Ninety percent of teachers in Bush schools are non-Native, most of them from
the Lower 48. That, some researchers say, is
one reason most Bush schools fail.
For many, improving the quality of these small schools means delivering Western
education through a Native
filter_indigenous language, storytelling, role models and survival skills.
Native students simply have learning patterns different from those of Westerners,
says Ray Barnhardt, a 25-year University
of Alaska Fairbanks professor. Born into a strong oral tradition, they learn by doing and by interacting.
Non-Native teachers cannot integrate these sorts of Native values into Bush
schools, Barnhardt says. ``They are merely
Native teachers know firsthand the stories, traditions and taboos of their
people, explains Ruth Folger, one of two certified
Athabaskan teachers in Minto. She routinely leads bundled-up 6-year-olds down a path behind Minto School to check
snares for snowshoe hares.
``When you set the snare, what do you have to be careful not to do?'' Folger asks her students one afternoon.
Dewayne Jimmie turns his face up to her: ``Don't step on the trail!''
Just as Folger's mother taught her, she explains how to spot the tracks of
hares that have cut through the birch trees. She
helps the children tie slipknots of wire and attach each to a willow branch and prop it with another so it hangs over the trail.
``This is part of their culture,'' she says. ``So much of it is being lost.''
Yet opportunities to train Natives as high school teachers are dwindling.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks has suspended
admissions for a 20-year-old program that enabled them to stay in their villages while earning secondary teacher certification
through classes offered by telephone and mail.
Gorden Hedahl, dean of UAF's College of Liberal Arts, says the university
is revamping the high school teaching program
for both rural and Fairbanks students. The off-campus elementary teaching program is still in place.
At this point, administrators say they don't know what changes or alterations
they will make. ``It's premature to sound the
alarm,'' Hedahl says.
But educators are alarmed.
``UAF is becoming an increasingly inhospiÄtable place for Native faculty
and students, despite its professed desire to
become `the university of choice for Alaska Natives,' '' Barnhardt wrote in an October memo.
When Barnhardt started the program 20 years ago, there were six Alaska Native
teachers in the state. The university's
program has turned out about 400 Native teachers, he says. Last year the state had 231 Native teachers in the Bush. ``We are
cutting off rural student access to the programs that are of greatest need in rural Alaska at a time when we are just beginning
to see the long-term payoff for the efforts of the past 20 years."
Jack Londonesque adventure lures many non-Native teachers to the Bush. ``We're
here because we like the lifestyle,'' says
Andrea Berg, who came north from faster-paced Salt Lake City with her husband, Kraig, three years ago to teach in Minto.
Together, the Bergs comprise half the high school teaching staff. The couple uses the school's cross-country ski trail, takes
snowmachine trips into the hills and fishes for pike. Andrea has learned to bead earrings and suncatchers and has tried dog
Pay is another draw. First-year teachers make $31,000 on average_the highest
starting pay in the nation. The average salary
for long-term teachers in rural Alaska is nearly $50,000, second only to Connecticut.
Yet they tend to distance themselves from the village. Their workload, unfamiliarity
with Native culture and isolation from
peers can overwhelm teachers new to the Bush. Most decide to leave.
While teachers work an average of 11 years in Fairbanks schools, in the Bush they last about three years.
``You're putting a three-year cap on how much progress you can make in improving
the system,'' Barnhardt says. ``You
don't have any continuity.''
One year the teacher may be a strict disciplinarian, the next year a pushover.
A teacher interested in photography might start
a yearbook; next year's replacement might emphasize sewing and leave the darkroom to gather dust.
Teaching six topics a day does not leave much time for visiting neighbors,
teachers say. Typically, one teacher handles
English, social studies and history classes, while another takes on science and math classes. In about 60 small rural schools,
one teacher does it all. They all complain of too little prep time and long hours.
As for housing, they are cordoned off in trailers and cramped apartments, usually next to the school.
A sense of adventure is a prerequisite for living in these conditions. A few
teachers must haul drinking water to cabins with
outhouses. Others live in trailers nearly impossible to heat.
In the Yukon River village of Rampart, one teacher lived in quarters next
door to the school's science lab. His apartment
smelled like rat feces.
