When asked what happens when people from two different cultures meet, an old Apache laconically observed, "Bad feelings" (Wax & Thomas, 1961). The mutual misinterpretations and other problems that indeed develop in relationships between members of different cultural groups have led to a vast literature on the social norms of other nations and also to a variety of training programs designed specifically to increase Americans' skills in cross-cultural situations. In contrast, little attention has been given to the very similar problems that occur when members of the dominant culture engage in face-to-face encounters with members of minority cultures, such as American Indians and Eskimos.1

This paper explores the interpersonal tensions that develop in an exceptionally intimate and ambiguous cross-cultural relationship — that of Alaska's urban boarding home parents to the Athabascan Indian and Eskimo adolescents placed in their homes while attending secondary schools. Many of these students come from remote Alaskan villages, and, although adjusting to an urban environment with its mechanisms, noise, speed, and crowds causes initial difficulties for them, their more fundamental and enduring problems concern the interpersonal area. These revolve around relationships with white people — their teachers, school peers, and especially their boarding home parents.

Coming as they do from small villages where interpersonal relationships provide the entertainment and drama of life, and from cultural groups where social cohesion is of great importance to survival (Spindler & Spindler, 1957), Indian and Eskimo students tend to be extremely sensitive to the nuances of interactions. White adults who become boarding home parents are generally less attuned to the interpersonal dimension and rarely recognize that basic issues, such as loss of status or the search for emotional support, underlie many surface conflicts.

From the perspective of social exchange theory, this paper considers how the mutual exchange of rewards and costs in the boarding home parent-student relationship influences each party's level of satisfaction. This information may be useful to prospective boarding home parents in developing mutually satisfying relationships with students. A typology of boarding home parents that suggests successful and unsuccessful types is also presented. Such information may be useful to Boarding Home Program staff in selecting parents and matching them with appropriate students.

While the focus is on the specific relationship between the boarding home parent and the student, similar problems occur in any type of cross-cultural relationship and, indeed, in any interpersonal relationship. People are often unaware of the covert messages, concerning affect, status, and power that they send and receive in interactions overtly concerned with other issues. Increased awareness of these covert messages and how they are communicated is especially important in cross-cultural relationships because of the heightened sensitivity of both parties in an unfamiliar interaction and because social symbols differ across cultures. Sensitivity to these aspects of interpersonal relationships may increase the effectiveness of westerners attempting to work in many roles with members of a different culture.


The Boarding Home Program

Alaska's Boarding Home Program was established in 1966 in order to provide a secondary school education within Alaska for rural students from areas without a local high school. From a mere 115 students in 1966-67, the program mushroomed to over 1,100 students in 1970-71 (see Table 1). This substantial growth resulted from several forces: (1) pressures to educate Alaska students in Alaska rather than in boarding schools in Oregon and Oklahoma, (2) the slow rate of construction of dormitories at regional high schools within Alaska, and (3) the increasing number of rural students who enroll in secondary school (see Figure 1). The program is presently the only available secondary school program for many rural students. Moreover, the program has finally eliminated the secondary school bottleneck caused by lack of dormitory facilities and has made a high school education available for any rural applicant.





1966-67 108 22%
1967-68 256 14.4%
1968-69 415 11.6%
1969-70 741 11.6%
1970-71 1120 16.7%

The statistics from 1966-70 with the exception of 1971 drop-outs have been taken from Virginia MacEntree's Master's Thesis at Alaska Methodist University which was based on a search of Boarding Home Program records (MacEntree, 1969). Later statistics were obtained from the Boarding Home Program Office. It is important to caution others not to compare Boarding Home Program drop-out figures with drop-out figures from other secondary school programs since methods of computing drop-out often differ.

Figure 1. Projected Enrollment

Administration and Secondary School Placement

The program is administered by the Department of Education's Division of Regional Schools and Boarding Home Program. In the Fairbanks area, the Fairbanks Native Association has formed an advisory board that has a major role in selecting program staff and deciding policy questions.

Applications on which rural students state their preference for enrolling in particular boarding schools or in particular boarding home program communities are sent to the central office in Anchorage. Then, in cooperation with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the administrative staff assigns students to a community or to a state or BIA boarding school. Because different students may have different concerns, there is much diversity among rural students in selecting a secondary school program. Choices of a particular school program are made by the students primarily because friends and relatives attend, although some students choose schools because they are close to home and others choose schools located in a city because of a desire to see what a city is like. Although it was not previously possible, students in 1971-72 generally received their first choice of program.


