Role and Process in Traditional and Today

Education and culture are deeply intertwined processes that shape, prepare us for, and guide us through all aspects of our life.  While schooling makes a contribution to our preparation for life, most of what we know and what we use to survive on a day-to-day basis is learned outside school.  If schooling is to make a constructive contribution to people’s education, we need to understand how it fits into the larger cultural and educational context in which it exists.  That is the task to which this course is directed.

Since education was happening in Alaska long before schools appeared on the scene, we will start by stepping back in time and looking at how people learned what they needed to know to survive and thrive in “the old days.”  Your task for this unit is to read the books by Velma Wallis and Harold Napoleon, and then based on the Alaska Native situation, prepare a 3-5 page paper in which you describe and compare the role and processes of education in traditional times with the role and processes of education today.  How did people learn what they needed to know in the old days, compared with how they learn what they need to know today?  In the analysis of contemporary times, consider all aspects of education, not just schooling.

Learning is a life-long endeavor that is a part of everyone’s occurrence. For some, it may not be immediately apparent once one leaves a traditional educational institution. Everyone should be open to new ideas, new methods of doing things, listening and repeating stories, or even having a conversation with someone else. As children, we are observing and participating in life-long learning at a very early age. In Two Old Women, Wallis (1993) gives us a glimpse as to how children might have learned in the past before there were established schools. Throughout the book, examples of survival skills are described and the women are able to harken back to skills they had observed and learned from their parents and elders. Skills they had to master in order to exist. Wallis (1993) says, “That day the women went back in time to recall the skills and knowledge that they had been taught from early childhood.” (pg 31). And more then just accomplishing tasks, but the women were making choices that had great impact on their existence. The women knew how to survive because they had listened and helped their elders and families when they were young. In their time, everyone’s participation was expected in order to keep the group alive or you all die. Life was harsh and everything you did mattered in maintaining your existence. Small mistakes could endanger you, your immediate family, and your group.

In many ways this observation and learning of skills hasn’t changed much in today’s world. The process is still there, but who delivers the instruction isn’t always your parents or elders in your community. The person showing the way could be a distance relation, a community member, a professional, or even someone you have never met but has the expertise you need for survival.

There was a very small worldview of what the future might hold for children growing up in the time that Wallis talks about. Children today have a much larger worldview with multiple perspectives and many opportunities for how they want their life to play out. For some children this gives new opportunities for exploration. Where once we helped and observed a family member complete tasks around the house, we can now learn how to accomplish home repairs, preparing food or making clothing through YouTube videos. Or we can rely on agencies like UAF Cooperative Extension to research and prepare documentation on cooking with wild berries or preserving fish when we don’t have grandma or the aunties around to show us how.

I’m not currently actively involved in aK-12 classroom so the only experience I have with current trends in education come from resources I’ve found or read about. The most promising examples I’ve found are those where students are actively participating in activities that incorporated local culture, subsistence, and science.


Salmon Camp – The Natural History of Salmon in the Wood-Tikchik Lakes

Salmon Camp is a five day adventure in the heart of the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. Students earn college credit exploring the natural history of Salmon in the Wood-Tikchik Lakes. Students travel in skiffs to salmon spawning areas to perform field studies. New to 2010 was the introduction of a renewable energy unit where students set up a windmill, solar panels, and a human powered bicycle generator all connected to a battery bank. Salmon Camp is more than just science and is packed filled with fishing, hiking, canoeing, games, and berry picking. Salmon Camp is sponsored by the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, UAF Bristol Bay Campus, and the Alaska Marine Sciences and Fisheries Career Coalition.

In this video, students from Bristol Bay schools partner with the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and UAF-Bristol Bay Campus to learn about one of the largest sockeye runs in the world. Maintaining a healthy run every year, an important resource to the area, both for economic and cultural purposes, is an important community benefit. Having students participant in this process allows students to understand a bridge between scientific and cultural aspects of this resource.


FLOCK project, Tatitlek Alaska

The high school students in the Native Village of Tatitlek, Alaska, raised meat chickens for a sustainability project. This is their story.

The FLOCK project is a student-produced video that introduces kids in Tatitlek to raising a domesticated animal for food. Most of the kids had never seen live chickens before and may never had thought about raising livestock for food. I did think it was interesting that the question was raised whether or not their project was thought of as subsistence, and the majority of the answers was “no.” I couldn’t actually tell if some of the younger respondents were actually the school kids or not. It would be interesting to know more about their thoughts.

Cultural relatedness may not have been an obvious outcome of this exercise, but it could be argued that a team approach to the project could be that the skills and experiences learned would transferred to managing community projects. Gaining skills in managing a project like this could prepare students for future employment within their communities economic and social development agencies or programs. This is one area that the federal government has been criticized for interfering during its early oversight of village governance. According to the Alaska Natives Commission. (1994). Final Report, Volume 1. The federal government appears to have believed that “development” — social, political, economic, and cultural —is something that can be done to one group of people by another. A more constructive belief that development is something one can do only for oneself and that the best others can do is to support those efforts seems never to have been recognized. If recognized, it certainly never took hold as a guiding principle. For its part, state government’s interest has historically been the development of resources, not people (pg. 3).

“The expression of this reality — a reality that non-Natives, to this day, do not understand — is the sum total of Alaska Native cultures: the arts, ceremonials, songs, feasts, social and political organizations, use and treatment of the resources, and ways of passing on knowledge that enabled a people to survive and co-exist for millennia in a hostile physical environment.” (Alaska Natives Loss of Social & Cultural Integrity retrieved 09/28/2013, p. 5)


Learning about Birds St. Paul

A group of middle schoolers, who are part of the Seabird Youth Network in the Pribilof Islands, tell the story of the place they live and the seabirds that also live on the island.

This project was funded by the North Pacific Research Board.

Again, in this video, active learning plays a big part of the activities around understanding cultural significance and science. Drawing on both the experience of the elders and the acadmic world of science. This exercise helps to bridge those experiences together for the youth of the community.


Alaska Natives Commission. (1994). Final Report, Volume 1. Anchorage: Joint Federal-State Commission on Policies and Program Affecting Alaska Natives. Retrieved from

FLOCK project, Tatitlek Alaska. (posted January 11, 2013). Retrieved from

Learning about Birds St. Paul (posted June 2013). Retrieved from

Salmon Camp – The Natural History of Salmon in the Wood-Tikchik Lakes. (Uploaded on Mar 11, 2011). Retrieved from

Wallis, Velma. (1993). Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival.


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