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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: 

Immigrants
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
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."
Power 
Religion
Knowledge
"Civilization"

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.