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Governing Schools in Culturally Different Communities:
Effects of Decentralization in Rural Alaska.
G. Williamson McDiarmid
Thesis from (Ed. D.) Harvard University,
May, 1984.

This chapter, revised from Dr. McDiarmid's doctoral dissertation, provides an overview and introduction to the History of Alaska Native Education.


The history of formal schooling in Alaska is really two stories. One covers the origins and development of schools for those — mostly Euro-Americans — who have immigrated into the country during the last 250 years. The other story is about the imposition of alien educative and institutional forms on the indigenous population of Alaska. Although these stories intertwine — both historically and institutionally — we need to follow them separately. Our focus will be on the latter of the two. Decentralized education in rural Alaska has affected most rural residents; yet, numerically and politically, the effect on indigenous peoples — whether Tlingit, Haida, Aleut, Athabaskan, Yupik, or Inupiat — has been arguably more dramatic than on non-Natives.1

Before Statehood

In the mid-nineteenth century, Russian hunters and traders extended the Czar's domain eastward in search of sea otter pelts to supply the lucrative fur trade with China. They found among the people of western and Southeastern Alaska with whom they first came into contact no evidence of formal schooling. The skills and knowledge necessary to the survival of the people were transmitted within the two most vital institutions in their society — the family and the community.

During the Russian period (1741 to 1867) that followed, the Orthodox Church made sporadic efforts to establish schools at various trading posts in southeastern Alaska. According to Marsh (1967), the church schools operated primarily for the benefit of the children of the clergy and for creoles who wished to enter the priesthood or become lay readers. Russian commitment to Alaska was confined largely to the minimal administrative and military structure necessary to ensure the unencumbered operation of traders, particularly fur traders. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Russian-American Company had gained a monopoly over such trade. In the 1821 charter renewing the Company's exclusive trading rights, the Imperial Government charged the Directors with the responsibility of operating schools (Dafoe, 1978). Eventually, the Company operated three schools in Sitka, its Alaskan headquarters.

The nineteenth century saw the arrival on the Alaska Peninsula of Father Ivan Veniaminoff, who was to exercise the single greatest Russian influence on formal schooling in Alaska. His determination to establish schools and to pressure the Imperial Government for funds produced, by 1868, 17 schools and a $20,000 annual appropriation from the Czar's coffers. Indeed, so successful was Father — later, Metropolitan — Veniaminoff that the Russians continued to spend more on schools in Alaska than did the U.S. government until 1905 (Koponen, 1964).

Father Veniaminoff’s passion for education was equaled only by his secular countrymen’s passion for furs. The fur companies and individual entrepreneurs alike often treated the indigenous populations as mere tools to use in the extraction of wealth. Aleuts on the Alaskan Peninsula were "Impressed" into the service of fur traders who forced the Native men to hunt sea otter. This practice led to the virtual extraction of the sea otter and the declination of the Native Population. Unable to hunt and gather as the seasons dictated because of their servitude to Russian traders, Native men could not provide either the quantity or the balance of food their families needed. Such relationships of exploitation — of both human and natural resources — were to characterize interactions between people of European origins and the indigenous people of Alaska down to recent times. The nature of these relationships and the effects they have had on the indigenous people have shaped the context of policy making down to the present.

After the Russians sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, little changed for the indigenous people. At no time during the Russian period did the number of non-Natives exceed 700 (Naske and Slotnick, 1979:55). After the transaction, the number of non-Natives probably decreased slightly. Indeed, Outside of a few Tlingit and Haida people in Southeastern Alaska, the indigenous residents were unaware of this change in ownership.

Official U.S. government attitudes and policy — such as they were — were dominated by the vague goal of exploiting the as-yet-uninventoried natural resources of the "Great Land." American military commanders took charge of the new acquisition by the simple expedient of stationing soldiers in Sitka and Wrangell. The Russian Church continued to operate a few schools for its communicants, and the American Company — which had inherited the role and many of the assets of the old Russian-American Company — operated two schools in the Aleutians. Governmental organizations were, for the first seventeen years of U.S. rule, conspicuous by their absence. Even an attempt by residents to organize a town government in Sitka met with the disapproval of the military.

Just as the Orthodox Church had appeared to fill the void of schooling during the Russian period, the Presbyterian Church emerged to perform the same function early in the American period. In 1877 and 1878, the Presbyterian Board of Missions planted schools in Sitka and Wrangell, respectively. The energetic Father Veniaminoff also had a counterpart in the person of Sheldon Jackson. Jackson's relationship with Benjamin Harrison, chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories and, subsequently, President, considerably enhanced the churchman’s effectiveness in his efforts to establish schools in Alaska.