Boarding Home Family Selection

Most students in the Boarding Home Program are Eskimos and Athabascan Indians (see Table 2). Because the majority of these students attend school in predominantly white urban centers, such as Anchorage and Fairbanks, where there are enough families and school space to absorb them, most of them are placed with white families. Some students, however, do live with urban Native families, and, in Native areas, the majority of students live with Native families.




September 1970

Area Percentage of
Total enrollment
Ethnic Group Percentage
Anchorage 355 26.9% Aleut 138 10.5%
Beltz Dorm 158 11.9% Athabascan 267 20.3%
Bethel 97 7.3% Caucasion 62 4.7%
Dillingham 58 4.4% Eskimo 836 63.7%
Fairbanks 244 18.5% Thlinget 8 .6%
Kenai Borough 54 4.1%      
Kodiak 138 10.4%      
Matanuska-Susitna Borough 46 3.4%      
McGrath 54 4.1%      
Southeastern 34 2.5%      
Special Programs 31 2.3%      
Tok 48 3.6%      
*TOTALS 1317 99.4%      

These statistics include students enrolled in regional schools at Beltz and Kodiak as well as Boarding Home Program students. Figures were collected by Bridget March of the Division of Regional Schools and Boarding Home program.

Kenai Borough includes Homer, Kenai, Ninilchik, and Seward; Mat-Su Borough includes Palmer and Wasilla; Southeastern includes Hoonah, Juneau, Ketchikan, Petersburg, and Sitka; and Special Programs includes Adak, Cordova, Glenallen, Igugig, Teller, and Valdez.

*No SHOWS not included.


Family selection and student placements are made by local program coordinators in each large program community. There are very specific health and safety requirements for the physical attributes of the boarding home. In 1971-72, homes were licensed according to state regulations. Other standards for family selection are defined in general terms, for example, willingness "to accept the student and to help him to be a part of the family" (Department of Education, 1970, p. 7). While the family selection criteria of individual coordinators differ, they generally search for parents who, for example, understand teenagers, react flexibly, have an appreciation of cultural differences, and have good relationships within their own family. Coordinators tend to be extremely sensitive to parents' motives for taking a boarding home student, since popular opinion condemns those parents who "take the student for the money." In 1970-71, each boarding home family received $150 per month to cover the expenses of caring for the student.2 Although parents are not expected to make a profit, for those who board several students or have many children of their own, an additional student adds little incremental expense and some profit can be made.

Experienced coordinators develop great sophistication in selecting parents and placing appropriate students with them. However, the coordinators are often forced to include homes they recognize as marginal because of the tremendous number of students who must be accommodated if they are to receive any high school education at all. Also, because other educational alternatives are often unavailable and because of a reluctance to exclude any rural school applicant, the coordinators may be forced, against their own judgment, to place students with social and emotional problems in boarding homes.3



It is essential to distinguish clearly between the objectives of Alaska's Boarding Home Program and the objectives of other programs that are similar in form — the boarding of an Indian student with a white family — but vastly different in goals. The only purpose of the Alaska program and the similar program in Canada (Snider, 1969) is to make available a secondary school education for Indian and Eskimo students in areas without high schools. Individual boarding home parents, however, sometimes have different interpretations of the objectives of the program. Some, for example, see the acculturation of the student as the main purpose. Many problems occur when boarding home parents view their mission primarily in this way, an interpretation with abundant historical precedent.

Historically, boarding home programs, usually called "outing" systems, were used quite specifically to indoctrinate Indian students in white ways. Usually, these programs were attached to Indian boarding schools. In the early colonial period, Reverend John Sergeant established such an experimental "outing system" whereby Indian students were placed with Puritan families during vacation periods. This practice was continued in the 19th century at the Carlisle School (Berry, 1969). Similarly, from the 1920's until the 1960's, the Sherman Institute outing system, where Indian students worked during the summer while living with white families, was heralded as the strongest and most effective method of promoting acculturation (Hall, 1970). The Lutheran Social Services established such a summer foster home program again at the Flandreau Indian School in 1970. While the current emphasis on Native self-determination has led to a more sophisticated rationale — that of providing students with choices between reservation and urban life — the tone of the program clearly indicated an underlying acculturative missionary spirit (Little, 1970).

