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At AFN, Native educators share vision of profound change and tribal schools

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: October 21, 2016
  • Published October 20, 2016

FAIRBANKS — Nothing less than a revolution in Alaska education is needed to reach Native students, and tribal organizations should lead the way.

That's the sweeping takeaway on Thursday from a panel at the Alaska Federation of Natives 50th annual convention.

The topic was "Rethinking Indigenous Education: Our Responsibility to Future Generations" and it was led by Evon Peter, a University of Alaska Fairbanks vice chancellor and Gwich'in tribal member.

Peter guided a conversation with Pausauraq Jana Harcharek, director of Inupiaq education for the North Slope Borough School District; X'unei Lance Twitchell, an assistant professor of Alaska Native languages at University of Alaska Southeast; Pearl Brower, president of Ilisagvik College in Barrow, Alaska's only tribal college; and April Counceller, executive director of Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak.

The educators are among those already experimenting with new approaches for rural and Alaska Native students. As it is, students in village schools often score poorly on proficiency tests and drop out in high numbers.

Alaska Native students are being taught subjects that don't relate to their lives and are tested in ways that make no sense in their worlds, the panel members said.

A complete redo of rural schools may be in order, Peter said. Just as Alaska Native health care improved dramatically when tribal organizations took it over from the Indian Health Service, education could improve with a revamped, tribal approach, he said.

"We need a revolution in education that indigenizes the system, the curriculum, the content, the history," the university administrator said.

Federal budgets for years have contained language that prohibits the Bureau of Indian Affairs from running schools in Alaska. That probably would need to be stripped away even though the goal is not a return to BIA schools, Twitchell said. Instead, the hope is for tribes to compact with the federal government to run schools in rural communities, Twitchell said.

"We have to keep telling ourselves 'we got this,' " he said.

On the North Slope, elders years ago directed that traditional knowledge and culture be infused into classes. There is a push to do that in every area from what children eat in the school cafeteria to what is written in their books, Harcharek said.

The school board just approved a requirement to make the region's government and history part of the social studies curriculum. That will bring new, local content into schools where "99 percent of the teachers don't come from the North Slope much less Alaska in many cases," she said.

The hope is to eventually get away entirely away from urban-slanted textbooks published in places like Texas, she said.

"We will no longer have to purchase those because we will be at point where we have created our own and we can present our own government, our own history, our own math, our own science, from our own perspective," Harcharek said.

Twitchell is so passionate about Native language that he is teaching his own children Tlingit first. He envisions development of such "language nests" — perhaps in child-care centers — to keep rarely spoken Alaska Native languages alive. He is a doctoral student in Hawaii, where children who spend time in such nests learn their language in three months, he said.

Native language immersion schools should be exempt from standardized tests, he said. "We have to trust our own abilities and our own expertise."

Counceller said some of the issues are more basic, such as creating a desire in young people to learn their Native language as well as making sure they have a place to learn.

In Barrow, Ilisagvik College is working to offer its first four-year degrees, starting with one in business, as well as on a program to develop indigenous teachers, its president, Brower, said.

It also is launching, with UAF, a Native Alaska leadership academy in the spring.