Harrison guided a bill through Congress in 1884 — known as the First Organic Act — which, seventeen years after the U.S. first raised their flag in Sitka, provided for some semblance of local government. In addition to defining Alaska as a "district" rather than a territory, the legislation created administrative and judicial posts — governor, district judge, district attorney, marshal, and lesser judges, known as "commissioners" — to be filled by executive appointment. The bill also called upon the Secretary of the Interior to provide education for the children in the district. The Secretary, in turn, charged the U.S. Commissioner of Education with the "needful and proper provision for the education of the children on school age in the Territory of Alaska, without reference to race." (Commissioner’s Report, 1920). This latter phrase is of particular importance because it is so strikingly at odds f(with later legal provision for a "dual system."

The Commissioner of Education appointed Sheldon Jackson as the bureau of Education's general agent for Alaska. Congress provided Jackson with $40,000 to carry out his charge. To conserve these resources, he melded his activities with those of existing religious missions, using the missions' facilities where possible and contracting with the missionaries to teach in the government-funded schools (Marsh, 1967). Jackson also negotiated an agreement among the various denominations that divided the territory into religious "spheres of influence." The opportunity to get a contract from Jackson to provide educational services proved an attractive inducement for various churches to enter the field and agree to forego unseemly "flock-robbing."

By 1888, 13 government schools were in operation — in addition to the 17 Russian Orthodox schools, the 11 schools operated by various American Commercial Company (Commissioner's Report, 1920). Schools had been established on the Kuskokwim, Nushagak, and Yukon Rivers through contracts with Catholic, Moravian, Episcopal, and Presbyterian missions. By 1890, Point Barrow, Point Hope, and Cape Prince of Wales on the Northwest Arctic coast also had their own elementary schools.

Jackson's system of contracting with various missions to deliver educational services worked well enough when there were fewer than 500 non-Natives in the Territory and there was apparently little demand from the indigenous people for western-style education. In 1897, the discovery of gold in the Klondike and, subsequently, in Nome and in the interior of Alaska changed this situation forever. In 1890, there were 25,354 Natives and 4,298 non-Natives in Alaska; by 1900, the non-Natives had overtaken the indigenous people — 30,450 to 29,542 (Rogers, 1963). The gold strikes drew not only thousands of people into the country but, of equal importance, the attention of Congress. New legislation enabled towns with 300 or more inhabitants to create local governments to provide services. The taxing powers of the town were, however, limited to revenues collected from license fees — one-half of which could be applied to education. As a consequence of this legislation, the incorporated towns took upon themselves the education of non-Native children.

Within the next twenty years, sixteen towns incorporated. Amendments to the incorporation legislation provided for the election of local school boards. Community control of non-Native schools in incorporated towns dates from this time. This same legislation applied to schools outside the towns. These revenues were intended to replace the direct allocation Congress previously made for the education of Natives.

After a visit to Alaska, Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota sponsored legislation passed by Congress in 1905, creating the Alaska Fund to be generated from license fees collected outside of incorporated towns. While 70 percent of the fund was earmarked for road construction, 25 percent was allocated to establish and maintain schools outside of the towns for Indian and Eskimo children. Although the origins of the dual school system are traced to this legislation, developments had been tending towards a segregated system for some time. The Governor assumed responsibility for schools in incorporated towns, attended primarily by non-Native children; the Commissioner of Education in Washington, D.C., continued to serve as the delegated agent of the Secretary of the Interior for the education of Native children. The contracting arrangement Jackson had established with various missions was ended and Jackson himself removed from his post.

The non-Native population had grown significantly in the two decades since the first Organic Act in 1884. Increasingly, pro-development forces battled with preservationists like Jackson over the economic and political course the new territory should follow. The year 1906 saw the creation of a road commission and the first territorial election — for a delegate to Congress. In 1909, during tile Taft administration, a legislative commission — composed of the governor, attorney general, and commissioners of interior, mines, education, and health — was formed, the first legislative body in the territory. Although all of the elements of home rule were present by 1909, the indigenous people of Alaska had been, at best, marginally involved in creating nascent administrative organization.