Farther north in Bettles, principal/teacher Chuck Wright, who arrived with
his family in August, does not have enough
bedrooms for his four children who attend the school. They make do with curtain dividers. Eight-year-old Naomi's bedroom
is a kitchen; her stuffed animals huddle in the sink and her folded clothes are in cabinets where cups and saucers should be.
The Wrights are not sure they will stay.
Darryl Nikolai's black rubber boots crunch across the early spring tundra
outside Arctic Village. He carries a limp duck by
the neck in one hand, a gun and fishing pole in the other. A flock of geese cruises overhead.
``Caw,'' he beckons.
Wearing his sweatshirt hood pulled over a baseball cap, Darryl trudges the
same land where his father taught him how to
It's a bright spring afternoon and the 16-year-old has just been excused from
math class. His teacher at Arctic Village
School understands Darryl must fish and hunt ducks for his widowed mother.
Bush teachers regularly make such allowances for their students. In the fall,
moose hunting can detain students for two
weeks. In the far-north Inupiaq schools, attendance plummets in the spring when students help in the whale hunts.
School sports also empty the classrooms. Basketball players travel hundreds
of miles by twin-engine airplane just to play at
the nearest school.
Another challenge is that under federal law all schools must include students
with fetal alcohol syndrome and other
disabilities. In the multi-grade classrooms of Bush schools, that means even more demands on a teacher's time.
Despite these challenges, non-Native teachers can succeed at village schools,
says Arizona transplant Lynn Mooney, in her
fourth year at Arctic Village School.
It depends on what each village wants for their children's education, she says.
``I can't speak their language and I can't teach their culture,'' she says.
``They have us here to expose them to the other
culture so they'll be able to compete in it.''
Arctic Village residents like the school's mix of three white teachers, one
Native teacher and one Native teacher's aide, she
says. But if a village wants to emphasize Native culture in schools, it needs Native teachers, she says. ``The reality is there
aren't enough Native teachers to go around.''
Mooney is learning the culture through her students. One October afternoon,
she stands at the gymnasium door, looking out
at bright-colored blurs on the riverbank.
``Hey Rocky! Catch anything?'' she yells in the direction of four 10-year-olds with fishing poles.
``Lynn! C'mon!'' comes the reply.
Mooney, obeying the high-pitched yells, ties a fox fur hat under her chin
and hikes down the path with Brooke, her
Later that night, the boys knock on Mooney's door. They have brought the fish
for her to clean and fry up for them_a ritual
that lasts past 7:30 p.m.
``Most of the time it's fun, but it can be real exhausting, too,'' Mooney says. ``They all know I go to bed by 9 o'clock.''
Bringing back language takes committed effort
The aboriginal Maori of New Zealand once despaired over losing their traditional language.
Fifteen years ago, children were not taught Maori in schools and their parents
couldn't speak it. English was fast taking
So in 1982, a group of elders volunteered to start preschool ``language nests,''
called kohanga reo. They spoke only
Maori to the youngsters, who caught on quickly and went home speaking Maori. Parents, in turn, began taking night
classes in Maori to keep up with their children. That led to a demand for similar programs in public schools.
By 1993, some 809 language nests had mushroomed across New Zealand.
The story captivates Alaska Native leaders like Will Mayo, president of the
Tanana Chiefs Conference, who wants a
similar program for Athabaskans. ``On a zero budget, they just started immersing these 1-, 2-, 3-year-olds in the
language,'' Mayo says, his eyes widening. ``It's a beautiful success story.'' Mayo is angry, he says, that he cannot speak
his Athabaskan language.
``The challenge is, how do you bring it back?'' Mayo says. ``To me, children are the hope.''
A few villages on St. Lawrence Island and around Bethel still teach their
Eskimo languages to their children as a primary
tongue. But no villages teach children Gwich'in, Koyukon, Haida, Tlingit, Aleut or the more than a dozen other
endangered Native languages at home.
Some schools do have Native language programs that devote a few minutes a
day to memorizing words and phrases, but
experts question their effectiveness. ``No one should imagine that 15 minutes a day, no matter how well taught, is going
to make fluent speakers out of a child,'' says linguist Michael Krauss, the head of the Alaska Native Language Center at
the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Some say the death of Native languages cannot be stopped.
``It's inescapable,'' says Morris Thompson, president of Doyon Ltd.
Native Alaskans don't need their traditional language to be Native, he says.
``We're a very oral people. So the practices,
customs, beliefs, stories still make us Native people.''
