaska under the Territorial administration encouraged the use of any Native language. Most, in fact, actively discouraged it by punishing children for speaking their own languages, striking them, taping their mouths shut, and isolating individual offenders. Such mistreatment remains a vividly traumatic memory for many middle-aged Native people today. Not only did these attacks on their language strike at the foundations of the children's identity, but the forms the punishment took were violently at odds with accepted behavior in their culture. At the same time, school and government personnel told parents to speak English to the children at home, and fearful that their children would suffer punishment, the parents tried, even though many of them spoke very little English themselves.

It was the intent of the educational system to convince Native people that English was superior to their own languages as a means of communication. Few Alaskans would dispute the usefulness of English to those living here and nearly everyone would agree that English should be taught in the schools. Early educators, however, presented English not as a practical skill but as a moral necessity, thoughtless of the effect that this would have on the local cultures and the self-respect of their people. This effect was indeed profound. As the school and other mainstream institutions have taken over the roles that traditionally belonged to the family and community, traditional activities and customs yielded to foreign ones. Thus children have come to know less and less about the culture of their ancestors.

The European-American educational system has imparted not only facts and skills but also cultural values. This has often created conflict and unease in the very people who were supposed to be helped. The implication that introduced customs, beliefs, and language are superior to indigenous ones has been very disruptive for people who grew up believing in the latter. It is complex enough to learn two sets of attitudes and traditions simultaneously without the added burden of prejudice and cultural dominance.

When a dominant culture is in contact with a minority culture, the minority may come to accept, to some extent, the majority's view of them. This is directly relevant to the change in the status of Athabaskan languages in Alaska. It is oversimplifying to say that parents followed orders and stopped speaking Athabaskan to their children. Rather, parents responded to the devaluation of their culture by outside institutions. Bombarded with negative attitudes, many people no longer felt proud to pass on their language and traditions.

Knowing something of this history is essential to understanding the present linguistic situation. A new teacher in a village will do well to understand some of the mistakes of the recent past, since they have shaped many of the attitudes and practices he or she will encounter. It is to be hoped that such an understanding will prevent continuation and repetition of those mistakes.

Even when overt suppression is not practiced, schools can have negative effects on Native languages. The mere presence of an English-speaking teacher may inhibit expression in the Native language, because out of courtesy, most people will speak only English in the presence of monolingual English speakers. There are other subtle and perhaps even unconscious ways in which teachers may convey negative feelings about the language of the home and community, whether that is Athabaskan or some nonstandard variety of English. In this booklet we hope to explain the workings and effects of language interaction and attitudes toward language, in the hope that some understanding about Athabaskan languages and the linguistic situation in Athabaskan villages will make teachers more positively effective and encourage cooperative efforts toward respect for and continuation of Native languages and cultures.

Teachers coming to an Athabaskan village will notice significant differences between life in rural Alaska and the life they have been used to, differences that require changes in habits and behavior on their part. Many times the material changes, perhaps getting wood and water and keeping warm, are easier to deal with than the equally necessary changes in patterns of social behavior and teaching methods.

For example, a teacher may be puzzled or annoyed on occasions when most of the students seem tired and uninterested. He may become angry and strict. This approach might be appropriate in a larger community, but in a rural village the students' collective behavior may be the result not of a peer conspiracy but of some activity going on in the entire community. During a winter carnival or other celebration, the whole village participates. Children get very little sleep and may come to school exhausted. A teacher who has not alienated himself from the community will be sensitive to such events and not schedule difficult material on these days.

In general teachers should keep in mind the principle that the school is a part of the community. A school can teach its students how to function in mainstream American society without forcing them to renounce their own community. A teacher should guard against giving any conscious or unconscious message to his or her students that the village is something from which to escape. Such messages can come from a superior attitude on the part of the teacher, and it is easy to see how such an attitude might lower a child's self-respect, confidence, and interest in education.