A new cultural program aims to support Alaska Native high school students and introduce them to possible careers in education through workshops, trainings and presentations grounded in Indigenous knowledge and practices.
The program is meant to help increase the number of Alaska Native teachers in the Anchorage School District, a statistic that educators say doesn’t reflect the diversity of the student body. While Anchorage has among the most diverse schools in the nation, and about 10% of its students are Alaska Native or Indigenous, a 2021 report from the district found “no group besides white students have a teacher population that meets or exceeds their population proportionally.”
“We do have a severe need for Indigenous educators,” said Helena Batman, the district’s director of Indigenous and migrant education. She said there also needs to be more support for early-career teachers and college students pursuing teaching degrees to address the problem.
The new program, which is called Gui Kima — or “about myself” in Northern Alutiiq — is funded by a five-year $330,000 federal grant the district received last year. The goals of the program are to help Alaska Native and Indigenous students develop skills in advocating for themselves, “and to fill that cultural hunger,” Batman said.
Students are able to participate in after-school and lunchtime workshops led by master artists and culture bearers, Batman said, which so far has included career talks, kuspuk- and moccasin-making classes, storytelling workshops and artwork showcases.
Students are able to sign up for the monthly workshops and talks online. So far, around 50 students have participated in the program, according to Cyndi Reeves, who was hired on as part of the grant to help coordinate the program.
Reeves helped put together a summer session for students that focused on storytelling, cultural expressions of identity, college and career readiness, and harvesting and gathering. She said students reported more confidence with public speaking after the workshops.
“Of the students who gave us feedback, 99% said they would recommend the program to others,” Reeves said. “So we did get very positive feedback from students.”
The Cook Inlet Tribal Council and Alaska Pacific University are also included as partners in the grant; Batman said students are able to visit APU’s campus in the summer to help further launch possible careers in education, and the tribal council’s focus is on providing similar cultural identity opportunities to middle school students.
Batman said some of the program’s focus is around helping students who move to Anchorage from rural communities ground themselves as they adjust to different ways of learning.
“We all learn differently, and our people tend to be quieter, and tend to observe more and think more before they express what they’re want to say,” said Batman, who is from Dillingham and is a member of the Curyung Tribal Council.
“We really value our elders and our culture-bearers. And I think that for students, being surrounded by the people that we’re used to really in a comfortable setting, I think that is very, very helpful — having those familiar faces, and traditional backgrounds, and food, and being able to kind of quietly understand each other,” she said.
Batman, who first moved to Anchorage from Dillingham as a college student to pursue her education degree, said she thinks part of the reason there aren’t more Alaska Native educators in the district is the tough transition and lack of support for students, as well as teacher accreditation turmoil that Alaska’s university system has grappled with in recent years.
“It can be daunting, coming into an urban area and learning how to navigate the college system and where to live. It’s expensive, and it’s very different,” she said.
Having more Indigenous educators matters as a form of representation for students, Batman said. She spent nine years in the district as a teacher, and said it was clear how much it meant for students to see someone with a shared sense of cultural identity in the classroom.
”It’s instant connection,” she said. “It’s a certain way that you act and you feel, and I think they begin to really feel a sense of comfort.”