But Krauss maintains that even limited programs could keep ceremonial elements
of Native languages alive. And those
languages, then, could be saved. The linguist points to the successful revival of Hebrew in Israel as a hope for Alaska.
Back in the late-1800s, when European Jews were migrating to Palestine as part of the Zionist movement, Hebrew was
spoken only in religious ceremonies. In 1892, children were immersed in Hebrew in primary school.
By 1916, a countrywide census showed that 40 percent of the population_mostly
young people_spoke Hebrew. Since
Israel became a nation in 1947, Hebrew has become the dominant language.
``The case of Hebrew shows with sufficient commitment and tremendous determination
people can reverse language
loss,'' Krauss says.
Among Alaska Natives, Krauss sees more and more of that determination. ``The later it gets, the more people care.''
The first steps have already been taken. UAF's Alaska Native Language Center
continues to document words, grammar,
stories, writing systems and songs of the state's aboriginal languages in dictionaries and textbooks.
Tanana Chiefs Conference won a federal grant this year to plan language revival
programs in 20 Athabaskan villages. The
hope is to expand the language effort to train teachers and develop learning materials.
``I don't want to speak my language with an American accent,'' Mayo says.
``I would rather speak English with an Indian
"On the Edge: Do Bush Schools Measure Up?"
By Wendy Hower and Kristan Kelly, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Part Two
HOONAH_Jennie Lindoff used to be punished for speaking Tlingit in school. Now she's paid to teach it.
``One word and they put soap in my mouth and made me sit in the corner and
I didn't know why,'' says Lindoff, 76, an elder
in this Southeast island town. ``They used to beat kids with sticks_ruler.''
Even after she left school in the fourth grade, Lindoff felt it was impolite
to speak Tlingit, so did not teach it to her two
Many Native elders tell similar stories. From 1910 to 1970, in schools run
by missionaries, the federal Bureau of Indian
Affairs and, later, the state, teachers quashed Native language in their classrooms.
Scholars call it linguicide.
It's one of the broken promises of the Molly Hootch decision, which sought
to preserve Native language and culture through
the creation of village high schools.
Instead, the 210 rural high schools emphasize Western values, overshadowing
indigenous languages and beliefs. They have
non-Native teachers, the language is English the textbooks are filled with unfamiliar images.
``The modern public schools are not made to accommodate differences in world
views but to impose another culture_their
own,'' says Oscar Kawagley, a Yupik education professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Languages, the link between culture and a successful education, have suffered the most.
Of the 200 or so Native villages in Alaska, parents generally speak to their
children in their traditional language in just 20,
located in the Bethel area and on St. Lawrence Island, according to UAF linguist Michael Krauss.
In 1970, before the Molly Hootch settlement, children were learning their Native language in 37 villages.
It's time to act, Krauss says. ``How do you make people care before it's too late?''
The traditional practice of passing language on through generations has disappeared
from all Athabaskan villages in Alaska.
Arctic Village was the last Interior village where parents spoke to their children in Gwich'in Athabaskan rather than English.
``These languages are Alaska's heritage,'' Krauss says. ``And if we lose any one of them, we are all impoverished.''
Rather than trying to wipe out language, the government now spends money to
save it. Native-dominated school boards and
village parents want their children learning Native language in school. The federal and state governments agree.
Yet most bilingual programs are superficial, teaching only words and phrases.
Ten minutes a day in each elementary class,
Lindoff teaches the children: ``Waa sa iyatee''_How are you doing?
``Ax toowu sigoo''_I am happy.
``Waa sa iduwasaakw''_What is your name?
Students don't learn the grammar to construct a sentence. Uncertified bilingual
aides and elders come in from the
community, many of them unfamiliar with teaching methods and given little time.
That's how Lindoff found herself back in Hoonah classrooms, teaching the Tlingit
she refused to have taken from her. As
she was hired, she pointed out the irony to her new employer: ``Why should I teach Tlingit language when they didn't want
us to learn Tlingit?''
Teaching Native language in school is important for academic reasons, proponents
say. Studies show that students who
learn their indigenous language first will do better later with the dominant language and their overall education.
A 1982 study in Northwest Territories, Canada, for example, found that learning
their aboriginal language enabled students
to learn more effectively about every other subject in the curriculum.