Nationally, social policy in "Indian affairs" was, at this time, governed by an image of indigenous people as "strangers from within" just as the image of immigrants was of the "strangers from without" (Cohen, personal communication, 1977). This first decade of the twentieth century witnessed the greatest influx of immigrants any nation has seen (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1965). Public officials, school people, and social commentators watched this rising human tide of strangers with apprehension. Unlike earlier immigrants from western and northern Europe, these later immigrants spoke southern and eastern European tongues and lacked political experience with representative forms of government (Cubberly, 1909:13-15). The school system had to adjust to these "strangers from without." As Dr. Ellwood Patterson Cubberly of Stanford wrote at the time, the task of the schools was:

. . . to break up these groups or settlements, to assimilate and amalgamate these people as part of our American race, and to implant in their children, so far as can be done, the Anglo Saxon conception of righteousness, law and order, and popular government, and to awaken in them a reverence for our democratic institutions and those things in our national life which we as a people hold to be of abiding worth (Cubberly, 1909:15).

This assimilationist ideology applied equally to the "stranger from without" as to the "stranger from within." To this end, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) developed a boarding school system; by 1881, 68 such schools throughout the country had been opened and were attended by some 3,888 students (Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1881). The purpose of the boarding schools as well as the reservation day schools was "the preparation of Indian youth for assimilation into the national life by such a course of training as well as to prepare them for the duties and privileges of American citizenship)" (Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1890). The boarding school also represented the most efficient system for assimilating the Indian — and efficiency was a by-word of the day. This image of indigenous people as "strangers from within" would dominate policy-making in education for the first quarter of this century (Szaz, 1974).

During the Wilson administration, Progressives in Congress encouraged Alaska's desire for increased self-determination. In 1912, the Second Organic Act created a territorial government — albeit one with very limited powers. Conservationists had successfully pressured lawmakers to reserve to the federal government control over land and natural resources.

In the evolution of American Indian policy, the 1930s marked if not an end to paternalism at least a temporary reversal of assimilation (Szaz, 1974:38). A sharply critical study of the Indian Bureau, the Meriam report, and the reform efforts of Commissioner Carson Ryan in the 1920s set the stage for John Collier, who brought a new philosophy and the full support of President Roosevelt to the office of Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1934. During Collier's first year in office, Congress passed legislation embodying his idea of "economic rehabilitation" and "organization of the Indian Tribes for managing their own affairs." In 1936, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), as this legislation was known in Alaska. This enabled a few Native communities to incorporate and made some loans available to villages to build canneries (Naske and Slotnick, 1979:107).

Collier and his Education Director, Willard Beatty, a nationally recognized progressive educator, affected Alaska indirectly through the changes they brought to the Education Division. Collier's predecessor, Ryan, had introduced a new course of studies for Indian schools in 1926 which emphasized Native cultures and vocational-industrial programs (Dafoe, 1978:21). Collier sought to revamp the training for Indian Service teachers by including an anthropological perspective. Beatty questioned the effect of boarding schools — "let us be sure that the experience won't unfit him [the Indian] for return to life among his own people, while failing to fit him for making a living elsewhere" — and encouraged the construction of day schools (Szaz, 1974:55). During Collier's tenure, 16 boarding schools were closed and 84 day schools opened (Special Subcommittee on Indian Education, 1969a:13).

Another bill dealing with Indian education passed Congress in 1934. The Johnson-O'Malley Act provided subsidies to local schools that enrolled Native students who resided on tax-exempt land. In addition, the Act enabled the BIA to contract with states or territories to provide social services, including education, to Native Americans. Not until 1952 would the territory of Alaska contract to operate BIA schools.

These policy changes at the national level had little immediate impact on Alaska. The philosophical and curricular changes in the Education Division of BIA, the new funding arrangements present in the Johnson-O'Malley Act, and the self-government options presented by the IRA were, however, to influence profoundly Native education in Alaska.

World War II and the Defense Buildup

Of greater impact on Alaska than even the Gold Rush was World War II and the resulting defense buildup. By 1943, over 150,000 members of the armed forces were stationed on Alaskan soil. Department of Defense dollars and construction crews were mobilized to develop Alaska's skeletal infrastructure — modernizing the Alaska Railroad, building airfields, roads, breakwaters, and so on. Many of those who came to work or to serve stayed on after the war. Between 1940 and 1950, Alaska's population increased by two-thirds — to 112,000 with some additional 26,000 military personnel (Naske and Slotnick, 1979:123).