In addition to the above programs sponsored by boarding schools, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has established an extensive foster home program whereby about 5,000 Indian students in the western United States and Georgia live with Mormon families during the school year. Although the official goal of the program is "leadership development" (Foster Parent Guide, 1965), the boarding home parents serve (without any financial compensation) because of religious duties and objectives. As Payne (1970) explains, Mormons consider American Indians to be Lamanites, and "a charge is made to those who accept the Book of Mormon as the truth to offer themselves and their help in bringing these Lamanites or American Indians back to the knowledge of God which their ancestors had."

Foster home programs with such acculturative and religious goals are being regarded as increasingly controversial by national Indian leaders, who fear that students will lose their identification with their culture and with their own families. While Alaska's program does not have official acculturative goals, the questions of how to maintain identification with Native culture and the student's family need to be considered.


No formal evaluation of the Boarding Home Program has been made in Alaska or in other areas that have similar programs. However, educational theory and the few scattered bits of evidence that are available suggest that the urban boarding home experience may be a valuable educational option for certain types of Native students.

A rural student in an urban boarding home program is usually exposed to a second curriculum, the life-style of a family successfully adapted to an urban community. Through informal observational learning, the student has the opportunity to acquire an intimate understanding of urban roles and ways of controlling the world. Since traditional Native groups tend to have a more observational than verbal style of learning (Cazden & John, 1968; Kleinfeld, 1970), this second curriculum may be taught by more powerful methods than are used in a formal school setting. Moreover, such information is subtle and situational, difficult to teach in any school.

Not only do students who live in an urban family situation have a greater opportunity to acquire an understanding of new behavioral roles, they also have the opportunity to experiment with them with fewer restraining pressures from their peer group. As Berreman (1966) points out in his study of an Aleut community, the peer group may exert strong sanctions on the ambitious from identifying with and imitating the behavior of members of the dominant culture. A boarding home family situation avoids creating a monolithic peer group and provides other sources of emotional support and approval to the student who wishes to try out new roles. The student may also receive extensive English language exposure, intensive individual counseling, and many other experiences conducive to achievement. The "program staff-to-student" ratio in the Boarding Home Program may be two adults to one or, at most, a few students.

In brief, the program exposes the students to the information and behavior conducive to success in urban life and provides an arena where he may experiment with new roles in some comfort. However, whether these factors should be considered "benefits" depends on the personal goals and abilities of the student. For those who have the desire and ability to work in a western occupational role or in an urban area, the experience can help to provide subtle, yet critical, skills, especially in the social area. In contrast, for those who desire a village life style, it may be highly dysfunctional to become accustomed to the personal comforts of urban living and a western life style and value perspective. And, since urbanites often brand the student who returns home to the village as a failure, the effect may be radically lower self-esteem.

Moreover, for many students, the crisis of leaving the strong emotional bonds of the primary group produces severe emotional problems. These may retard learning and negate any possible educational advantages of the experience. A high school experience in the home village or in a dormitory environment, which provides strong emotional support from a Native peer group, may be preferable for these students.

In sum, from a theoretical perspective, the Boarding Home Program, in contrast to boarding school or village school experience, seems likely to result in higher achievement, especially in the area of English language skills, and also in increased learning of urban social and occupational roles. It also creates much greater emotional stress, which may lead to high drop-out rates, especially in the initial adjustment period (see Table 1). The value of achievement and social learning gains must be weighed against the effects of the program experience on personal self-esteem and mental health and must also be considered in relation to the student's abilities and goals. For those students who desire an urban life style, the program provides a unique and powerful educational experience.

Very little empirical data on the effects of the Boarding Home Program experience are available, although a study sponsored by the Division of Regional Schools and Boarding Home Program to assess the effects of different types of secondary school experiences on achievement, mental health, and identity formation is in progress at the Center for Northern Education. However, a few scattered bits of information can be reviewed concerning the achievement of students in the program. Each source of information has important limitations and cannot be considered substantial evidence. Nonetheless, the sources do point to possibly dramatic gains by boarding home students in the area of academic achievement.