Carol Williams, Lindoff's niece and the Native education coordinator for Hoonah
City School District, says language is the
essence of culture. To understand the Tlingit heritage, people must be able to speak and understand the language. English
simply cannot express some Tlingit values.
``We have hundreds of ways of expressing endearments to each other,'' she says. ``But we have no word for goodbye.''
Pioneer efforts to preserve Native language are under way in two remote regions.
Far north in Barrow, one elementary school offers only Inupiat Eskimo to preschoolers
and kindergartners and has plans to
expand the program for its older grade-schoolers.
So-called ``whole-language immersion'' has progressed further in Yupik Eskimo
villages near Bethel, because the language
is spoken in most homes there.
Teachers conduct classes in Yupik through the sixth grade in some places.
A new kindergarten program in Bethel strives to make fluent Yupik speakers
of youngsters who walk in speaking English.
The district hopes to carry the program through elementary school.
Such language programs are an anomaly in Alaska. No high school offers any
of Alaska's aboriginal languages as a foreign
In Hoonah High School, German is the only language offered. ``After fifth
and sixth grade they're just not interested'' in
learning Tlingit, Lindoff says. Teens don't have time for an ``obsolete'' language, explains shop teacher Gordon Greenwald,
45, who is Tlingit. ``Why doesn't everyone drive a Model A Ford?''
Outside formal language classes, students feel shy repeating the guttural
Tlingit sounds, he says. ``It's a waste of time to
them, it's so hard.'' Greenwald should know.
His own grandmother tried to teach him Tlingit when he was a boy, but he wasn't
interested. His friends always seemed to
be calling for him to play basketball or go cruising.
Only now that Grandma is gone and he can't understand the welcome speeches
at potlatches does he regret never learning
``Grandma, I'm ready to sit down and talk now,'' he says. ``I see the need.
There's something in the culture I'm missing
because I can't get it all.'' Hundreds of miles north, on the Yukon River, the last Koyukon Athabaskan speaker living in
Rampart died last spring. That shook Georgianna Lincoln, the Democratic state senator from that village, beyond the grief
for a favorite auntie. For five years, she has futilely tried to push through an Alaska Native language bill.
The bill would have required state-certified language teachers in kindergarten
through 12th grade, upon approval by new
language advisory boards in each village.
``Unless action is taken,'' Lincoln's bill reads, ``by the year 2055 only
five of the 20 Alaska Native languages will be spoken
by anyone, and soon thereafter the Native languages of Alaska may vanish.''
She wants Native languages taught in village high schools with the same legitimacy
that larger high schools teach Russian,
Japanese, Chinese and French. She is angry she can't speak Athabaskan. And she scoffs at the current language efforts that
teach kids words and phrases.
``It's not language.''
Her bill never made it to the floor last session. Senate Majority Leader Rick
Halford, who helped block the bill, argues the
state Constitution cannot allow a racially biased mandate for public schools.
Lincoln pegs the resistance as racism. ``I think there's a real fear ... by legislators that the villages will get too strong.''
In Minto, another Athabaskan village, former village chief Luke Titus dismisses a government solution.
``The Legislature can talk all they want about Native language, but it's up
to the communities to teach it,'' says Titus, a social
worker in the village. ``Nowadays even the elders don't talk our language.''
The village is pressing on without the high school. Elder Ellen Frank, the
only villager who can read and write Lower Tanana
Athabaskan, this year began teaching a weekly language class. Yet only four Native women and two non-Native teachers
``Few people participate in what is a really good opportunity there,'' says UAF linguist James Kari.
It's a conundrum. Natives say they want to learn their language, but many
don't take the time. The reasons, he says, harken
back to missionary days and the mistreatment of Native students and denigration of Native culture.
``I don't think we've overcome this grieving yet, and we probably won't for another generation.''
In village high schools, the Western way is the way to success. This message
undermines the villages by encouraging the
young to leave. Instead, Native leaders say, students should be taught in school that the Native way is as valuable.
It's been that way since the beginning. Molly Hootch schools were cast from
the same mold as suburban high schools.
When Alaska built its rural schools 20 years ago, few thought about the effects on Native culture.
Attorney Chris Cooke, who argued the Molly Hootch case, says people were more
interested in the location of the building
than writing a curriculum for the unique circumstances of Bush communities and students. ``It seems like the means became
``There wasn't a proper amount of attention given to content_the focus was
on the hardware,'' says Cooke. ``I think that
challenge is still there.''
