WorldView

 

In this unit we will look at how our worldview influences the way we think and what we do.  The way we make sense of the world around us is intimately bound to the culture in which we are raised.  As we encounter other cultural systems we carry our original set of cultural filters with us and interpret what we see within our own frames of reference. The misinterpretations, misunderstandings and misrepresentations that can result are the basis for many of the problems we experience with schooling in cross-cultural situations. What might schooling look like if it were to be viewed through the lens of an Alaska Native worldview?  Oscar Kawagley and Shawn Wilson give us a glimpse by describing how we might rethink schooling to make it more appropriate as a vehicle for nurturing a Native form of consciousness.

Your task for this unit is to read the three items listed above and then prepare three short papers (5-6 pages altogether) in which you respond to each of the following questions:

1.   Using the study by Kawagley (particularly Chapter I) as a jumping off point, interview (informally) a local elder or other resident authority in your community (not a relative), and take some time to observe everyday living and survival practices of the people around you.  How does the worldview reflected in your community compare with that of the Yupiaq, as described by Kawagley and the general observations outlined in the article by Kawagley and Barnhardt?  You may define “community” in any way you wish – just be explicit about who you are referring to in your write-up. (2-3 pages)

2.   Identify three examples from your own experience and observations that illustrate how different worldviews can impact the way we approach educational practice.  (1 page)

3.   How does Kawagley’s approach to the role of culture in education fit with that described by Wilson among the Gwitch’in?  (1 page)


1. Using the study by Kawagley (particularly Chapter I) as a jumping off point, interview (informally) a local elder or other resident authority in your community (not a relative), and take some time to observe everyday living and survival practices of the people around you. How does the worldview reflected in your community compare with that of the Yupiaq, as described by Kawagley and the general observations outlined in the article by Kawagley and Barnhardt? You may define “community” in any way you wish – just be explicit about who you are referring to in your write-up.

I have lived in Juneau now for almost seven years. As I’ve gotten to know people and the surrounding area, I’ve engaged with several different communities and have started to determine different mindsets for groups of people around me. In many ways, the mindset could be compared to a “worldview” such as Kawagley describes in A Yupiaq Worldview. In reflecting on the values that are important to the groups of people I am most involved in, I can make some parallel connections to a number of values that Kawagley outlines supporting his Yupiaq worldview such as sharing, cooperation, respect for elders, reliance on the extended family, and an awareness of what is happening around the community in the natural world. (pp. 18-22). The community I will use as comparison to the Yupiaq worldview would probably best be described as environmentalists/naturalists, those who feel a moral obligation to preserve and protect the natural world around them. More specifically, the group that I’ve been most closely observing also happen to be lesbians of whom, most have lived in the areas for 30 or more years. For reference in this paper, I’ll be calling them LEN.

Immediately, the most common feature for both the Yupiaq and the LEN would be the respect for nature and Kawagely’s reference to holding nature as a “sense of sacredness,” described by Richard Nelson, as a value that holds significant worth in both groups (pg. 23). The LEN prefer to be out on the trail, kayaking on the water, or observing wildlife at a respectful distance, regardless of the weather. While camping or picnicking, leaving no trace of their presence would be important, and cleaning up after someone else would not be uncommon. Protection of this area would be strongly supported and any kind of attempt at development would be protested. Although the LEN do not live a subsistence lifestyle, I do believe that this group does have a more respectful appreciation for the culture of subsistence, or the religion of subsistence, then do other groups of life-long Anglo-Alaskans who argue for hunting and fishing as a way to supplement their food budget.

People of the LEN tend to walk rather then drive, recycle what they can’t compost, buy locally rather then pay for shipping, even if the costs are higher, are conscious of their carbon footprint, and would generally agree with this statement, “…to have little or nothing is to treasure everything, and it fit very nicely into their [Yupiaq] ecological mindset. They found that to restrict wants was to always have enough, and they created ways to enjoy to the utmost that which they had.” (pg.19) Living in smaller homes, limiting purchases of material goods, especially those over-packaged in plastic, re-using, re-sharing, re-gifting, and appreciation for gifts that were hand-made, would all be attributes of the LEN that might closely match those of the Yupiaq.

