North Slope schools add local history to curriculum

After years of discussion and consideration, local lessons are now on the agenda for North Slope Borough students.

On Monday, the borough school board passed through second reading a policy making North Slope government and history requirements mandatory for high school graduation.

"Yes, it is official," said Pausauraq Jana Harcharek, director of Iñupiaq education for the school district, over the phone during a break in the meeting. "The board did take action today. I'm just really excited."

The requirements will go into effect for freshmen starting high school in 2017 and will not affect students who are already partway through their courses, nor will they delay students already nearing graduation.

For those just beginning, though, the new classes will be interwoven with existing course requirements.

"They'll have to take it for a total of .5 credits for each increment, so .5 credits in North Slope government and .5 credits in North Slope history, along with the other two that are already defined, which include .5 in Alaska studies and .5 in United States government. They will also have the option of taking an additional one credit worth of social studies electives," Harcharek said.

[With few fluent speakers left, young people are teaching Inupiaq as they learn it]


Local history often means Native history in much of rural Alaska, and discussions over how to integrate it into the existing "Western" educational framework have been happening across the state in recent years.

Traditional textbooks and coursework often don't touch on topics like Alaska Native corporations, land claims and natural resource development, which can be central to the daily lives of school students and their families.

"As a case in point, our students didn't know who our founding leaders were and who the founding mayor of the borough was and the legacy that our first leaders left behind," Harcharek said. "They were deprived of that information and that knowledge that's so critical to identity development, to know how our government came to be and who the leaders were and what they did, in many cases, to fight for our rights."

Not only does she hope the new classes will give students a greater sense of ownership over their own education, she hopes they will better prepare them to be engaged citizens after they graduate.

"Creating an environment in which they can learn this can only benefit everyone all the way around, because with that knowledge they can look at the way our government functions — not only our borough government but how our tribal governments fit into the picture and how they came about and how they have evolved over the years and how we have used these various forms of government to advance our political agenda, to affect our interests and our rights," she said.

One of the first steps toward making education more applicable to Alaska students as a demographic happened 12 years ago, when the state school board first adopted a specific Alaska history course policy for all schools.

As the Juneau Empire reported in December 2004, state educators debated the pros and cons for weeks before passing the requirement.

"It's important that if people have been citizens here, they need to have some background in what has occurred in the development of the state," Juneau School Board member Robert Van Slyke told the Empire.

Several board members at the time cited independent efforts like the Alaska Humanities Forum's then-new history and cultural studies online curriculum and teacher guide as resources that spurred their decision to support the measure.

Since then, the forum's site has been updated a number of times and in April 2016 was re-launched in its most comprehensive form to date, covering topics from geography and Russian settlement to American territorial days to modern Alaska governance.

However, because statewide requirements, like Alaska studies courses, have since been the focus, local and regional studies have often been left behind and are still missing from many school districts' mandates.

On the North Slope, the process of establishing local history and government classes stemmed from work done by the district over the last decade.

"In the first place, the work that we've done at the district took us out to the villages back in 2006-2007. The district finally (realized) that we hadn't ever, as a district, gone to our people to ask what is important to them for our kids — what's important as community members for them to see in our schools," Harcharek said. "Among the things they indicated were important were that we need to teach our history. So, this is sort of a culminating part of that, to honor our communities' wishes to see classes taught on our history and our government."

Harcharek, who is also a strong advocate for incorporating Iñupiaq language and culture into North Slope classes, considers herself a "history buff" and said she's looking forward to seeing the possibilities these new courses open up for students.

"I'm just really excited because I think it's through knowing from where you came that you can maneuver in a much more grounded fashion your way into the future."

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission