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Spheres of Wellbeing 



Education Under American Colonization


One of the most noticeable changes that western assimilation under American colonization brought was near linguistic annihilation as they tried to silence Alaska Natives languages (La Belle, 2008; Hirshberg & Sharp, 2005; Black, 2001; Dauenhauer, 1997). In just one hundred years, the Kodiak Alutiiq moved from trilingualism to monolingualism. During the 1700s-1800s, Alutiiq families commonly spoke Sugt’stun, Russian and English, and most were also fluent in other Alaska Native and Scandinavian languages. Then after the 1900s, they were left with only basic monolingualism. Today, there are only approximately 33 Sugt’stun speakers left on Kodiak (Counceller, 2012) — a tragic indictment of the power of educational assimilation.

After America acquired Alaska from Russia, the propagation of the American education system’s “English Only” policy through Bureau of Indian Affair (BIA) take over of missionary schools, and the boarding school era, Native languages were effectively devalued, limiting language transmission, and creating communication barriers within families that further impacted cultural transmission and emotional wellbeing (La Belle, 2008; Hirshberg & Sharp, 2005). On Kodiak there were only three villages that had schools run through the U.S. Indian Service department in 1947: Afognak, Old Harbor and Ouzinkie (Lantis, personal notes). Children from the other villages had to travel to these villages or Kodiak in order to attend school, or attend boarding school elsewhere in Alaska or the Lower-48.

Countless Elders from throughout Kodiak tell the same story of how their Native language was forbidden in school as they suffered cruel punishment and ridicule by their teachers (Counceller, 2010; Crowell et al., 2001). Hirshberg and Sharp (2005) documented stories about Alaskan schools where “children were forbidden to speak their native languages and were even beaten for speaking them” (p. iii). Ironically, the American education system instituted this policy believing that Native students would then more easily assimilate to become productive citizens in the new Alaskan society. However, their social engineering efforts instead left students with limited language proficiency and a debilitating lack of self-esteem as they lost their connection to Elders and their culture, and subsequently with themselves (Pullar, 1992).

As Gamble (1986) discusses, human language and thinking are interlinked. While Gamble describes the communication disconnect experienced between western and Indigenous peoples, it is equally true within Indigenous societies where the younger generation grows up without a linguistic relationship to others in their own families. The continuing communication barriers between western and Native peoples, as well as among assimilated Native peoples, has resulted in many negative influences from misguided social service implementation to emotionally and environmentally damaging research and regulations. Gamble (1986) argues that a lack of effective communication across generations and cultures is almost ensured “...unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar or can in some way be calibrated...[as interactions between cultures] often leads to fundamental differences in perceptions of what is true, what is right, and what conduces to pubic needs and welfare” (p. 22). Joanne Mulcahy (2001), points out the paradox of the American welfare system for Alaska Natives when she says:

Ironically, as the material well-being of Native people grew with the antipoverty programs of the 1960s and ‘70s, their psychic and spiritual health eroded with dependence on Western ways of life. Handed down generation after generations, the ‘infection of the soul’ ultimately manifested itself in the suicide, domestic violence, and alcoholism that pervades Native villages. (p. xxix)

Well-meaning individuals, including educators, from outside Native communities are notorious for making assumptions that the fundamentals of right and wrong and core values are much the same across cultures, or should be. One of the most common and significant mistakes is in the prioritization of values. For example, Gamble (1986) explains that in western culture often “the only things that count are the things that can be counted” (p. 22). This is arguably one of the main flaws within the western educational system, as educators are forced to place heavier priority on testing and quantitative measures of student performance than on more intrinsic values, which are deeply embedded in the practical and real life application learning process important within traditional Indigenous cultures.

Consequently, as western education and government gained control within Alaska Native communities, it greatly diminished traditional harvest or subsistence lifeways. The development of a cash economy, wage labor, the American education systems’ curricula, extinguishment of land claims through ANCSA (1971), and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) (1980), as well as new technologies, have all led to a disconnection in the lives of many modern Alaska Natives from their traditional interdependencies with the natural world. The loss of these life skills and spiritual ties has further contributed to health and social dysfunction as families have moved into cities or begun to rely on imported foods that must be purchased from a store. This has considerably limited their contact with the natural world and the application of traditional harvest knowledge. In turn their radical diet change has resulted in new illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease (Carrera-Bastos, Fontes-Villalba, O’Keefe et al., 2011). Further, many Alaska Native communities have experienced increased pollution as they have become more detached from their environment and the proper right relationships with it in order to sustain balance (Kawagley, 2006, p. 51).

Similarly, as the subsistence way of life diminished, the American welfare system permeated Alaskan Native communities. Qualifying as poverty stricken in the American perspective, many Native families in their crises states turned to welfare and government assisted programs for housing, food, energy, and other social and health services. These resources have both positive and negative influences. One significant cultural transformation that many families have experienced is a growing sense of entitlement, which greatly impacts self-worth and retention of survival knowledge. The American welfare system has enabled many Native families to continue unhealthy lifeways, becoming increasingly dependent and dysfunctional―all of which greatly impacts the children growing up in homes reliant on the welfare system. In turn this impacts their success within the education system, as evidenced by high numbers of “special needs” designated students. “Native students in Alaska are 50% more likely to be placed in special education programs for general learning disabilities compared to other students (National Center for Culturally Responsive Education)” (Glavinic, 2010).

Also in the 1900s, the Baptist Church became actively engaged on Kodiak by providing social services for orphans, due to epidemics in the early 1900s and a high numbers of orphans in need of a home ( They operated four mission houses, including Ouzinkie, Larsen Bay, and a Baptist Industrial School on Woody Island, which was later moved to establish the Kodiak Mission after a fire. From 1938-1958, the Ouzinkie Mission supported children under five during World War II in an effort to keep the younger children in a rural location in case of invasion into the more populated areas. The Baptist Mission provided homes for orphaned children who lost their parents or who were unable to care for them. While the missions provided homes for children, they also pushed an “English Only” policy and a focus on acculturation which furthered orphaned the children they tried to help.

Another significant occurrence that altered Alutiiq community communication and traditional education practices under the American period was the requirement to send children to boarding schools. As Hirshberg and Sharp (2005) explain,

The history of formal schooling for Alaska Natives, from the time of the U.S. acquisition of Alaska in 1867 to the present, is a troubled one. The initial goals of formal education in the North were to Christianize and “civilize” Alaska Natives... Over time, the federal, territorial, and state governments established a boarding school system to accomplish these goals. For the first three quarters of the 20th century Alaska Native children were sent to boarding schools or boarding homes either inside or outside Alaska. (p. 1)

Students from Kodiak went to several different boarding schools, including Mount Edgecumbe Boarding School (an accredited high school) ( near Sitka, Alaska; Wrangell Institute (a middle ungraded school) in Wrangell, Alaska; Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon; and Chilocco Indian School in Chilocco, Oklahoma. Mount Edgecumbe has since transitioned into a modern boarding school favored today by rural families. Wrangell Institute was built in 1932 by the BIA and served as a boarding school until the 1970s. Chemawa offered industrial training for boys and girls. The occupational training focus of these schools was perhaps the most effective at assimilating students to western social expectations and wage economics. The shift in values from a subsistence lifestyle and the disconnection from family and community was devastating for most. However, there were those who appreciated the new opportunities the boarding schools offered, but they too were forever changed.

Regardless of whether boarding school was an individually positive or negative experience, the boarding schools inevitably resulted in loss of language and traditions, loss of access to community role models, shifts in sense of identity and were successful at assimilating a whole generation of Alaska Natives (Kleinfeld, 1973). For the many students who suffered abuse as well, these losses were further exacerbated (Hirshberg & Sharp, 2005). Elders and family histories tell many stories of painful experiences associated with being forced to live away from home to attend American boarding schools (La Belle, 2008; Kleinfeld, 1973).

In fact, from 1969 to 1972 Kodiak attempted to address the ongoing rural exodus of high school age students to boarding schools elsewhere in Alaska and the lower-48 states by establishing a local dormitory complex at the Kodiak Aleutian Regional High School in the city of Kodiak. This local boarding school offered rural students from Kodiak’s six villages an opportunity to attend high school alongside town-based students. The school served 113 boarded students in 1969—its first year of operation; followed by 120 in 1970, 152 in 1972 (BIA, 1972), and 73 in 1973 (Hirshberg & Sharp, 2005). This regional boarding school experienced significant issues, including cases of abuse by guardians and other students. It was ultimately abandoned as an ineffective strategy for serving rural high school students. This school within a school was short-lived due to a host of negative impacts, and ultimately closed in 1973.

As Hirshberg and Sharp (2005) report, “[boarding school] cost many students not only the loss of their language, but also their culture and identity” (p. iii). They interviewed 61 Alaska Natives about their experiences and the long-term effects after attending boarding school between the 1940s and the early 1980s. Interviewees agreed that the school policies were effective at assimilating them to the dominant culture; with this assimilation came lasting scars. Hirshberg and Sharp (2005) write that,

These practices had lasting effects on individual students, their families, and communities. Those we interviewed told of finding it difficult to return home and be accepted. They felt that by being sent to boarding school they had missed out on learning important traditional skills and had a harder time raising their own children. For communities, the loss of children to boarding schools created a tremendous void, one that interviewees said was filled by alcohol and a breakdown in society. Drugs, alcohol, and suicide are some of the effects interviewees spoke of as coming from boarding home experiences and the loss of cultural identity and family. (p. iii)

Despite this legacy, many rural community members today still support the reestablishment of a boarding school on Kodiak Island. The common argument offered as solution to past failures with boarding schools is to place the school in one of the six rural villages rather than the city of Kodiak, in hopes that the negative impacts of the first attempt would not be repeated. This solution only assumes that urban temptations were the factor, which was not the case.

In the case of Afognak village, when the BIA took over authority of the village school many biracial families chose to leave the village to move to nearby Kodiak after complaining about the school (Clark & Black, 2002). In this way, the BIA school became a major factor in rural outmigration. Some interpreted the move as a denial of Native ethnicity and elitism. Today, the inequitable quality of education in the rural schools on Kodiak has also led families to leave their village communities in order to provide their children with more educational opportunities. Ultimately, the issue of schooling has been and still is a major factor influencing outmigration.

After one hundred years as a territory, in 1959 Alaska became a state and changed from a federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) education system to a state education system. The full transition took several years, as outlined in the Overall Education Plan for Rural Alaska issued in 1963 by Alaska Governor William A. Egan’s office. The plan provided for “the orderly transfer of Bureau schools to non-federal operation under the principle of mutual readiness on the part of the community, the State, and the Bureau” (BIA, 1972). They established Advisory School Boards, which allowed rural communities a greater voice in their local schools. The Kodiak Island Borough School District (KIBSD) formed to manage Kodiak’s transition to a state run system.

In 1976, the Alaska state lawsuit, "Molly Hootch" (Tobeluk vs. Lind), settled with a commitment by the state to provide local schools for Native communities as it had in predominately white communities in the state (C. Barnhardt, 2001). This resulted in construction of new K-12 schools in all six rural villages on Kodiak and implementation of high schools within each community. With rural schools available, families had the opportunity to keep their kids home, rather than send them to boarding schools or opt not to complete high school.

Since 1976, KIBSD has undergone significant changes in its service to Alutiiq students. They continue to struggle with high teacher turnover in their rural schools, but have softened their previous ‘no local hires’ philosophies and are working with the Native community to develop teacher orientation programs in order to address culture shock and to better prepare teachers to work and live in rural communities. Rural schools specifically still struggle with high travel and shipping costs. The budget constraints and challenges inherent in small school operation contribute to a perception of reduced quality of education or equity between communities. Ultimately, there is much room for continued reform to improve continuity and applicability of education in rural schools. Further, efforts to make district curriculum more place-based continue to progress as KIBSD is more open to change than ever before.

The Kodiak Island Borough School District (KIBSD) has obtained several Department of Education Alaska Native Education federal grants to help mitigate issues of high teacher turnover, low student assessment performance and high drop out rates. Some of these efforts have gone toward rural school reform as new strategies are tried and programs are developed to better support our Alaska Native students. KIBSD (2010) serves approximately 2,595 students in fourteen schools, including 506 or 19% Alaska Native. However, as over 90% of KIBSD teachers are White, and only 3.8% Native, it is difficult for Native students or parents to relate to the non-Native teachers who are often unfamiliar with how Alutiiq traditional knowledge should and can be integrated into all levels of school supporting place-based learning. Currently, KIBSD offers a standardized curriculum with limited inclusion of traditional Alutiiq knowledge, as a once year Alutiiq Week program is not sufficient. This curriculum underwent review by a Native Education Committee through a Department of Education Alaska Native Education grant, producing a revised curriculum to better meet Alaska Native Cultural Standards.

In addition to the KIBSD public school system, Kodiak has several Christian-based private schools that some Alutiiq families participate in, including St. Mary’s Catholic School, Kodiak Christian School, and St. Paul Lutheran Preschool. However, as many Kodiak Alutiiq families are Russian Orthodox, there are few who send their children to these schools.

Kodiak has been fortunate as a small Alaskan community to have higher educational opportunities available locally. Forty years ago, in 1969, Kodiak College was also founded. It is now a two-year satellite campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage system with approximately 800 students served annually ( In the past decade, they have extended support to the Alutiiq community by offering courses in Alutiiq Studies and co-sponsoring the Kodiak Rural Forum to address rural outmigration, education and community development issues, including access to additional training and exposure to best practices. In 2011, Kodiak College received a five-year Department of Education, Alaska Native Education grant to develop an Alutiiq Studies Program and support Alutiiq language revitalization (Counceller, 2012). This program promises to train teachers in culturally responsive practices, cultural traditions, and Alutiiq language.

The St. Herman’s Theological Seminary was established in 1972, offering statewide opportunities for training to become Russian Orthodox clergy ( The seminary has also brought many Yup’ik families to study and live in the Kodiak community today. Their sensitivity and interest in the Alutiiq language has also increased usage of the language within church services, which is raising attention to the revitalization movement. Members of the seminary also meet regularly now with several Alutiiq Elders, exploring the Alutiiq church texts in the prior cyrillic orthography. Church services now use more Alutiiq language prayers through this interaction and awareness of the need to honor and use the Alutiiq language.

Excerpt from Alisha Drabek, Ph.D. (2012) dissertation:
Liitukut Sugpiat'stun (We are Learning How to be Real People):
Exploring Kodiak Alutiiq Literature through Core Values


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