Sharing is another value that Kawagley recognizes as an aspect of the Yupiaq worldview that is also a practice of the LEN. (pg.18) Being observant of those who are less fortunate or are facing a difficult time is perhaps a result of being observant in the natural world and seeing what is going on around you. Sharing of resources, either financial or food-related, as well as sharing of time is a trait of the LEN that includes volunteering for a variety of organizations that include preservation of the natural world as well as organizations that feed the soul like the arts and humanities.

Within the community of LEN, you do see elders sharing experiences with the younger generation, and a welcoming generosity to newcomers who have expressed similar interests. And respected elders, aren’t just the older generation, but are those whom have had an impact within the larger community and have proven, and continue to prove their dedication to nature.

The extended family in LEN is largely made up of a family of people who are not blood related, but are related in attitude and what they value. As with many communities of people in Alaska, you probably don’t have any blood-related family living nearby and through the years, have developed an extended family with whom to share experiences. Often LEN have been isolated from their families because of their chosen life-style so finding an extended family that accepts them for who they are is a bonding experience. The LEN would strongly support the social structure of the Yupiaq that Kawagley describes as maintaining a certain population balance to avoid chaos and give their community stability. (pg. 21)

One of the biggest differences between this community that I have been describing and the Yupiaq worldview is based on spirituality. Unlike the tetrahedron that Kawagaley describes containing a Natural, Human and Spiritual realm, the worldview of the LEN would be a two-legged stool consisting of only the Natural and Human realms. (pg. 16) Within LEN, there are Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and non-believers. The common thread would be the religious of “doing what is right” and being an advocate for those under-represented or without a voice (rivers, trees, wetlands, animals, bugs) by the mainstream. When looking at the differences between the Indigenous and the Western Worldviews in the Kawagley-Barnhart article, “Education Indigenous to Place: Western Science Meets Native Reality,” I feel like there needs to be a middle category bridging the two worldviews for the Naturalist/Environmentalist communities. A worldview that honors the nature world, yet I’m not sure it feels as strongly as the Kawagley-Barnhardt describe for indigenous people, in that “They believe all plants, winds, mountains, rivers, lakes, and creatures of the earth possess a spirit, and therefore have consciousness and life.” (pg. 9)

Note:

I had an interview set up with the author of Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir, lined up but we’ve had to reschedule until after the New Year. I was really looking forward to talking with Ernestine Hayes, about her life growing up in Juneau. She is a respected elder in the Tlingit community and I’m sure she will have an interesting perspective on her worldview. Since we were not able to meet up I’ll be using her book to help answer question #2.

2. Identify three examples from your own experience and observations that illustrate how different worldviews can impact the way we approach educational practice.

Education curriculum that has a different worldview from the one you have or are learning about can create a significant hurdle to the learning process. Until you are comfortable with your own worldview and are able to transfer what someone else is emphasizing and teaching, the learning that is expected to take place can be very confusing and distorted. One of the higher order levels of learning is being able to solve problems and apply solutions to new situations but a student isn’t able to reach this level unless both the student’s and the teacher’s worldviews come to an understanding, often requiring a common starting point.

I recently read, Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir by Ernestine Hayes. (2006). As a Tlingit child growing up in the Indian Village in Juneau in the 1950s, she mentions some of the difficulties she has understanding the worldview around her that was different from the worldview she was learning from her Grandmother. Throughout the book, she talks about that constant struggle to fit it and in most cases, not quite being successful, yet surviving.

At school, when it was time for reading, “Dick and Jane” books were the standard for the grade level she was in. Things like manicured lawns, fathers in a business suit, a shiny new car, roasted beef, and a table set with matching plates and silverware were concepts that weren’t familiar in the young Ernestine worldview. Her Grandmother raised her and her uncles and grandfather were often gone for months at a time fishing the various openings. Food often consisted of fish heads and other scrapes gotten from the dock or occasionally from a deer that was taken out of season in the woods nearby the Village that had to be disguised to get home. “…poached from land that once belonged to our powerful ancestors.” (pg. 10) To this girl, the story held no meaning and thus was additionally harder to read because the content made no sense and held little relevance.

