Education and Cultural Self-Determination

by Paul Ongtooguk, a son of Tommy Ongtooguk, Presentation to the 2003 AFN Youth and Elders Convention

Tommy Ongtooguk

Thank you for the privilege of sharing in this meeting in which we have all been gathered to consider the great challenges facing us as Alaska Natives. The issue of this conference of the Alaska Federation of Natives is central to the future success of Alaska Native peoples.

Our very existence as distinct peoples within Alaska—the very existence of our communities—rest on how we answer the challenge of this conference: education and cultural self-determination. For the last thirty years we have avoided the heart of the dilemma about being Alaska Natives in this world at this time.

Our political leaders in the 1960s were caught up in the conflicts and threats resulting from federal and state governments and many other people taking Alaska Native lands — lands and waters we had been living on for countless generations. We accepted our life on these lands and waters as blessings with enough hard challenges to press the very best efforts from us as people. Many of the Elders here today are offering to share with us all the lessons of our ancestors and what the land, the waters and the animals have to share with us. The world is more than money and there are lessons we can best learn as a part of the world our cultures have grown up within.

Our schools were originally intended to break the connection we had to our lands and waters and to break the spirit within us that keeps us nurtured as Alaska Native peoples. Schools tried to cut out of our minds our distinct understanding of the world and our place within it. Schools tried to erase Alaska Native cultures from the world. Most tragically, schools tried to erase being Alaska Native from the hearts of our young people. Fortunately for us and for the world, the heart of being Alaska Native could not be erased. In many places our Elders and some very tough parents ignored the falsehoods put forward in schools about Alaska Natives being primitive or savage.

Our young people learned very different lessons at home, at fish camps, at hunting camps, at potlatches, around traditional feasts and during ceremonies. Some of our young learned from the lessons of traditional dances and even from within the folds of some culturally friendly churches.

Most of all our young people learned through the lives of Elders who demonstrated the importance of giving to the community as more important than gathering for oneself. The best Elders taught with their lives the value of sharing as more important than taking. The Elders also taught there was more to life than others would have us learn. The lesson of developing what one Elder, William Oquilluk, called the power of imagination ( has been essential in allowing us to exist and grow as Alaska Native peoples. We must learn again to imagine more than what is taught in our schools and on TV. We must again reject the lesson of ignorance about being Alaska Native.

The challenge of cultural selfÐdetermination will not be won by the Native corporation with the biggest bank account. A good future for the next generation of Alaska Natives will not be established on winning some lawsuit. A political win will not produce cultural victory. Success in business, in politics and in the courts is important for Alaska Native people to exist with dignity in this world today, but while these are necessary they are not sufficient.

With the creation of Regional Education Attendance Areas (REAAs) Alaska Native peoples won the promise of some measure of self-determination and control over the education of rural Alaska Native young people. This was a new and uncertain task 27 years ago as Alaska Native communities began to take over our schools. We, as Alaska Native communities, were so happy that our young people might not have to leave anymore to acquire an education, we just wanted our young people to be as happy as we were at simply being together.

For years many of our Alaska Native communities had not experienced having young people living within our lives all year round. In some ways we seem to have forgotten how to help young people learn about their responsibility in contributing to the community. I think some of us expected the expert teachers to raise our young people as boarding home schools had raised us. We live in the midst of this challenge today.

It's been 27 years since the REAAs were formed and 37 years since the Alaska Federation of Natives was formed, and finally the issue has been raised about Alaska Native education and cultural self-determination. I think we can put this issue into some direct questions for our communities, our schools, our teachers and most importantly ourselves.

By the time our young people graduate from school what will they be expected to know about our cultures? What will Alaska Native young people learn about us? What should Alaska Native young people learn about us? For schools and teachers and communities that think they are doing pretty well on this issue consider these questions:

How many of our Alaska Native high school graduates will have read any—ANY—Alaska Native author? Most current Alaska Native graduates will not have had a single essay, speech, novel, short story, legend, oral history, piece of poetry or anything written by an Alaska Native during their 12 years of schooling.
How many Alaska Native young people can name an Alaska Native leader and what that leader fought for on our behalf?
How many Alaska Native young people know their Alaska Native organizations and why they were created? Too many of our young people are not being given the chance to learn about us. The shame is not theirs—it belongs to all of us.
As youth and Elder delegates you can stand up and say this is wrong. We must reverse the direction of schools. Schools and communities must come together and ensure the opportunity to learn about our own history, Alaska Native leaders and oral traditions that, in some cases, Alaska Native organizations have spent millions of dollars preserving and yet the lessons of our Elders still remain silent in most of our schools.

I think the Youth and Elders Convention should ask the business and tribal delegates to address the theme of this year's convention first before they get lost for another year in the politics and money issues that so often preoccupy them. We need commitment to change. I suggest a new resolution asking the other delegates to begin answering the questions:

"What should Alaska Native young people learn about us? What organizations, leaders, legends, poetry, stories, oral history, political and social issues should we learn about as young people? No professional educators can answer these questions for us, nor should they. We, as Alaska Natives, together should begin to ask and then answer the questions ourselves. We have young people in Bethel who do not know who Jackson Lomack or Chief Eddie Hoffman was. We have young people from the Interior who do not know who Morris Thompson or Rosemarie Maher were. We have young people from Southeast Alaska who do not know who Elizabeth Peratrovitch was.

We need a resolution to ensure that education does not come up every ten years or so but sits at the core as a central focus of the Alaska Federation of Natives. In this regard I recommend a resolution calling for a vice-president of education within the Alaska Federation of Natives.

We need a resolution asking AFN to seek funding to coordinate the learning opportunities of the Youth and Elder Convention in ways similar to what CloseÐUp has done for learning about federal and state issues.

We need a resolution coordinating what is taught at cultural camps and after-school programs, changing what is taught in schools and changing what teachers learn about Alaska Natives.

There are many other parts of this issue that must be addressed. We should have a resolution that supports web sites as places to learn and share about our regional and statewide cultures, organizations and issues. We need a resolution to support Alaska Native young people who live outside the state to learn about us. These young people who live outside the state now number in the thousands. While they may be living out-of-state, they have not left our hearts nor have they left the purpose of the AFN Youth and Elders Convention.

We have too many young Alaska Natives who do not feel nor do they learn any sense of connection to our Alaska Native communities. We must ensure that our young people learn key ideas about being Alaska Native, about our communities, about our issues, about our challenges, about our leaders, about heroes, about the tragic parts of our histories and about things for which we can all be rightfully proud. This is not happening. This must change.

Our Alaska Native young people must know that we want them to learn about our rightful place in this world, about the challenges we have faced as peoples and the opportunities they will share. Most of all, our young people must know we care about who they are as well as what they know. We must love and respect our young people enough to share our greatest riches with each one of them. We must share our heritage so they can contribute to it, as well as to each other's and the world beyond. Education and cultural self-determination are one and the same.