by Willie Hensley at Bilingual Conference
I think that many people do not understand the amount of stress and repression that our Native people in Alaska have been under for many years.
Not only have the Native people had to survive the brutality and outright enslavement by the Russians, weve had to survive the taking of the whale by the tens of thousands, beginning in the 1850s. The walrus was close to decimation when over a hundred thousand were taken after the whale began to disappear-as was the sea otter and the people. And after 200 years we are just beginning to approach the population level we had before the Russians first came here. The Aleuts were virtually close to extinction. Beginning in 1848, with the major outbreak of smallpox coming out of British Columbia, down to the present century, with epidemics of influenza, diphtheria, tuberculosis, our people have been well on the way to extinction, as well as through starvation, when our food source had been shot up.
The tragedy has been that the educational system which we have inherited from the turn of the century has also had as its basis the elimination of the Eskimo, the Indian, and the Aleut people as an identity, as a distinct species of the human race, with their own spirit, their own language, traditions, history, and culture.
In the bureaucracy of the 18th Century, the educational system designed by Sheldon Jackson was "To fit them for the social and industrial life of the white population of the United States and to promote their not-too-distant assimilation." This principle has been the guiding light of Alaskan education practically down to this date. Lets put it this way: perhaps not so much the educators as the system.
Joining in the effort has been the ardent religious missionary spirit which saw eye to eye with the government in this endeavor and brought the zeal for cultural dissipation affecting tribal languages, religion, dance and art. The concentration of recreating the image of western man in the heart and mind of the Native people of Alaska has had the effect of creating stress, disintegration, and disconnection of human ties that bound our society together. The policy of repressing the Native language in the school system has had the effect of repressing the ancient spirit of the people that enabled us to survive over many thousands of years. The values that have been beaten into our people were in direct contrast to the very values that enabled us to survive. In the place of common effort, individuality has been made sacred. In the place of cooperation, competition is fostered. In the place of sharing, acquisitiveness in our lives is pummeled into our minds through the media. It is no wonder that there are so-called Native problems.
To make it clear that this is a human problem that we all face as Alaskans and as Americans, let me reiterate: All Americans came from somewhere else other than the aborigines. That is, the teeming millions from around the globe came to enjoy a new life on lands wrested from the Indians. These people came from ancient cultures with their own spirit, their own language, their own traditions, and their own history.
This they sacrificed when they chose to become citizens of America-a new name, a new identity, a new language, a new set of values. The result-an improvement in material well-being, perhaps. The price-a discontinuity of spirit, the disconnection of human obligations and responsibility that now reflects itself in social problems such as suicides, depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse and being violent.
What Im saying is that in a tribal nation you have human obligations and responsibilities. That is, you are not alone in the world. All this because of the dissipation in our human concern for each other.
What has this got to do with the Conference? With such a bleak review of the situation, is there any hope? Well, I believe there is. With respect to the functioning of our rural schools, I believe that there has to be a complete change in emphasis. Instead of the repeated efforts to disengage the Eskimo, Indian or Aleut student from his heritage or her heritage, their tribal identity and spirit, their language, that expression of that spirit, this identity should be reinforced. His pride in himself and his potential should be unleashed by insuring that complete knowledge of his people is conveyed in the system.
HOW CAN WE MAINTAIN WHO WE ARE IN 20 MINUTES A DAY?
But I also believe that the responsibility is not necessarily the schools. This will require a community participation of an extraordinary kind for in reality the responsibility of conveying a sense of our peoples spirit and the language that expresses it, our traditions, our history and our values is our responsibility. That will require a will to survive as a people. In this instance we will free the western teacher to do the best job possible of helping the students learn the mechanics of analysis and knowledge of their subjects.
The school should not be used as a mechanism for the destruction of human ties a person needs to handle the stresses and strains of modern life. I will suggest that a look inward is required of all our people because the answer to our survival is not in the outer world. No amount of government spending on facilities or media is going to save our children. The only way that I can see to create an energy that will lead us to the promised land of self-acceptance and economic security is to go in two directions at once.
We have to implant the tribal spirit, language, and identity in our young people and we have to create an ethic that will imbue our ancient value of group survival in a modern context. In other words, we have to be the best possible Inupiaq and the most competent seeker and doer that ever hit Alaska.
Reprinted courtesy of William L. Hensley