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Spheres of Wellbeing 




Learning by Doing, Observing and Listening

The traditional Alutiiq way of learning is built upon the practice of applied knowledge acquisition and apprenticeship. Indigenous education prior to contact was both practical and structured. There were prescribed rules and processes for the right way to go about learning something new, which included earning the right to access knowledge and demonstrating proficiency. Today, these same processes are still culturally-appropriate for Alutiiq students within modern contexts and should be encouraged as effective ways to engage students and help instill knowledge. Alutiiq stories often feature these traditional learning processes.

For example, one of the best stories that illustrates beliefs about traditional learning processes is the story Ar’ursulek - “The Whaler” (Demidoff, 1962). In it the boy “wanted to be a whale hunter too when he grew he decided to watch everything the old whaler did” (stanza 3). The whaler proposes to take him out so he can learn how, as long as he follows him instructions. Throughout the story the boy watches the old whaler, but not as directed. He sneaks behind him to watch all of his mysterious actions, taking in all that he witnesses. What the boy learns, he learns by spying against the whaler’s permission. At one point the boy also asks a question and the whaler growls at him and says, “Never ask any questions. Just do what you are told. Young hunting partners learn by watching what is done and by doing what they are told to do. But never by asking questions” (stanza 24). Later again he asks more questions and the whaler simply says “I don’t know” in response (stanza 66). The boy is very frightened by what he witnesses and never fully learns the secrets or becomes a whaler himself. In the end the whaler leaves him and he never sees him again. Although the boy was observant, he did not engage in the learning process the way his teacher invited him, and so he was denied access to further knowledge. The traditional process of learning by doing, observing and listening, was and is an effective method for gaining mastery in a skill, as explored further in Chapter 5 on Native education. But as in the case of Ar’ursulek, ethics and protocols determine the right way to do it (Demidoff, 1962).

The transmission of this knowledge through apprenticeship was controlled by the individual who chose to initiate and mentor whoever was worthy. This sharing had its own code of ethics ingrained in youth, so that the knowledge would be respected and used appropriately. In our modern day of multicultural interactions, technology and multimedia influences, we have seen rapid transformations and abuses of Indigenous knowledge. What sometimes are innocent usages of Indigenous knowledge out of context, can become very harmful for the community.

Most of the other stories that feature learning as a theme include it as learning through observation and experimentation. For example, in the story of “Light,” Raven seeks to steal the light from the chief’s house (Golder, 1903b). He undergoes an elaborate plan to be reborn to the chief’s daughter so that he will gain access to all that is in their house. After much observing he learns where the light is hidden and then prepares to steal it when no one is around. Careful observation is similarly rewarded in other unigkuat, such as: “The Sad Fate of Uchatngiak” (1903b), “The Sinew Rope” (Golder, 1909), “The Grouse Girl” (1903b), and the “Unnatural Uncle” (1903b). Knowledge acquisition through deductive reasoning is also explored in “Hunting First Fox” (L. Davis, 2000), “Shuyak Island Surfaces” and “Red Cedar of Afognak” (Leer, 1999). Ultimately, learning is both about how you learn and what you can do with the knowledge you attain.