Schools groom students for college and, ultimately, work that doesn't exist
in Interior villages, where unemployment often
runs about 60 percent.
A few high school graduates do find work in villages. In the schools it might
be answering phones, baking lasagna in the
cafeteria or pushing a vacuum cleaner through the halls. Around town, it might be at the clinic, village council, post office or
University research shows 70 percent of village high school graduates stay at home; most are unemployed.
``We want people to stay in the village, but there are no jobs that would
be competitive enough for them to stay here,'' says
Titus of Minto. ``They go where the good jobs are.''
Teachers push students toward Western occupations: arguing law in marble-floored
courtrooms, balancing corporate books,
programming computers, practicing medicine. A poster in Galena High School's student lounge touts one of the benefits: a
six-car garage filled with sports cars under the caption, ``Justification for Higher Education.''
Such images epitomize the clash of cultures inside Bush high schools.
While non-Natives emphasize getting ahead, Native storytelling extols sharing.
Mainstream America's excesses of cash, fast
food and racy cars are at odds with the subsistence tradition of gathering just enough fish and meat to carry the extended
family through winter.
``The Native and white cultures should have never met,'' Titus says of the two cultures. ``One takes and one gives.''
Some Natives do succeed, straddling both worlds. Professor Kawagley is a fluent
speaker of Yupik, also known as Yupiaq,
and has a doctorate in social and education studies. He is trying to help his people by redesigning Bush education.
Sitting in his university office chair, Kawagley raises his arms, carving
ripples in the air and stamping his feet to demonstrate
his Yupik dance to a visitor. Outside, a flock of cranes clears the treetops.
Yupik dance is as important to the education of Yupik students as Shakespeare_
should be treated that way in Bush schools,
he says. Incorporating Native ways is the only way for village students to succeed in both cultures.
``They will have a firm foundation as to who they are,'' he says. ``Work proudly,
their head up, very confident, but with
Western culture still has a place in Bush schools, says Will Mayo, president
of the Native-run Tanana Chiefs Conference. It
makes no sense, he says, to return to the nomadic life of his grandparents. ``No culture is static.'' Native culture can
withstand modern elements like basketball star Michael Jordon, Mayo says. But Natives should not throw away their
traditions while fading into mainstream America.
``Our culture,'' he says, ``is suffering.''
The gymnasium at Arctic Village School echoes with slap-slapping hands on the walls and sneakers pounding the floor.
Seventeen-year-old Serena Tritt is laughing, shuffling her feet and waving
her arms in the Raven Dance. She is a raven
swooping around a slain caribou, plucking juicy meat from its bones.
``Hee hee, haa hee,'' she sings, ``haa hee, yaa'ee.''
Half an hour later, Serena has caught her breath. She sits quietly at a wood
shop bench, working her pencil through the
Scholastic Assessment Test. Her teacher is administering the test this Friday afternoon because he doubts the students
would show up Saturday for the official test time.
Serena hopes her SAT scores will be worthy of Yale University. ``I don't want to stay in Alaska all my life.''
Serena's schooling has enticed her to want a life far beyond this place in
the foothills of the Brooks Range where caribou far
outnumber people. She dreams of going to an Ivy League college.
``I want to go out and explore the other places,'' she says. ``I want to be a lawyer or a doctor.''
Last winter, Serena got her chance to leave. She weathered part of a miserable
sophomore year at Chemawa Indian School in
Oregon. School officials kicked her out for drinking, but Serena explains it as a larger problem. ``I got homesick, so I came
She missed the familiar craggy domes surrounding the village. She missed gathering
wood, going camping and sharing
moose burgers at the kitchen table with her mother and two younger sisters.
Back in Arctic Village, she still feels the pull of wanting to be somewhere else.
At a spring 1993 potlatch, elders pad across the school gymnasium in their
beaded, caribou-skin moccasins. As custom
dictates, they are first in line. The whole village has turned out with covered dishes. Two girls are the first high school
graduates in six years for this school of about 50 students.
Across the room, Serena sits with friends around a laser karaoke player. They
pay no attention to their elders, who murmur
to one another in Gwich'in as they eat Stove Top stuffing, roast chicken and frybread. Serena holds up the microphone to
her dark-red lips and sings like Tina Turner.
``What's love got to do, got to do with it?''