Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 6 Number 2
January 1967

TEACHING ENGLISH TO ALASKA NATIVES

Lee H. Salisbury

This paper was delivered at the General Session of the TESOL Conference
(Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages), March 17, 1966,
at the Statler Hilton Hotel, New York City.
Professor Lee Salisbury is Director of the College Orientation Program
for Alaskan Natives and the Department of Speech, Drama and Radio
at the University of Alaska.

Communication is one of the world’s most pressing problems today. Whether it is between nations or persons, the basics of understanding in the fullest semantic sense is an ultimate goal. This problem is well-illustrated with the following essay:

 

Two boys were friends. They lived near each other. One boy was from the States, the other was an Alaskan. They lived in a small village. The two usually had fun together, but at times they had trouble communicating.

Like the time they were going swimming. The native boy said he would not swim on that day because the water was not clear. He believed he would surely drown if he swam on such a day. The water was not right. The other boy said where he came from, they swam at any time. But the native boy would not swim.

One day Mike (the native boy) took his .22 rifle to hunt some muskrat. It was early morning and all the birds were singing. The sun was coming up as he spotted a muskrat far off, near the edge of the lake. He worked his way around the lake so that he could get to where he had seen it. He was in thick brush when he heard the call of the geese not far away. He quickly dropped to a dry spot and watched motionlessly as a large flock of geese flew directly overhead. They were Canadian geese flying gracefully in formation, the leader calling out loudly and his followers giving a soft reply to assure him all was well. They were so close to Mike that he could hear their wings whistle as they passed by.

They came from far away, Mike thought, and now they were nearing their nesting grounds. The whole country was theirs, for they could go anywhere they pleased. Mike envied the freedom of the wild geese. Sure, they had their troubles, but if they Survived it was worth it just to be so free from the rest of the world. No complex way of life to live; no certain rules to follow; and no independent thinking. They knew all they had to know.

Mike shot the muskrat he had set out to get, put it with the others in his pack and headed homeward.

As he neared home, he saw Sam. Sam came to greet him. Seeing the bulge in Mike’s pack he asked, "Gee, how was your luck? Tell me about the hunt."

Mike thought of the geese. How could he tell Sam of how he longed to be one of them? How could he put in words what he felt so that this unknowing outsider would understand?

"I saw . . . . . . flock of geese," Mike said simply.

 

This Eskimo student’s feelings about the life of the geese as compared with his own, reflect the nostalgia and regret, which many Alaskan native people feel about leaving their old way of life. This is the way things used to be. But the younger generation of Alaska natives realize that the old way of life is changing and will continue change whether to resist it or not. Yet we are expecting these people to make the jump in one lifetime which took the western world hundreds of years.

This student speaks for a minority group of unique nature and immense proportions. Of the 226,000 total Alaskan population, according to the 1960 census, only 146,000 can be considered to be non transient (see Note 1). Of this number, 43,000, or almost 30 percent of the permanent state population are Alaska natives: Indian, Eskimo, and Aleut.

Unlike cultural minorities in other states, the Alaska native has not been deliberately segregated from the white population. There are no tribal reservations of the type which exist in the lower 48 states and comparatively little discrimination exists. Yet the Alaska native has been unable to assume the rights and responsibilities of full citizenship and continues to be a ward of the Federal government.

There have been several important indications recently that the native population is aware of its lack of representation and is motivated to do something about it. A strong native rights association has been formed in Fairbanks which is urging educational reform. A newspaper, Tundra Times, attempts to present the native’s point of view on matters of public concern. The Alaskan native finds that it is no longer possible to remain isolated from the dominant culture which presses in upon him from every side. He is, inexorably, in transition toward a culture in which he must find a place. He must communicate his needs and feelings in a strange society which does not understand him; yet, he must go forward.

By most standards, Alaskan native peoples can be considered to be among the most isolated ethnic groups in our entire country. Geographically, they are scattered throughout a land mass one-fifth the size of the lower 48 states. Although many native families have migrated to larger urban communities, the majority of them continue to live in small villages ranging in size from 50 to 1,500 persons, along the seacoast and the navigable rivers and creeks inland. Few of the smaller villages have telephones, fewer have running water, and only a small proportion can pick up an AM radio signal. Most of them are inaccessible by road. Bush plane, dog sled, small boats, or the recently introduced snow vehicles are the chief modes of transportation to and from the settlements. Prior to white contact, many of the northern people were nomadic family groups who followed their food supply—the caribou herds. With the establishment of churches, missions, schools and hospitals much of the nomadic movement has ceased. Compulsory education laws have required that families remain close enough to population settlements so that their children can attend school. During the summer, families migrate to their traditional camping spots where a good supply of fish may be caught and preserved for the coming winter. To a great extent, the village people still rely upon hunting and fishing for subsistence.

Preservation of Language

Communication between natives living in cities and their relatives and friends in the village is often accomplished via tape recorder. The recipient in the village, if he is too poor to afford a machine, is often allowed to use the one belonging to the school. Because none of the Alaska native peoples has a written language, this new mode of transmitting the spoken word has become extremely important. It also may be, in some measure, responsible for the preservation of the native language. However, not all Alaskan natives in a particular area can communicate with each other orally. The Tsimpsian, Haida and Tlingit Indian peoples in the southeastern panhandle speak different languages. The Aleut language spoken along the Chain and on the Pribilof Islands, although derived from the same source as the Eskimo, is understood nowhere else. The Athapaskan Indians of the northern interior region show profound dialectal differences, and the Eskimo, who represents the largest segment of the native population, may not be understood by his neighbor a few hundred miles away.

Complicating the Alaskan native’s problem of geographic and linguistic isolation is his cultural attitude toward sharing problems. Many teachers and mental health personnel have noted that he has difficulty in verbalizing and communicating his subjective reactions to situations; when something is bothering him, he is unlikely to communicate it even to his peers or to his family (see Note 2).

This condition adds yet another dimension to his isolation. Not only are his people geographically dispersed without the bonds of common dialect or written communication; even within the tight familial and peer group structure of his own village he may be isolated with problems he cannot share.

Perhaps we can better understand the communication problems of the Alaskan native peoples by examining the child rearing practices of the largest Alaskan native ethnic group, the Eskimo. From a very early age the Eskimo child is trained to "fit in" to his society. Whereas the western child is often encouraged to excel, the Eskimo child is trained to conform--to become "just like the others." This training consists of casual but consistent encouragement in the techniques of survival. Affirmative rather than negative means are used: For example, if a child walks dangerously near a hot stove, or toddles over toward the edge of a swollen river, his elders will say in a friendly fashion "tai tai" (or roughly, "Come, come, see what you are doing?"). Stories which stress the terrible consequences of non-conformity are repeatedly told to children. Much of the folklore is allegorical. Modes of behavior and social attitudes are reinforced in this way.

Ostracism is an extremely potent means of social control among the native peoples. In a society which is small, isolated, and extremely homogeneous, any violation of the social code becomes a matter of group concern. Each member of this tightly-knit group depends for his existence upon his fellows. Without their cooperation and help he will not survive. His survival in another sense depends upon his group. He maintains his identity by fulfilling his role as a group member. Should he act in a fashion which endangers the physical survival of the group, he is cut off from them. People ignore him--he no longer exists--in a sense, he is symbolically "killed" by ostracism. In this sense, the western expression, "we cut him dead," is remarkably applicable.

By the time the native child reaches the age of seven, his cultural and language patterns have been set and his parents are required by law to send him to school. Until this time he is likely to speak only his own local dialect of Indian, Aleut or Eskimo, or if his parents have had some formal schooling he may speak a kind of halting English.

No Turning Back

He now enters a completely foreign setting--the western classroom situation. His teacher is likely to be a Caucasian, who knows little or nothing about his cultural background. He is taught to read the Dick and Jane series. Many things confuse him: Dick and Jane are two gussuk (see Note 3) children who play together. Yet, he knows that boys and girls do not play together and do not share toys. They have a dog named Spot who comes indoors and does not work. They have a father who leaves for some mysterious place called "office" each day and never brings any food home with him. He drives a machine called an automobile on a hard covered road called a street which has a policeman on each comer. These policemen always smile, wear funny clothing and spend their time helping children to cross the street. Why do these children need this help? Dick and Jane’s mother spends a lot of time in the kitchen cooking a strange food called "cookies" on a stove which has no flame in it.

But the most bewildering part is yet to come. One day they drive out to the country which is a place where Dick and Jane’s grandparents are kept. They do not live with the family and they are so glad to see Dick and Jane that one is certain that they have been ostracized from the rest of the family for some terrible reason. The old people live on something called a "farm," which is a place where many strange animals are kept--a peculiar beast called a "cow," some odd looking birds called "chickens" and a "horse" which looks like a deformed moose. And so on. For the next 12 years the process goes on. The native child continues to learn this new language which is of no earthly use to him at home and which seems completely unrelated to the world of sky, birds, snow, ice, and tundra which he sees around him.

In addition, the student is likely to lose his original language in the education process. His teachers do not speak his language nor do they encourage its use during school hours. In many schools students are absolutely forbidden to use the native language. Therefore, many native students come to feel that the language of their parents is undesirable and inferior.

Since the economy of the average native family in Alaska is marginal, at best, there are often strong pressures from the home for the child to leave school and help his family in its daily struggle for survival. The father needs his sons to help him hunt and fish; the mother needs her daughter to help at home with the children. So it is not surprising that 60 percent of native youngsters never reach the eighth grade.

By the time that the native student from a bush community reaches high school age it is necessary for him to leave his home and village to attend a boarding high school for four years. Here he lives in a dormitory with other Alaskan natives and his sole contact with western culture is through his teachers and text books. When he returns to his village each summer, he finds only vestiges of his formerly comfortable family relationship, and he encounters increasing frustrations because of the differences between himself and his village. His exposure to western education has taught him to respect (though not necessarily to understand) western standards, and at the same time it has decreased his respect for the native culture. He finds himself, figuratively, with a foot in each culture, unable fully to identify with either group and accepted by neither as well.

The male student finds that he is no longer of any use to his father as a hunter or a fisherman; he has lost his status as a male member of his village. The girl who returns often finds the sanitary conditions in the village hard to adjust to. She has lost many of the domestic skills she may have had: skinning animals, cooking, making clothing. Many of her peers are already married and have children. Her ability to speak English and her new way of dress and behavior set her apart from the other village girls who may think she has become "too good" for them. All of these high school students--with the exception of the 28 percent who have dropped out along the way--are in the process of becoming what the anthropologists term "marginal" people: They have been swept along by a system which is estranging them from their friends and relatives back home.

For many of these students, high school graduation represents the point of no return. If they have come this far, it is unlikely that they will ever return to the village permanently. Unless they go farther, however, it is even more unlikely that they will be able to secure permanent jobs in the cities to which they migrate. Some of them choose to enter college.

College Environment

We first meet these students when they arrive in the fall. Most of them are unable to pay their own tuition expense, and so, upon declaration of the fact that they are one-quarter or more of native blood, receive Bureau of Indian Affairs scholarship money. One-eighth of last year’s entering freshman class at the University of Alaska were Alaskan natives. Although they represent all three of Alaska’s native ethnic groups, they are predominantly Eskimo. As entering freshmen they are joined by other Alaskan natives who have come from the larger cities in Alaska and have attended predominantly white high schools. These native students from urban schools are less likely to speak their original language and may be more racially dilute.

However, we quickly learn that percentage of white blood is no index of acculturation: One of our freshman boys, a graduate of 61 Anchorage High School, plays flamenco guitar and recites Ferlinghetti with no trace of an accent—yet he is a pure blooded Eskimo. He stands in striking contrast to a blond, blue-eyed, fair-skinned, part Aleut girl from King Cove, who speaks with the characteristic native inflection and who mixes only with the other native students. Although it might seem that with a heterogeneous group of this kind it would be difficult to make generalizations, we can make certain predictions: More than 50 percent of them are likely to drop out at the end of their freshman year and less than two percent of them are likely to receive the baccalaureate degree at the end of four years. If we take last year’s group of 50 entering freshmen as an example, and our dropout statistics prevail, 25 of them will not return to school this fall, and only one of them is likely to receive a degree at the end of four years.

It is a sad fact that the Alaskan native student, who somehow has managed to survive attrition rates of 60 percent in elementary school and 28 percent in high school, still finds the odds to be overwhelmingly against him by the time he reaches college. Why is he twice as likely to drop out in college as one of his non-native peers? A look at the social fabric of his culture may provide some clues:

Some years ago, I conducted the language portion of an enrichment program for native students from age 10 to grade 8. One of the questions we asked them was, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" We got the usual range of vocational choices--nurses, teachers, doctors, bush pilots--all vocations they could see around them. But several of the younger ones still reflected their parents’ teaching: "A good seal hunter," said one boy; "A good berry picker," said a girl; and finally, the response which summed it all up: "Eskimo!"

To be a good Eskimo means that you stick with your group--you do not try to excel at the expense of others. In the environment of the arctic where survival is a daily problem, the likelihood of individual achievement at the expense of your group is a pervasive fear. Thus, you live cooperatively or you perish.

Translating this into terms of the western classroom means that the teacher cannot motivate the student with the rewards which are so successful with middle class white students: Praise or prizes often prove to be a source of embarrassment rather than encouragement. Naturally, the western notion of progress emerging from the "healthy clash of ideas" is in direct variance with the native student’s way of dealing with others. If he disagrees with you he will not tell you directly—this is not polite and it is pointless. He will either seem to agree with you or he will withdraw. His opinion will not change but you will never know this.

The group of college-bound native students, who have managed to survive 12 years of formal western education, have obviously had to do some competing in order to come this far. They have had to recognize that by deciding to continue their education they have violated the strong familial and group ties which bind their people together. In terms of their traditional culture they have acted selfishly and without thought of others. Yet they believe that by breaking away they can serve their group better. Some of their parents understand this and encourage them to continue their schooling. But for many of them it is a painful decision which is fraught with many misgivings. An older Eskimo man, an ivory carver who has been studying art at the University of Alaska for the past three years, writes nostalgically of his home on the Bering Sea:

After all this hardship, one day I may return there. Look around me as far as the horizon if the weather is fine. Just keep wondering where even a small fish is when the sea gets rough. Watch the endless ice moving north wondering when it was formed. Travel on ice all morning instead of driven indoors by 50 below zero weather . . . bothered only by dogs or birds instead of machinery. I know for sure it will be quiet there on the day I arrived. But it will be a lonely spot for someone that believed will be cut away from the world.

I hope I’ll be depended upon by some of my friends--especially in drawing and printmaking. So some may achieve their beautiful work in their own way. I have thought of those--still I’ll be thinking of going back where a printing press is. I may be glad to return but it will be hard to leave my new friends.

Innovation in Orientation

We have just completed the second year of a summer orientation program (see Note 3) which is designed to help the Alaskan native student to adjust to college life and to perceive and verbalize his problems freely. The focal point of the program is to improve his ability to communicate his thoughts and feelings to others. Our approach is predicated on the assumption that his imperfect use of English is due to the fact that, although he has received 12 years of formal western education he has not lived within the western culture. His only contacts with Caucasians have been teachers, missionaries, and various public health and social workers he may have had occasion to meet. He has no concrete idea of the culture which his new language expresses. He has great gaps in his background which set him apart from rural youth in other parts of our country. I think we will agree that much of what we learn as we grow up is not from schoolbooks. We absorb it by our contacts with our families, our friends and our environment generally. It has been said that a person living in the mainstream of his culture is no more aware of it than a fish is aware of the water in which he swims.

