About the www.Alaskool.org project and its developers

Foundations of the Alaskool Web Site

By Bill McDiarmid, Director
Institute of Social and Economic Research
University of Alaska Anchorage

John Pingayaq and the Chevak Curriculum
In 1980, I was hired as the Title I teacher for the Chevak School. The Chevak Traditional Council had just contracted with the Borough of Indian Affairs (BIA) to operate its K-12 school, the first K-12 BIA school in the country to be run by a tribal council. Elsewhere, Tribal Councils had contracted to operate elementary schools but no one had tried to run their own secondary school. From my classroom -- a converted supply closet -- I could hear John Pingayaq’s social studies students drumming and singing in class down the hall. Walking by his room, I had seen his students learning traditional dances.

I was immediately intrigued. As I worked with my own students, I could see that many of them had difficulty connecting to the curriculum developed in the Lower 48. The curriculum did not represent the students, or any people they knew. We might as well have been teaching Latin.

What John was doing made sense: Start from where the students are -- and work out. On the surface, this appears to be an old social studies curriculum idea. But what made John’s approach different was the concreteness and immediacy of the community in the curriculum. In John's classroom, community was not an abstract concept. Through activities and stories, he made students aware of the ways in which the "people of the Qassuniq" had built and nurtured community for thousands of years. Sustaining life materially and physically was inextricably intertwined with the profound spirituality and values that gave life its glow and meaning.

During a seal-hunting trip, I asked John if he had written down his curriculum any place. He had just started to do this. Some twenty years later, he has made his curriculum available on the Alaskool Web site. A treasure of information on the people of the Qassuniq, it is also a story of the values and spirit that has sustained the people.

Paul Ongtooguk and the ANCSA Curriculum
A couple of years later, I taught in the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Native high school juniors spent three weeks at UAF during the summer to develop their classroom skills and get a taste of college life. The faculty were demanding – and the students responded with hard work. Paul Ongtooguk also taught in RAHI. Impressed with both his teaching practice and curriculum, I listened closely when he talked in our frequent faculty meetings.

From Paul I learned about the ANCSA curriculum that he was involved in developing in Kotzebue. Paul argued that while Native students needed to know about their past and their culture, they also needed to know about the political and legal organizations and structures in which they lived. Most were shareholders in Native corporations as well as members of IRA organizations. To be effective members of these organizations, they needed to understand where they came from and what their powers were.

The Birth of Alaskool
When funding became available through the U.S. Department of Education to support curriculum development, I convinced Paul and John to seek funds with me to make their curricula and other curricula materials available to teachers and students throughout Alaska and the world via the Internet. John was deeply skeptical, ambivalent about the idea of making the knowledge and ideas of his people freely available to all. Only gradually, as he saw the materials to which we could provide access, was his skepticism replaced by enthusiasm.

The Alaskool Team
Although John, Paul, and I had plenty of ideas about what should be on the new site, none of us had the technical expertise to pull off the project. We quickly realized we needed help. We hired Suzanne Mendenhall Sharp to be the project manager. An Iñupiat from Northwest Alaska, Suzanne brought experience of working on Native curriculum, her Masters in Public Administration, and tolerance for our less-than-linear approach to planning and development. She has proved resourceful and persistent in the tedious job of getting copyright permissions for all the materials we put on the Web site. She has also overseen the development of the language section, understanding the importance of making dictionaries, phrase books, audio files, books, and stories in Native languages. This has quickly become one of the most popular areas of the site.

Recently, Priscilla Hensley has joined Suzanne. A dancer with a flair for design and, yes, another Iñupiat from the Northwest, Priscilla has helped Suzanne manage the project and is working on the arts and dance section. In addition, Mary Killorin, a lawyer by training, has been relentless in tracking down documents for the site.

To ensure the cross-cultural content of the site, we recruited Jim Kerr, an Athabaskan, to oversee the technical aspects of the Web site. Through the project, Jim has become engaged in learning the language of his people, Deg Xinag. The primary designer has been Katie Eberhart, whose mastery of Web technology got us up and running in 1998 and has sustained us. Her particular interest has been developing the interactive aspects of the site.

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