Stanford Achievement Tests were given to fifty-eight 9th and 10th grade boarding home students in Anchorage at the middle and end of the 1970-71 school year.4 (See Appendix I, Table I-1.) On the average, they gained a full school year in achievement during a mere four-month period. In short, boarding home students showed a remarkably high achievement gain of over twice the usual rate.

School grades for boarding home students in Fairbanks, during a year when almost no special classes were available for rural students, were analyzed by Cleworth (1971). School grades are, of course, fallible indicators of achievement, since teachers very likely give some preferential treatment to rural students. However, it is interesting that these grades follow a normal distribution: no pile-up of D and F marks occurred (see Appendix I, Tables I-3 & I-4 and Figure I-1). Even when grades in major academic subjects alone are considered, about 62 percent of the grades are C or above. This should be encouraging to rural students, who know that they are competing against students from the dominant culture who have had urban elementary experience and whose language is English. Such performance should give rural students confidence to attend college, and indeed, a follow-up of the 25 graduates from the 1969-70 Fairbanks program indicated that about 25 per cent (6 students) had enrolled in college (Cleworth, 1971).

In addition to academic achievement gains, boarding home parents, students, teachers, and coordinators frequently point to dramatic changes that occur in the social behavior of new boarding home students over the school year and especially during their second year in the program. According to these anecdotal reports, the typical student who arrives afraid of white people, unable to talk to strangers, and unskilled in navigating through the urban environment or in planning things on his own often becomes a self-confidant participant in urban life. The substantial growth on the Vineland Social Maturity Test, which primarily measures acquisition of western social skills, by 25 boarding home students who attended the Rural Transition Center helps to corroborate these anecdotes (see Appendix I, Figure I-2).

It cannot be over-emphasized that these spotty statistics and anecdotal reports do not constitute an evaluation of the Boarding Home Program. However, the available information is useful in that it suggests the possibility that substantial gains in achievement and social skills are produced by the program.


While originally developed as a temporary emergency measure to educate large numbers of rural high school students in Alaska, the Boarding Home Program will probably remain a major secondary school program for rural students. Dormitory construction at regional and area high school sites is proceeding slower than planned. Moreover, dormitory facilities presently planned are not sufficient for the estimated secondary school population in the coming years, and the program is expected to accommodate the overflow (Department of Education, 1971). In addition, Boarding Home Program staff generally feel that the program is "working," and program maintenance pressures increase the probability that the program will survive.


Chapter II

Footnotes, Chapter I

1Ethnographies of Eskimo and Indian groups and discussions of research methodology often touch briefly upon questions of interpersonal relationships (Vallee, 1967; De Poncins, 1941; Murphy & Hughes, 1965). One excellent study is available which analyzes the difficulties American Indians and white people have merely in talking to each other (Wax & Thomas, 1961). Others attempt to give practical suggestions to whites working with Indians and Eskimos in such roles as community change agent (Pollaca, 1962), doctor (Kemnitzer, 1967), or teacher (Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1970; Kleinfeld, 1971). These types of cross-cultural interactions differ from the boarding home parent-student relationship because the scope of the interaction is limited and the objectives relatively clear.

2These payments, while affected by wage-price controls, were intended to change in 1971-72 to take into account cost of living differences in different areas of Alaska and to decrease the incentive for parents to board large numbers of students by reducing payments for more than two students. Placing two students together is desirable since they provide emotional support for each other, but placing large numbers of students in a home usually places too great a strain on the household and prevents parents from giving sufficient attention to each student.

3Upon the recommendations of a psychiatrist who worked with the Boarding Home Program, this policy is being changed. Students with severe social and emotional problems, as determined by psychiatric examination during a boarding home year, will not be admitted to the program in following years.

4In this study as well, 46 Anchorage Boarding Home Program students who showed a low verbal–high performance intelligence test score pattern were given intelligence tests at the beginning and end of the year (Peterson, 1971). These tests indicated an average growth of 7 points in I.Q. scores (see Appendix I, Table I-1). Greatest gains occurred in the vocabulary, comprehension, arithmetic, and block design sub-tests. These results cannot be used to more than suggest possible effects of Boarding Home Program experience in removing cultural bias deficits from intelligence test performance because of the statistical problem of regression toward the mean. Students selected because they score very low on a particular test such as verbal intelligence will generally score higher on a re-test because of chance factors.


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