Popular Posts

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Bush Teaching 101: Communication and Culture


Every time we come into contact with another human being, we run the risk of saying or implying something we don’t mean.

Even using numerous words and complex sentences, we can still change the meanings of what we say with inflection and sarcasm.

‘Slippage’ is the term used for the meanings sometimes “lost in translation”
Figure 1 below introduces the idea of the The Iceberg Principle. This simple concept outlines that which humans share in typical conversation and interaction as being above the surface of the figurative water. The lens through which we see the world, or culture, lies beneath. 

FIGURE 1 (original image)

Food for thought: How do doctor's and lawyer's deal with slippage?

Think of all the jargon, or industry specific language, thrown around by lawyers. Consider the innocents imprisoned and guilty freed due to loopholes in the law. I often consider the doctors who, with considerable knowledge of anatomy and body systems save millions of lives every year. The ability to convey the importance of medical procedures, healthy lifestyle, or legal representation is the key to their success. Teaching in the bush is a similar scenario. 

Teaching & Slippage

In every relationship there is communication and in every communication there is slippage. We cannot possibly express our thoughts in the manner in which they appear within our imagination with 100% accuracy, regardless of the language we speak. The most educated man or woman, speaking with the richest vocabulary will at times find themselves at a loss to explain thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Couple that with the simple fact that we all have a different schema, varied levels of English language vocabulary, and dramatically different definitions for many words and we find ourselves misunderstood often even among friends. 

In every instance of slippage someone will suffer. Those requesting something will be disappointed, those demanding services will be angered, and those seeking affirmation will be upset. In some cases those in authority will punish, harm, or react negatively do to slippage.

Police with suspects. Officer arrests an innocent foreigner due to a lack of English language skills when questioned in the events surrounding a nearby crime. 
Judge with accused. The judge, asking incriminating questions receives an unknowingly affirmative answer from the foreigner mentioned above and sentences them to jail time. 
Employee with Employer. Manager asks employee to work on Holy Day and employee lacks ability to express why they cannot be at work that day. The manager may fire a high quality employee over simple misunderstanding. 

Teachers with students will be the focus of this discussion, of course, so I will delve a bit deeper in the cultural nuances of Yup'ik cultures and the bush in general. The bottom line is that schools, teachers, and all individuals associated there with are perceived to be in power. School districts are generally the largest employers of bush communities.

The superintendents employ sometimes hundreds of local persons. Principals of the school hire and fire more people in the village than the store, the tribal office, and the city combined. Being the largest, safest, and often the most aesthetically pleasing building in the community, there are often wakes, gatherings, and events happening there daily. Who will be asked for permission to use this facility? Teachers grade students and support staff disciplines the local children. There is a clear balance of power. 

Who will suffer then in cases of slippage? 

Village Slippage 

FIGURE 2 (Created by Samuel Bourgeois)

I have learned so much over the years from Yup'ik elders living in Togiak, Mountain Village, and the 80 or so villages and towns I have visited in Alaska. I will do my best to share the idiosyncrasies I have observed  in terms of being an immediate benefit to a newcomer to bush Alaska. Organized using Figure 2 above, the following topics will detail some interesting observations I have made over the years. 

I grew up in the South where guests are treated like family and your reputation hinges on generosity and kindness. Certain customs such as letter writing, invitations, and thank you cards are lost on me but alive and well today. As I transitioned into the culture of the bush I became acutely aware of the lack of pomposity and pretentiousness of the Yup'ik people. Much of the expected behaviors to be wary of are unique to the community in which you might visit. If an elder dies, fishing and hunting might cease for a day or even a week. Birthdays sometimes involve a feast and party thrown by the family in which all who attend enjoy and leave a few dollars for the honoree. I typically leave $20 for good friends and their children, and less depending on how close I am to the birthday boy or girl.

As a man who enjoys hunting and fishing I generally jump at the opportunity to get out and see the world with local men and women. My first year in the bush I met a local man working as a custodian in the school. Every night he would come to my class and announce, "Yeah, I think I'll go check out... (fill in the location up river or down the coast)" and I would reply something innocuous, like, "good for you." I thought it was small talk, gloating, encouragement to buy a boat, or some other silly thing. As it turns out, that was his way of inviting me to join him! My advice to new teachers in the bush, then is to put yourself out there, so to speak. Ask to join local people in their harvest and outdoor fun. Offer to supply gas or food on the trip. Don't be shy. If someone does offer you join them, never say no. You may never be asked again.

As far as your students go, there are a few things I have noticed and made myself more comfortable with over the years which at one time offended my "delicate sensibilities." Students out in the village may burp at lunch, pass gas in the classroom, or spit far more often than you are accustomed to. It may offend you as it did me initially, but you must simply let it go. Taking personal offense when they do it, though you express your distain, will only point out a weakness in your personal character to be exploited by a child seeking attention.

Adults in the village often speak there mind. Taking this as a personal offense is not recommended either. Gruff, crass, or rude as you might think it, understanding it as being an expression of their feelings and ideas you must interpret it at face value. Basically, go with the flow and don't get up in arms over perceived insults.

This one is a tough one. My opinions expressed here are based on child psychology, knowledge of domestic violence or abuse statistics, and general observations. As a teacher we are all told to use the PET Method (Proximity; Eye Contact; Touch) to manage a student in the classroom. Disruptive students require teachers to walk near them when they talk, look them in the eye when they are not following directions, and touch an arm or shoulder when all else fails. In the Yup'ik culture this may not be effective, however. Effectively a stranger, new teachers must be aware of the differences in Yup'ik customs which are often at odds with traditional teaching styles. Appropriate distance and touch are subjects best left to experiential and personal judgement.

Often when new teachers get close to village students, the child will freeze up and become very shy, quite, and even fearful. Forcing the matter can even cause a child with a history of outbursts to lash out. Touching students, without understanding their family history can also be detrimental. With instances of sexual abuse many times higher than the national average and rape more common in rural Alaska than anywhere in our country, though underreported, teachers must be mindful of the power of touch. In some villages "one in every 30 men are registered sex offenders."(AK Dispatch)

Conversely, villages are full of love and affection. Hugging small children may be a thing of the past in the inner city where lawsuits and liability prevent such, but not in the bush. Genuine love is expressed freely and giving your students a great squeeze now and again is perfectly acceptable when they initiate. I simply wish to open the eyes of those unfamiliar with village life so that they are better prepared for this grand adventure. 

I recall in my college years being forced to give oral presentations and graded well on my "teacher voice." Loud and booming, I projected my authority throughout the classroom and enraptured my audience with a volume uncomfortable to those in the front row. I would encourage you to leave that "teacher voice" on the playground. Yelling in the Yup'ik culture is rare. Elders are powerful and command respect based on their content not volume. Teaching in the traditional sense was personal and intimate. Mothers to children and grandparents to young people spoke softly and required active listeners to absorb the full value of what they had to share. Unknowingly, I offended countless community members in my first years in the bush... all because of my volume. 

Yup'ik culture is rich in song, dance, and story. Church services include numerous "specials" in which locals will sing their favorite songs to the crowd. Men dance, drum, and bellow the ancient and modern tunes known as Yuuraq. Students will be more engaged by your iTunes collection than where you are from and cherish their iPods as much as their friends. Evidence shows students learn through melody and rhythm as well, so I encourage you to use music in your classroom when possible. 
Many a Yup'ik story involves song, too. I would venture to guess that stories, much like poetry, are deeply rooted in musicality of voice and spoken word. 

Little is of more import that the tempo in which you speak. I have never been to New York City, but I have met those from there. Their tempo, of pace of speech (and life in general) are alarmingly fast to those of us who live in the village. What's the rush I say?

Big city folks and, for the most part, Americans in general speak rapidly compared to the people of Western Alaska. A coworker, originally from Houston, years ago illustrated this difference very well for me. I remember it was their first time in front of my students. They got up in front of the class and began rattling off career paths and skills for decision making. Talking for what seemed like hours, they paused only to breathe and ask, "any questions?" every few minutes. I had a class of wide-eyed seventh graders staring at them like they were on fire the whole time. Upon leaving, the first student raised there hand and said, "Where is ____ from?" and "What the heck was ____ talking about?" My class had not heard a single word and were awestruck at the speed this person could let loose meaningless vocabulary.

The point is: slow down. I am not implying that Yup'ik students are slow learners. Quite the opposite, actually. You may find them learning on their own or in groups what you could not adequately convey or teach. What I am saying is that the quality of your words matters much more than the quantity. Use vocabulary your students undertand and they will learn easily and quickly. Speak at the pace to which they are accustomed and you may never need to repeat yourself. Engage them and they will perform highly, even beyond your expectations! 


