of the Alaskool Web Site
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
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
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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