The territory was hard pressed to keep up with the demand for schooling. Federal impact aid (P.L. 874) was paid to rural territorial schools and district schools for Native children. These funds, together with those paid to the territory for on-base schools, constituted between 25 and 29 percent of Alaska's education revenues throughout the 1950s (Dafoe, 1978:27). On the federal side, BIA officials came out of the war with a changed attitude towards Native education. No longer could officials assume that Natives would stay in their villages and that their schooling should be designed accordingly. This policy was manifest in the opening of Mt. Edgecumbe Boarding School in an abandoned Naval facility in Sitka. Until 1966, Mt. Edgecumbe was the only public boarding school in Alaska providing secondary facilities for Native youth who hailed from rural communities that lacked a local high school (Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1974: Part II, 11). Only a handful of rural Native communities had secondary facilities.

Another illustration of BIA's changed attitude can be seen in the transfer of 22 schools in Alaska from federal to territorial control. During this same period of time, the BIA shut down all its schools in Idaho, Michigan, Washington, and Wisconsin (Fuchs and Havighurst, 1972:14). In the schools that remained, the curricular emphasis shifted away from venerating Native ways — a policy established in the 1930s under BIA Education Director Beatty — and returned to assimilation (Special Subcommittee on Indian Education, 1969a:114). In 1953, the House passed Concurrent Resolution 108 calling for the termination of all federal services to Indians. Historians such as Szaz (1974) date the organized, concerted movement of Indians for greater local control of their schools from this period. In Alaska, the lack of a modern communications and the dispersion of Native communities across the vastness of the country continued to impede cooperation and unity among the Native peoples.

Statehood and the 1960s

Although the first Alaska statehood bill was introduced to Congress in 1916, not until 1958 were political constellations favorably aligned to secure statehood status. With statehood, the effort to merge the two school systems increased. In 1962, a memorandum of agreement between federal and state officials guaranteed "federal financial participation" in any plan to transfer BIA schools to the state (Dafoe, 1978:30). Although this seemed, at the time, to remove a major stumbling block to merger, the two systems would continue to operate side-by-side until the 1980s. Although merger was the long-term goal, the immediate problem was the lack of secondary opportunities in small, Native communities. A committee sponsored by the Governor in 1963 recommended that students from communities with less than 150 children of high school age should attend regional boarding schools, which enrolled no fewer than 300 students (Governor's Committee on Education, 1963). This was consistent with the conventional wisdom of the time. For more than 15 years, the national trend had been toward the consolidated high schools. James Conant, the champion of the comprehensive secondary school, set 500 students as a minimum for an adequate secondary program (Conant, 1959). The concept of regional boarding schools was to dominate planning for rural secondary education through the 1960s (see Training Corporation of America, 1966).

Nationally, the 1960s marked yet another major shift in Indian policy. The efforts at terminating federal services during the 1950s had created profound suspicions among indigenous people throughout the nation. The Commission of Rights, Liberties, and Responsibilities of the American Indian — sponsored by the Fund for the Republic — came out with a report in 1961 that attacked the paternalism of the BIA and the inadequacies of services; to correct these injustices, the report called for greater Indian involvement in programs which affected them (Special Subcommittee on Indian Education, 1969a:166-167). Shortly afterward, Indian leaders gathered and drew up a "Declaration of Indian Purpose" calling for greater lay participation in policy making and program design — a call the BIA apparently ignored (Josephy, 1969:33-34). Yet another study, headed by Secretary of the Interior Udall, emphasized the need for greater parental participation in Indian education (ibid: 24).

Reform came not, however, from the BIA itself but through the social legislation of the Johnson Administration. The Economic Opportunity Act funded new programs, such as Head Start, which were instrumental in involving Native American Communities in their children's schooling. Perhaps the most significant program to come out of this Act was the Indian Community Action Programs (CAPs). CAPs created the opportunity for indigenous Americans to plan, establish, and operate their own programs with the technical support of a consortium of universities. The social programs of the 1960s also introduced a variety of "change agents" — CAP coordinators, VISTA volunteers, Operation Grassroot workers — into small Native communities. These individuals often brought with them a strong community-control ideology, information about and contact with community power networks, and knowledge of how to manipulate the political system. Programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education committees mandated for some of these programs, like those for Head Start, created in small, Native communities the potential for parental involvement in designing and evaluating such programs.

The expanding opportunities for community participation in designing educational and other social service programs for local conditions coincided with increasing unity and political sophistication among the indigenous peoples of Alaska. This greater unity and the desire for increased self-determination emerged from the Alaska Natives' struggle for their homeland — a struggle spurred by statehood and still the primary political concern of Native people.

Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act

When Alaska become the forty-ninth state in 1959, the issue of Native lands was left unresolved. Indeed, the Statehood Act — like the earlier Organic Acts — contained a disclaimer on the status of Native lands, "the right or title to which may be held by Eskimos, Indians, or Aleuts" (Naske and Slotnick, 1979:203). As the Alaskan Department of Natural Resources prepared to select 103.3 million acres of land to which the Statehood Act entitled the state, Natives grew apprehensive:

The fear of losing their lands aroused the natives and radicalized them. An identity revolution occurred in villages across Alaska during the 1960s, and by 1968 even inhabitants of the most remote settlements understood what was at stake (ibid: 205).

In the early 1960s, Northwest Inupiat Eskimos' success in scuttling an Atomic Energy Commission proposal (Project Chariot) to create an artificial harbor near the village of Pt. Hope with a nuclear blast demonstrated the value of organization and unity in direct confrontation with federal and state agencies (Brooks, 1971).

Shortly afterwards, an organization of northern Native people — Inupiat Paitot —coalesced around the resistance of Barrow residents to hunting restrictions imposed by an international migratory bird treaty (Arnold et al., 1976:95-96). Inupiat Paitot was not the first regional Native organization, but it was the first organized to defy national or international attempts to restrict traditional land and resource use. Natives in the southeastern area of the state had organized in 1912 and in 1915 as the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood, respectively. In 1962, in southwest Alaska, the Association of Village Council Presidents was founded. Natives in the interior organized Dena Nena Henash (Our Hand Speaks) in 1962 and the Tanana Chiefs Conference in 1963 (ibid: 108-109). By 1963, four regional Native organizations had been formed and Native leaders called for a statewide organization.

The state's plans to develop the land also threatened Native land use. State efforts to establish a recreational area in Minto, north of Fairbanks, ran headlong into the traditional use of these areas for Native hunting and trapping in the early 1960s. The Minto dispute is of particular importance because the first statewide newspaper — the Tundra Times — covered the meetings that took place and spread word of the issue (ibid: 99-100).2 It quickly became the primary source of information on the struggles of various Native people for their land rights.

To protect their lands, Natives throughout the state filed protests to the land selections made by the state. The situation had reached a total impasse by 1968 when Natives had filed protests on 337 million acres. In the meantime, Secretary of Interior Udall had frozen all land disposal — including leasing of oil and gas tracts.

Efforts to organize Alaska Natives to protect their land culminated in 1967, in the creation of the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), the first pan-Alaska Native organization (ibid: 112-117). Over the next three years, AFN was kept busy evaluating the various settlements proposed by state, Congressional, and Interior Department committees and task forces. With the support of the Association on American Indian Affairs and the legal advice of Arthur Goldberg and Ramsey Clark, AFN came up with its own proposal designed to avoid the pitfalls of earlier Indian settlements In the meantime, the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 and the decision of a consortium of oil companies to build the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) further complicated the issue, bringing new pressures for an expeditious settlement of the land issue (Berry, 1975).

Without a settlement, construction of the TAPS could not go forward — to the consternation of both the oil companies and those in Alaska who stood to benefit from the proposed $900 million project. The AFN had increased its resources and strength with loans and endorsements from state and national Native organizations. Throughout the first legislative session of 1971, the various actors worked on an acceptable settlement. Finally, in December 1971, a settlement was reached among tile various interests — including AFN — and President Nixon signed the bill into law.

Under terms of the settlement, in return for forfeiting claims to aboriginal title in Alaska, Natives were to receive $962.5 million and 40 million acres of land. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) also created twelve regional corporations to administer the settlement. Eligible Natives were enrolled in the regional corporations to administer the settlement. Eligible Natives were enrolled in the regional corporation in their home area and received 100 shares of stock. Natives who lived in villages were also shareholders in their village corporation. The village corporations were entitled to as much as 161,180 acres of land each. While the village owned the surface rights to this land, the regional corporation owned the subsurface rights (Alaska Native Foundation, 1976).

Clearly, the experience of the long, intense struggle for land rights gave Natives the sense of their own power, of what could be accomplished through concerted, persistent effort. The experience contributed, moreover, to Native confidence in their ability to determine their own destiny. Subsequently, the experience of residents of even small, remote communities in direction and managing their village corporations has had several effects.

Native villagers' sense of competency in running local institutions, which are alien to their culture, has increased greatly. Secondly, younger villagers now grow to adulthood within a matrix of political organizations — corporations and councils — adopted from the dominant culture. They are, thereby, socialized comparatively early in life to roles their elders may find alien. Finally, many Natives, particularly those who have come of age since statehood, resist any attempt to impose on their villages policy developed without local input. Against this background, then, we need to complete our story of the decentralization of rural education.