I have not yet scratched the surface of communication and will likely never master teaching in bush Alaska, but I hope I have helped shed light on the subject for you. Basically my hope is to better prepare future teachers so that they may overcome certain difficulties in time to get through to their students before the first year passes them by. Many a time I have seen well-meaning teachers turn down a second year in the bush simply because the felt slighted, resentful, or indignant because of perceived events and their bearing on personal and professional relationships.

The topics I briefly reviewed here account for but a few things you will see commonly in rural Alaskan communities. By all means you will find more, like the shoulder shrug for "I don't know" and the eyebrow raise for "yes." Minor details change from place to place. In some villages a child will never look you in the eye while being scolded, in others they will. In the end I hope you recognize that there is indeed a great deal of slippage in our communication with students and parents. How you deal with those are what will define you as a person and as a teacher in the bush. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Bush Teaching 101: Schools vs Education

Where does education happen?  What is school? 

Modern definitions help less than traditional practices in clarifying the difference between the two. 

Online colleges are the new norm and classrooms no longer require four walls. Richard Louv does a wonderful job explaining that traditional cultures and learning by doing are as educational as any modern notion of "best practices."

The fact is they are not the same and they don’t need each other.

EDUCATION= useful, meaningful, relevant 

Food for thought - Aboriginal cultures observe the animal world:

Animals show their young by example, through practice, why not do the same thing?

Rural cultures have all the necessary components to be classified as education

The key here for teachers is that Natives were not and never will be a “blank slate.” They have knowledge different from that of western libraries, and foreign to most outsiders. What they lack in balancing equations, they make up for in balanced hunting, fishing, and subsistance harvesting. Traditional medicine is often as effective as prescriptions  though the periodic table was unknown to the  people of the far north. 

Historic Evidence

Food for thought... My ancestors voluntarily left, fled, or were expelled from their homelands at some point. They found hope in America, thrived, assimilated, and prospered under a new paradigm. On the other hand, American history paints a different picture for Native Americans. Consider the following comparisons: 

WANT to assimilate. 
Schools are a BLESSING (they help you get ahead).
Assimilation does not EXTINGUISH your culture.
Ex: France is still there, people still speak French, no one stops being French when you leave...

Natives were CONQUERED. (Think of the Indian Wars)
Schools are a vehicle of OPPRESSION. (Carlisle School for Boys)
Assimilating means EXTINCTION.
If they are gone, there is no one to carry on...
Ex: Eyak language of Alaska, the culture of the Atakapa in Louisiana, and the traditions of the Plains Indians. 

The Big Lie

The danger of not grasping this is in the creation of a farse far too common in the bush:

Native people DEPEND on teachers.

Though a total lie, this fundamental belief can permeate the psyche of those oppressed by it. Dangerous and false as it may be, I have seen it rooted far too deeply in friends, students, and community members. 

The Big Lie says:
"Outsiders have everything necessary for success in life."

Outsiders brought guns, Jesus Christ, alcohol, governance, sugar, the Bible, calculous, written languages, and urban values among other things. What the bush would be like without snowmachines, outboards, and high powered rifles I cannot say. What I can speak to is the detriment of alcohol, drugs, and immoral movies or television on the youth of the average Alaskan village. Fine is the line we walk when considering the pro's and con's of all of these influences. 

Effects on Communities

I can only guess what a community and it's residents might have felt at the time of contact, later with the first schools, and finally with their children, grand children, and great grandchildren growing up in America. I have a guess, though. This supposition is based on the speculative thoughts of a 32 year old Louisiana born teacher with less than a decade of bush experience, but one I root in my personal interactions with others and based on careful observation and deep friendships. Forgive me if I am wrong and do not be angry at perceived insult; this is only my theoretical perspective. Here is the timeline I have read, observed, interpolated, and organized in my own experiences: 

There was a great deal of frustration over the disruption in subsistence lifestyles and customs brought about by attendance of the first schools. Students are missing out on gathering, stories, language, customs, hunting, and general education by their family and community.

Anxiety over removal from traditional lives was likely common due to the lack of quality schools in the vicinity and (often) negativity associated with both attendance and avoidance of the school house. Boarding schools were commonly attended far from home. 

Anger at the system would have been common. 

Bitterness over being caught between the so-called "white" world and the traditional lifestyle is often obvious. Many a conversation has begun with, "I wish we could go back to..."

Guilt about the demise of one's culture might precipitate. Students have expressed disappointment in their lack of linguistic skills and cultural knowledge. Parents have expressed shame in not teaching these values and wish they could do and learn more themselves. 

Grief and hopeless in one's current situation troubles many a friend and acquaintance because of a misguided belief that there is no way to undo the past or improve their lifestyle. 

Second and third generations repeat the cycle and escalate each to new levels, making matters worse and worse. Those that leave the village for the city are challenged by numerous difficulties, both perceived and actual. Lacking city survival skills some experience failure and a return to rural life. 

Returning to villages from boarding schools, colleges, and independent city life, students and adults often find themselves unprepared for the subsistence lifestyle due to a prolonged absence. Without nets, motors, and permits, fishing is difficult. Without land, a fish camp cannot be built. A hunter without transportation, a rifle, and practice will find success difficult. The examples are too numerous to list here. 

In their shoes I would feel as though I had wasted years of my life learning useless information from both cultures. I would be troubled to say the least.

I would struggle. 

"Fortunately for the state, the world, and for Natives, the heart of being Alaska Native could not be erased. In many places the elders - and some very wise parents - ignored the lies about Alaska Natives being primitive or savage.

Buying into the Big Lie leads to antisocial behaviors and self-destruction. Abuse and domestic violence rises to levels many times higher than in urban areas. Suicide eats away at a community from within. Alcoholism and drug abuse destroy families and scars entire generations.

These are all symptoms of a larger problem. Leadership and autonomy are necessary for self-reliance, but depend on education. The education of the elders and traditional values must be made equal to that of it's western counterpart, however. Finding value in oneself, one's culture, and in one's history is the first step. Without inner strength and locally-grown support systems, help is sought from the outside. 

**Enter more Outsiders**

“Experts” come to the aide of the village. Suicide prevention programs, councilors, and ministers, all well intentioned, rush to be of some assistance. Money is often invested in large sums. 

It is my humble opinion, though, that only a community can restore itself. Only from within can healing occur. Only from within can progress, change, and growth occur. This is why I love teaching in the bush. This is why I love my job. I seek only to be a part of the solution, never to "fix" anything myself. I serve my community with humility, openness, and respect. I empower others and uplift. Tearing down or pointing fingers at those who would hinder, harm, or obstruct me will solve nothing. Though I have made more mistakes than I care to admit, I learn everyday from them and have an open mind to the wonderful people who employ, honor, and welcome me along the Delta. I encourage you to be yourself, humble and as a part of the solution, not just an "Expert." Otherwise you may find yourself as part of the problem. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Bush Teaching 101: Yup'ik Worldviews


I have worked as a teacher, a consultant, a professional development specialist, a Technology Coordinator, and now a Director of Technology. In each of these roles I have had occasion to talk to and mentor educators coming to the bush for the first time. As a teacher I organized cultural introduction sessions for new staff at my school, presented at new teacher orientation, and taught informal "classes" to colleagues throughout the years. As a consultant and trainer I presented to other school districts on similar topics. Now with Lower Yukon, I approach the second new hire orientation as a full time employee and the third in general.
Each of these events bring me cause to reflect on my content, my research, my ideas, and my delivery. It occurred to me recently, while considering the next few topics to discuss on this blog, to share these contents freely and seek input. I am unsure of how many installments I will share here, but seeing as to how I learn something new every day, I likely will never complete it.

What does it mean to be Yup'ik?

‘In the beginning there was a balance between the spirit world, the sky, the Earth, and the world below. The animals traveled freely between all. Then came the First Humans. Yup’ik mythology tells us that we washed up pitifully on beach one day. Raven watched us curiously; we had no fur to keep warm, no claws to hunt with or defend ourselves, no fangs to bite with, etc. We would die soon if left on our own, so Raven gathered with the other animals to discuss our fate. Raven explained the situation and the animals decided to take pity on Humans. They agreed to GIVE themselves to us as a sacrifice, a gift. They did so with the expressed requirement that Humans would forever honor and respect them for their lives.’

With this story we see the perception of animals as our friends, our equals, and in many ways our superiors. They most certainly have advantages we don’t, and without them we would surely parish. This origin story always interests me. It is humble, respectful. It is full of humility and reflective of our place and role in nature. 

