New Zealand Alaska Connection

In this unit we will be looking at education in the broader sense of how it contributes to the formation of individual and cultural identity.  To do so, we will journey to New Zealand and Australia to find out a little about how education is viewed in the Maori and Aboriginal worlds.  Even though Aboriginal and Maori people are situated on the other side of the world from Alaska, you will see as you go through the readings that many of the issues they face are interchangeable with those of Alaska Natives. Using examples from the readings, your task for this unit is to describe some of the common issues/themes that indigenous people face around the world, and then offer some thoughts on why people from such different cultural and geographic origins would have so much experience in common.  What implications does all this have for their cultural/ethnic identity.  You should be able to condense your insights on this topic into no more than 3-5 pages.

There are many commonalities between the three groups described in the readings assigned for this assignment: Maori of New Zealand, Aboriginal of Australia, and Yupiaq of Alaska. All three communities, Maoris, Aborignials, and Yupiaqs, have become minorities groups in a land that was once the land where their ancestors began. These communities were beset by sea-faring Europeans, who were not always looking for ways to be accepted into the foreign communities they visited, but rather tasked with taking resources for profit; driven by money and not necessarily being nice or fair about it. These three communities share many things that have contributed to a struggle in trying to maintain their culture and worldview. Isolation, dominance by European practices, hunting and gathering or subsistence lifestyle, storytelling and the oral tradition, language as more than a vocabulary, but as a cultural identifier, and all struggle to keep traditions alive while living in a western-European majority.

All three authors emphasized that enlisting guidance at the local level as an important method for increasing success in allowing the minority groups to take responsibility and giving them the “power” to participate by eliciting more invested buy-in from the community (Merge, pg. 12). Village or community oversight of the local school is one example. Kawagley also states “Close coordination and consultation among the various people within and outside the school system are necessary to produce appropriate information-gathering tasks for school students.” This results in a “team” approach to learning that is more aligned with the Yupiaq worldview. “Self-esteem and self confidence will rise as the students deal with things that they know about and that are a part of their life. When they can learn about others through their own worldview.” (Kawagley, pg. 113). The Keeffe article also suggests that non-aboriginal teachers, who were unfamiliar with the culture, often feel equally unprepared to lead appropriate cultural learning “…as cultural outsiders, need to have some point of access, through which they might gain some understanding.” (Keeffe, pg. 4)

In many instances there is a struggle with actually identifying and agreeing on the actual issue. Gaining experience with aspects of a culture (arts, dance, food) is much different from teaching in a cultural method (how you learn – emphasis on active learning without a lot of talking, interconnectedness between many subjects, cooperative learning as opposed to competitive learning (Metge, pg. 32)) or teaching in a culturally responsive way that complements the culture.  “A people’s culture is woven into the fabric of their lives. It cannot be understood in the abstract, but only by encountering people linked in a web of social relations, as they interact in the light of their cultural beliefs.” (Metge, pg. 9).  It is also important to be able to differentiate between ethnicity and culture and determine what the curriculum needs to teach. “The theoretical ground is important, because a critical understanding of the way that ethnic theory shapes our educational practice is necessary for informed practice.” You can’t solve a problem without identifying what the problem is in the first place. (Keeffe, pg. 6) Until the issue of identifying the issue is addressed, keeping students engaged and progressing to a higher academic level will continue to be difficult. Keeffe talks about the Aboriginal retention rate as being very low, which is endemic across many minority cultures who might feel disillusioned and whose schools are  “failing to respond to cultural differences. (Keeffe, pg. 3, 26)

A recent Anchorage Daily News article, written by Kathleen McCoy, talks about a research project that is looking for reasons why Alaska’s students are unprepared for high education. A representative from UAA’s Center for Applied Economic and Policy Research (CAEPR) talks about some potential reasons, but also brings to point that not all students are college-bound and that some school districts have identified that, “Many of them say it’s not enough just to have kids ready to go on to college. Are they also a good member of their community? Being a good subsistence hunter is part of how you are a good member of your community. That’s a piece of this conversation.” Influenced by the North Slope Borough School District and how it has incorporated Inupiaq learning into school curricula, she goes on to say, “They’re talking about what it means to be a whole person,” she said, “and academic learning is part of that, but so is spiritual knowledge, and community participation in subsistence and cultural activities. All of that is what makes you a whole person.”  (retrieved 12/09/13 from

It is interesting that Metge cautioned about “idolizing” the Maori culture. Historically it wasn’t always perfect, “they by no means always achieve ecological balance; and whatever their ideals, their practices often alter the environment (for instance, burning forests for horticulture, as the Maori did). (Metge, pg. 31) Kawagley references Netting, 1986, that a worldview “is a summation of coping devices that have worked in the past and may or may not be as effective in the present.” (Kawagley, pg. 8) Because most indigenous worldviews are based on survival there must be adaptation. With adaptation and the acceptance of modern technology, Kawagley talks about “hidden costs” of such modernization that affects the fragile landscape: plastic packaging, fuel spills, ill-conceived construction, etc. (Kawagley, pg. 105-6). You also can’t remove the experiences that technology has brought into the community or the change to a cash society. Kawagley also talks about the need to “reconstruct ourselves by replacing missing pieces to engender a new Native identity, its infrastructure built around valued Native traditions. (Kawagley, pg. 110-111)

In the Australian article, emphasis is placed upon the urban native bridging two worlds. “It is idealistic to believe that Aboriginal people in Canberra, for example, share intimate and familial a relationship with land and with the natural world as do Aboriginal people leading a hunting-gathering lifestyle.” (Keeffe, pg. 11) “Generalisations about kinship, mortuary rituals and multilingualism gloss over the complexities of geographical and historical differences, and express the ideal of behavior as the essence of group identity, help in common by all members of the group.” (Keeffe, pg. 11) This makes me think about how many K-6 classrooms across the country have adopted units about the Iditarod as a way to teach about Alaska.

“To make the basic concepts understood in the elementary grades, one has to use all the sensory tools …and apply to them to experiences with which the student can readily identify.” (Kawagley, pg. 115) This brings to mind the “Doodling in Math Class “series of videos by Vi Hart who takes mathematical theory and attempts to explain the concepts behind a particular theory by doodles, drawing, and irreverent dialogue. (Retried 12/9/13 from

If some of these issues aren’t address there is no hope that the Maori, Aboriginal or Yupiaq culture will survive as they are assimilated into the majority western or European mainstream  “…all cultures are fluid and adapt overtime, but enforced adaptation will destroy the very process of cultural renewal…New Zealand will either draw its flavor from the peaceful coexistence of plural lifestyles, or it will have no flavor, and possibly no future” (Requoted from New Zealand at the Turning Point, Metge, pg. 4). This seems very relevant to other minority cultures in their struggle to define and identify their worldview, and then incorporate that identity in teaching and learning.



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