Boarding Schools and the Boarding Home Program

During the 1960s, Native Students from rural areas who wanted a secondary education and who could not get a place at Mt. Edgecumbe in Sitka had to go outside the state — to a BIA boarding school in either Chemawa, Oregon, or Chilocco, Oklahoma. In 1965, there were 400 graduates of the eighth grade who had no place at all to go. The BIA decided to send 204 of those students to distant Chilocco (Szaz, 1974:127). Faced with budgetary restraints that prohibited expanding facilities, the BIA reduced the large number of eligible students without secondary opportunities by fitting the students to the system — that is, sending Alaskan students to boarding schools where there was ‘excess capacity.’ Such cumbersome, heavy-handed policies — viewed as a necessary compromise among distasteful alternatives in Washington — were, in part, responsible for the unfavorable image of the BIA among educators and parents. As we have seen, the recommendation from both state education leaders (Ray et al., 1959:356) and outside consultants (Training Corporation of America, 1967:66) to policy makers was to establish secondary boarding schools in rural areas.

Even measures as extreme as sending students to Oklahoma did not solve the problem. In 1967, because Mt. Edgecumbe, Chemawa, and Chilocco could not accommodate all the students who wished to go to high school, the State Department of Education initiated the boarding home program. Under this program, the Department found suitable homes in larger towns for students from small villages. Students attended the local high school, which received federal impact aid; the family with whom the student boarded similarly received federal funds for room and board. The cost of the program was high — over $5,000 per student, compared to the state average of under $2,000 per student (Kleinfeld, 1973). By 1971, 1,200 Native students were in the boarding home program while the number going outside the state had been reduced from 876 in 1967 to 428.

Concurrently, with the development of the boarding home program, the state and the BIA embarked on a joint secondary schooling venture. In 1966, the state floated a bond issue to raise money to build a secondary vocational school for rural Alaskans in Nome, and the BIA agreed to build, staff, and fund the dormitory facilities. This arrangement was subsequently followed in both Kodiak and Bethel (Dafoe, 1978:13).

In an effort to become more responsive to rural needs and concerns, the Alaska Department of Education created a separate Division of State-Operated Schools with a Director, a seven-member Board of Education appointed by the governor, and superintendents in each of five areas of the state as well as at each boarding school. Following the lead of the BIA, the state legislature passed legislation to create advisory school boards for all state schools. Lacking any genuine legal authority, these boards were charged to "advise and assist the Board of Directors . . . through the local official administering the school" (Getches, 1977). By 1975, advisory boards were functioning in only half of the rural communities with state schools.

By the end of the 1960s, the dual system of education was still intact. Moreover, the provision of secondary educational opportunities to rural Native students remained inadequate. Only one In four Native secondary students was attending school in a Native community. In the 77 villages with state schools, only six had secondary programs; similarly, only six villages had BIA schools with courses beyond the eighth grade (Dafoe, 1978:33).

During a variety of public hearings in the late 1960s and early 1970s, spokesmen for the Native communities voiced their opposition to the limited options available to rural students who wanted a secondary education. At a meeting in Sitka in 1968, Native leaders raised objections to the regional high school programs then under development (Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1974). At hearings before the Senate Subcommittee on Indian Education, testimony focused on the failure of existing schools to instill pride, to develop self-identity, and to prepare students academically and socially so they could, if they chose, assimilate (Special Subcommittee on Indian Education, 1969b). In short, formal schooling for rural Natives was, in the eyes of both consumers and educators, not delivering.

Critics and policy makers alike felt that if secondary schooling was to improve —indeed, if Native education was to improve — a unified state system was essential. Natives felt that their ability to influence the education of their children would increase considerably if schools were under state rather than federal jurisdiction. The major sticking point in merging the two systems was money: The state claimed it didn't have enough to take over and run the BIA schools. The BIA, in its turn, protested that it didn't have the money to expand secondary opportunities for rural Native students in their home villages. On September 10, 1969, in a matter of seven hours, the State of Alaska realized over $900 million from the sale of 179 tracts of land on the North Slope — and the sticking disappeared.

Transition from ASOSS to REAAs

Critics attacked the Department of Education as unresponsive to the needs of rural students and parents and the state's rural schools as irrelevant to the experiences, traditions, and values of rural residents. In an effort to answer its critics and to make rural schools more responsive to the needs of their clientele, the State Department of Education, in 1970, spun off a completely separate state corporation to run the 130 state schools in the rural areas, which were known collectively as the "unorganized borough." The Alaska State-Operated School System (ASOSS) had a Board of Directors — six of whom had to come from rural areas — appointed by the Governor. The Board exercised some of the authority over rural schools that had previously been held by the legislature and the State Board of Education. In addition, each school in the system had a local advisory school board. Absent, however, was a channel through which these local boards could communicate their wishes and needs to the Directors (Getches, 1977:27).

The discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay and the large royalty revenue this discovery promised removed the major obstacle — lack of funds — to providing secondary educational opportunities to rural residents. This new situation resulted in major developments on two fronts: the courts and the administrative organization of rural schools.

In the courts, a suit was brought in 1971 on behalf of five Native students from the northwestern Inupiat Eskimo village of Kivalina to force the state to provide a secondary program in their village. Before the case could be decided, the state expanded the school program in Kivalina to twelve grades. The State Board of Education also changed their regulations, guaranteeing "(e)very child of school age shall have the right to a secondary education in his community" (4 Alaska Administrative Code 06.020 repealed and re-enacted effective July, 1974). In 1972, a similar suit was brought on behalf of 28 rural Native students (Hootch v. Alaska State-Operated School System). This case dragged on for nearly four years, reaching the State Supreme Court in 1975.

In its decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the state had no constitutional obligation to provide a secondary program in "one's community of residence." The Court returned the case to the Superior Court for adjudication of the charge that the plaintiffs' constitutional guarantee of equal protection before the law had been violated. In 1976, an agreement was reached in the case — now known as Tobeluk v. Lind. According to this "consent decree," the state Board of Education changed its regulations to read that "(e)very child of school age has the right to a public education in the local community in which he resides" (4 AK. Adm. Code 05.030). The agreement also contained a schedule for the establishment of secondary school programs in villages lacking such programs.

A further impetus for establishing village high schools was a study of the boarding schools and boarding home programs (Kleinfeld, 1973). Professor Kleinfeld found that three-quarters of the rural boarding school students and six of ten boarding home students had developed school-related social and emotional problems. In the same year the study appeared, Commissioner of Education Marshall Lind requested that the Center for Northern Educational Research (CNER) at the University of Alaska undertake an examination of the alternatives for secondary education available to the state (Center for Northern Educational Research, 1973:392-393). Working with the Human Resources Committee of the Alaska Federation of Natives and the Alaska Legislative Committee on Pre-Higher Education, CNER spent a year looking into the alternatives. A primary event was a "Forum on Education in the Unorganized Borough" at which various interested groups and individuals presented position papers (Darnell et al., 1974; Appendix, 15-148). Another key event was a meeting of representatives of rural Native communities in Juneau to discuss alternatives and offer their suggestions to CNER.

The report that CNER sent on to the Legislative Interim Committee on Pre-Higher Education reviewed the alternatives and reported the criticisms leveled at ASOSS. The report excoriated ASOSS for inefficiency, insensitivity, and deterring the development of local leadership and self-determination. The authors recommended that schools be placed under the jurisdiction, not of a statewide system, but rather under smaller districts and municipalities: "While local control is not a sufficient condition for improving education, it is seen by CNER as a necessary condition at this time" (ibid: 36).

The legislature failed, however, to act on the report's recommendations in 1974. During the Ninth Legislative Session, the Alaska Federation of Natives and other Native groups lobbied heavily to ensure that legislation embodying CNER's recommendations would pass both chambers. On June 9, 1975, the conference version of the bill — S.B. 35 — was signed into law.

As passed and enacted, S.B. 35 called for Regional Education Attendance Areas (REAAs) which conformed to the boundaries of the regional corporations. The bill also mandated that district lines be drawn to maintain linguistic, socioeconomic, and cultural homogeneity, and to reflect the realities of transportation, communications, and geography. Each REAA would have a school board composed of five-to-eleven members elected at large to represent particular sections of the region. This latter provision was to ensure the representation of the smaller communities. The legislation also mandated the election, in each community, of a community school committee whose duties were vaguely defined — to "review and make recommendations to the board concerning tile curriculum, program, and general operation of the local school." In 1979, this section of the law was repealed.

At the insistence of the CNER staff and AFN, the ASOSS was specifically precluded from becoming Involved in the transition. A transitional organization — the Alaska Unorganized Borough School District (AUBSD) — was created to facilitate the decentralization of the system. The Alaska Department of Community and Regional Affairs carried out informational meetings in rural villages during July and August of 1975 to inform residents of the new system. In addition, hearings were held throughout the state to gather public opinion on proposed REAA boundaries. In July of 1976, 21 Rural Education Attendance Areas came into being.