Differences in Perspectives

Now contrast this worldview with that of Western/Judeo-Christian culture. Our legends and myths tell us the animals are wild, set against us, and should be beaten, trained, and dominated. 
  • Hercules and the lion
  • Jonah and the whale
  • Eve and the serpent
  • Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf 
  • Genisis 1:28 - God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.
Animals are either domestic or wild. Think of some of our worst fears. ("When animals attack" or "Cujo") Western culture even uses the word itself as a negative cannotation: 'Mike Tyson bit Evander Hollyfield's ear off, he's an animal in the ring!'

Yup'ik Tradition
Animals represent model families, teachers, and our sustainers. Wolf packs teach us to be a caring, nurturing family. Ravens are monogamous. Salmon model work ethics. The moose and whale offer themselves to us as a sacrifice to nourish us. 

We should all be aware of certain differences between our own perceptions and those of others. Because we all have individual and unique experiences, we all have a different way of looking at things.

In honor of LYSD and Scammon Bay:


If you want to look at a "textbook definition" of Yup'ik, think of it this way: Native Americans from the coastal regions of Siberia and Alaska occupying the region south of Nome to South Central Alaska. This in my language, of course, and not official. In lay terms, which are considered uncouth, or not P.C., you could call them one of the ethnicities making up the "Eskimo" people. Again, I would not use this language or terminology, but to help describe Yup'ik in crass terms refer to the chart below. 
You may wish to refer to the map pictured above here


In terms of identity, we all define ourselves differently and uniquely.  I am a Cajun. I do not live in South Louisiana, I do not fish, shrimp, hunt alligators, or raise farm animals. I don't speak French outside common phrases or expressions and I am not a practicing Catholic. These are all of the things one might attribute to being Cajun and though I do not fit this "textbook definition" I remain firm in my identity. Just food for thought, though. 

Yup'ik language tells us who they are. 
  • Yuk (people) and -iaq (genuine/authentic) combine to form Yup'ik.
  • We; self; “The People”; “The Real Humans
  • ‘Self’ is not autonomous, you are a part of something greater, one with the community

Besides the plurality of the people as a whole, naming can also be interesting to outsiders:
  • Not gender specific
  • Passed on from people to people reflecting the spirit within – the ‘Yua
  • It tells a history in itself
  • You might actually be spoken to as if you were the individual, even referred to as an elder at a young age (which can be quite comical, yet profoundly meaningful).

How we relate to each other in Yup'ik traditions is unique as well. We are not just people. Spirits reside in animals, humans, and our world itself. Communicating respect between the world around us is of the utmost importance. Yup’ik masks reflect these principles through art. An animal mask generally has one eye representing a fetus or human. Insinuates connection to the spirit within all things.

Prehistory: Contrasting Yup'ik and Western Worldviews

  • Human’s had free access to spirit world and all of the realms above and below
  • Humans were supposed to pass this information on to the next generation, but we could not maintain this knowledge indefinitely, and paradise faded
  • Now when we look to the past, we see a downward change in our world. The focus is to pass on everything we can to preserve what little is left of this knowledge for the next generation.
  • the First People were the most enlightened
  • Stories and history is passed down and the perfect ways of doing things have slowly been lost in each subsequent generation (imagine a 10,000 year old "pass the message along" game)

  • Human's possess sin from an early age and require forgiveness from other sources
  • Our nature is base and sinful
  • Science claims we come from unintelligent apes and evolve into sentient humans
  • Modern technology and medicine make us more fit for our environment, help us live longer, and grant us happier lives
  • Humanity is improving and constantly getting better
  • There was nothing of value prior to history, a.k.a, human advancement
In modern terms think of the dichotomy of success in the modern city versus the bush. A successful provider, a nukullpiak, of the bush kills animals to feed, house, clothe, and trade for their family. They know where the best fishing holes are. They track animals with ease. They know the seasons and interpret the weather to prepare for the harshness of the Alaskan wilderness. In Anchorage this person may lack any real skills necessary to secure a decent job, pay bills, and generally "make it" in the city. Conversely, a teacher with a PhD, able to speak multiple languages, well read in philosophy, history, and science may never have even been camping. This individual would die in the bush without housing, plumbing, water, and groceries from the outside. Who is successful, then?