Village schools are in urgent need of radical reform

COMPASS: Other points of view

December 7, 2008 

For 100 years, Native Alaskans went to a school where their own language was forbidden, their history and culture benignly ignored or violently demeaned, denigrated, even persecuted. Teachers were given no orientation to the language or culture of their students or the communities in which they taught. The curriculum was the same course of studies as anywhere else in the U.S. And after 8th grade, the best and brightest students were recruited to attend boarding schools hundreds, even thousands, of miles from home.

Those BIA institutions were operated, in my estimation, with controls that rival today's correctional centers. We locked up three generations of Alaska Natives for the crime of being born Native. We inferred not too subtly that their parents were incapable of raising their own children. The state had to remove them in order to civilize them and make "real Americans" of them.

Then came the famous lawsuit with Molly Hootch's name attached and the state was ordered to end the boarding school system. High schools have been built at great expense but the "success" of the students has not much improved as we hoped. This is not because Molly Hootch was a mistake. It was because the assimilationist "melting pot" philosophy of 19th century schooling has never been challenged. We are attempting in the name of "education" the same cultural genocide as the missionary-teachers of 150 years ago. Teacher orientation has hardly changed. The curriculum remains the same. The system is still focused on destroying traditional Alaska Native society, now at the local instead of the national or state level.

Ask any rural teacher when they consider their program a success and they will say when their graduates leave the village. Ask then how many actually do leave for further training at AVTEC, UA, or Job Corps, and the percentage is usually fairly low. Ask then what in their curriculum is relevant to the 80 to 90 percent of their students who have no intention or wish to leave, and they'll admit that there is nothing in the existing curriculum that would excite or interest that group. Ask then why this does not explain the high truancy and dropout rates.

The problem with Molly Hootch isn't that we built too many schools. The problem is that the reform only built schools, without reforming the way we educate or orient educators whom we import mostly from Outside. We have never seriously reconsidered the substance of the curriculum. The village school remains an alien institution whose aim is the destruction of the community in which is operates. We systematically take bright, beautiful 5-year-olds and in 10 years transform them into angry, alienated, suicidal 15-year-olds. For every successful graduate we have five catastrophes. The whole structure needs radical reform.

Now we hear that removal is being considered again as a "solution." That, I would submit, is a step backward, toward the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Uproot a Native village and you destroy it. All the social and spiritual bonds that have provided meaning, the very fabric of that community, will be disrupted and destroyed. It is time to learn from our mistakes. It is time to reform our schools. It is time we stopped killing our kids.

Father Michael Oleksa is an Orthodox priest from Anchorage who specializes in diversity training and cross-cultural communications.

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