With the gradual phasing out of BIA operations — In 1983, only 14 BIA schools remained — and the creation of the REAAs, Alaska is closer than ever before to a unified school system. For the first time ever, Alaska Natives have secondary programs in their villages and the organizational structures needed to make input into the governance of the schools their children attend.

This brief review of the historical development of educational policy in Alaska raises several themes which are pertinent to the issue of lay participation and influence in rural schools. The decentralization of education should be seen in the wider context of the decentralization of other social services and increasing Native self-determination. Changes in federal statutes as well as new statutes regulating the delivery of social services during the 1960s and 1970s favored "maximum feasible participation." The passage of ANCSA in 1971 and the subsequent formation of regional nonprofit corporations provided institutional structures for Natives to control human service delivery in their area Nonprofit organizations contract with state and federal agencies to administer a variety of programs — health care, welfare, education, housing, employment, and even public safety. In a matter of two decades, human service delivery in rural Native communities has been transformed — from total dependence on the BIA to administer social services to Native administrative control of these services. Yet, Native organizations remain dependent upon state and federal sources to fund these social services.

Thus, a tension has developed as Native groups have achieved greater administrative control over human service programs. Despite this greater level of control, the level of funding is controlled by distant legislatures. The tension is described by an informant in a small, remote Native village:

I went down to Mt. Edgecumbe for high school. The problem there was that they never taught me to stand on my own two feet. That's the problem with all this grant money floating around. If you just give it to the people, they never really learn what self-determination is. Can you call what [a village that contracted to run their local school] is doing self-determination? They're just going after all kinds of grants. So who determines what's going to happen? The grants, of course.

This tension — between administrative control and financial dependency — is exacerbated by a second type of dependence: technical expertise dependence. Of all the difficulties facing Alaska Natives after passage of ANCSA, none was more serious than the lack of trained manpower to manage and staff the new organizations which the Act created. As a consequence, Native organizations have had to hire non-Natives for many technical positions and rely on non-Native consultants.

As a product of these historical circumstances, decentralized schooling in rural Alaska is beset with these same tensions. REAA districts are totally dependent on the state legislature and, to a lesser degree, on the federal government for operating funds. Similarly, for technical expertise, Native schools must depend on non-Natives. Awareness of this tension may provoke Native people to greater vigilance in watching for signs of paternalism. This increased vigilance may generate uncertainty and prompt non-Native experts — such as the local administrator and teachers — to consult with community representatives before taking action.

Another aspect of the historical evolution of the decentralized, REAA districts was the lack of actual community input into the process of drafting the legislation and designing the school system. Native interests were represented in the process by spokesmen and leaders of the "Native community." One could argue that the political goals and interests of such individuals do not necessarily reflect the interests of Native people who live in small, remote villages. Studies of school governance have found that elites do not necessarily reflect accurately the attitudes and opinions of constituents — particularly when the elites live apart from their constituents, as do many Native leaders who live in urban centers where the administrative offices of Native organizations and the political action are found.

One could argue that the present school system reflects less the actual needs and preferences of rural residents than the political objectives of Native leaders and their supporters in the university and in government. The document produced to guide lawmakers in drafting the decentralization legislation was written by University of Alaska faculty members (Darnell et al., 1974). These academics worked closely with the Alaska Federation of Natives and held public hearings at which interested parties could present position papers. Despite such provisions for input from the "Native community," we could find little evidence of participation of those who would be most affected — parents and students living in small, remote Native villages.

Anticipating our results, we might note at this point that the lack of greater participation in some school governance process that we found in Native villages may be related to the lack of village involvement in designing the present system. Had villagers been asked, they may have suggested a system of local schools quite different from that created by the Legislature.

End Notes

1. This section on the historical background of the present school situation breaks no new ground. We have relied on already published accounts, notably Naske and Slotnick (1979), Marsh (1967), Dafoe (1978), Koponen (1964), Szaz (1974) and Arnold et al. (1976). In addition, we have used the annual reports of the Commissioner of Education and, for recent years, the annual report of the Alaska Department of Education. Most of the statistics used in this section came from these two sources.

2. Founder and editor of the Tundra Times was Howard Rock, who had risen to prominence as a spokesman for the village of Pt. Hope during the Project Chariot struggle. Rock's role in these two incidents — separated by almost a thousand miles and wide cultural differences — illustrates the growing unity among Native peoples and the recognition that they faced a common threat. Rock's newspaper would be the first statewide voice to orchestrate this recognition and call for unity.