One lesson Ernestine was taught by her Grandmother would be a great lesson for all children and adults to learn: “Grandmother taught me that all our relatives and friends, even the forest, can hear every word that we say. That is why we must always be careful with our words, she said. Always show respect. Remember who you are,. Watch your words carefully. Even the forest can hear you.” (pg. 6) This brings to mind the western practice of debate and rhetoric that is taught in western culture and an expected practice in higher education curriculum. In some classes, students are expected to argue with their instructors which is in contrast to how a child growing up like Ernestine, would be expected to act with an elder. You don’t cry and you don’t ask questions. (pg. 16)

Ernestine also talks about her class being divided into readings groups: Seagulls, Wrens, and Bluebirds with the Bluebirds being at the highest level. The girls in the Bluebird group tended “to grow freckles and wear pastel angora sweaters.” She thought that until she grew freckles and wore a nice sweater she would never advance. She was kept in the lowest reading level, the Seagulls, despite being able to read as well as other girls in the class. She got a different explanation from her Grandmother. “…no matter what a book or a teacher or anyone else said. I would never be a Bluebird. Nor a Wren. Not a Seagull. “Never forget,” she told me daily, “you are Eagle. Not Raven. Not Seagull.” (pg. 15). In the Tlingit culture, one’s association with one’s ancestors maintains a prominent place in their worldview and cannot be compared to status in academic skill.

3. How does Kawagley’s approach to the role of culture in education fit with that described by Wilson among the Gwitch’in? (1 page)

A central theme between Kawagley’s approach to the culture of education in A Yupiaq Worldview and Wilson’s observations among the Gwitch’in in “Not Just Knowledge, But a way of Looking at the World,” seems to be a return to learning the language of the community, which isn’t just a lesson in vocabulary and communicating, but is seen more holistically as language, values, tradition and culture (Kawagley, pg. 100). Wilson reports that the elders in the community of Fort Yukon say, “Teaching traditional values, teaching traditional skills, and teaching the culture and language of their people” is something that is missing from children’s education curriculum. (pg. 21) Both reports concur that the community needs to be playing a bigger part in the curriculum in order to strike a balance between practical knowledge that a student needs to be able to exist within the community as an adult, if the student chooses to stay, and a blending of western knowledge to prepare students who wish to branch out into the rest of the world. (pg. 95 and 101)

Wilson’s observations emphasize the importance of the role of the elder, and that perhaps, within the Fort Yukon community, that in order for the younger generation to learn about their culture, that the potential elders within the community need to become better role models. “Elders also act as models for the way people should be living their lives.” In order to be a respected Elder, you can’t expect the younger generation to respect you if you are just telling and not doing, “they must be living that way themselves,” (pg. 20)

It seems like the community of Akiak has set into motion some very positive action by maintaining village control over their school district, but they are still working “within the parameters established by the state board of education with state rules and regulations” and thus are still working on a balance between western and indigenous education. Kawagley describes a conversation with one science educator who seemed to really understand that balance one should be using when directing a classroom: one that requires students to “…learn[ing] both ways, the graduates would not be ignorant of the options available to them and be comfortable in using either way.” (pg. 57)

Resources

Hayes, Ernestine. (2006) Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir. The University of Arizona Press: Tucson Arizonia.

Kawagley, A. Oscar. (1995) A Yupiaq WorldView: A Pathway to Ecology and Spirit. Waveland Press, Inc: Prospect Heights Illinois.]

Kawagley, A. Oscar, and Barnardt, Ray. “Education Indigenous to Place: Western Science Meets Native Reality.”

Wilson, Shawn. (1994) “Gwitch’in Native Elders: Not Just Knowledge, But A Way of Looking at the World.

 

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