Compounding the native’s communication problem is the fact that he has come from a culture where he has been reinforced for reticence. Although he may have come from a high school where the students were encouraged to discuss and debate certain issues, if his classmates were all natives, it is unlikely that he has developed any real skill in expressing his ideas clearly and directly. He has never seen the lively exchange of opinions which (hopefully) characterizes the western college classroom. Our problem then is two-fold:

1. To broaden the student’s background of experience within the western culture so that his conceptual knowledge of the English language will improve, and

2. To enable the student to realize that his thoughts and feelings are important and have real value when they are expressed clearly and effectively.

At the same time, we must examine our own motives in speeding the native student’s acculturation process. Do we wish to convert him to our western ways (which we are often inclined to regard as superior) and divorce him completely from his native background? Or do we wish to acquaint him with the best our society has to offer and allow him to choose those elements from it and from his original culture that he wishes to accept? The answer is obvious. If we hasten his acculturation at the expense of his native cultural background, we have cut him off at the roots and destroyed his identity. On the other hand, he can develop a deeper appreciation of his original culture and an understanding of his adopted one if he is able to objectively compare them.

For this reason the program includes a regular freshman level anthropology course which he attends daily as a regular summer session student. The course is taught by an anthropologist whose specialty is Alaskan native cultures. After class the program students meet in an informal seminar situation in which the general concepts taught in the regular course are specifically related to the culture of contemporary native Alaskans. In this session many cross-cultural problems are discussed. At first the problems are suggested by the instructor but, as the sessions progress and the students come to know and trust the staff, they propose the problems themselves. From these informal bull-sessions came many insights which the students discussed and later wrote about in another part of the Program, the Language and Communication sessions.

This class is taught jointly by a specialist in speech and an English teacher. Writing assignments always grow out of speaking experiences. Provocative films and books are used to spark discussion. For example, The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller’s first language experiences, is used as a springboard for the unit on language; Raisin in the Sun, a film dealing with the struggles of a Chicago Negro family, is used to explore minority group problems and the process of developing a self-image in depressed economic circumstances.

An exciting insight emerged one day during our discussion of this film. The students suddenly perceived a relationship between Walter Lee’s problem (the protagonist in the film) and their own. The question arose as to whether Walter Lee’s old mother, the matriarch of the family, did the right thing in allowing him to make an unwise investment of $20,000 in a liquor store. Walter Lee has never had a chance to handle this much money before; yet, he was tired of being a chauffeur and wanted to change his luck. The audience could plainly see that he would lose the money. Two of the program students who came from a religious mission high school said that his mother had made a mistake--he was too innocent to handle money and could not be trusted to manage his own affairs. Other students immediately countered: "But he’s 35 years old;" "He’s a grown man with two children;" and one girl, who had never spoken up before, said with great emotion, "How is he ever going to learn unless he makes his own mistakes?" We had a full-fledged discussion on our hands for the first time.

Examples came thick and fast: "When they don’t trust us in high school (referring to their boarding schools which are run in a regimented manner), we don’t trust ourselves." Then came a description of how the rigidly structured schools from which they had come had never allowed them to make their own decisions. "You bathe at a certain hour . . . you eat at a certain time . . . you must go to the library at a certain time . . . you get your mail at a certain time . . . they lead us around by the hand . . . we want to grow up but they won’t let us." And then, finally, came the realization: "It’s the same thing with our parents . . . they won’t let them grow up either." For "they" we can substitute the government, the schools, the missionaries, in short—the Establishment.

From here on the discussion became freer. We could see a physical change come over many of the students. They seemed to stand straighter, to laugh more easily and less self-consciously and to be almost eager to express their opinions. It was as though by being able to express hostility toward certain Caucasians they had met that they had somehow liberated themselves.

Some of the students were able to write insightfully of their own problems in communication. A student from Selawik wrote the essay about the native boy and the geese quoted earlier and carefully labeled it "fiction." Another older student described a breakdown in communication within his own cultural group. Although the syntax is poor, the same elegaic mood is conveyed:

Almost six years seems to be a long time to be away from King Island. Since then I’ve been working on mine fields and one time as a garage serviceman. It was little hard to settle back in King Island after all these years, to get new tools made up to carve ivory and to prepare new hunting equipment.

Just before Christmas the young men decorated the classroom in the school building. For a week we held games in the evenings and had a good time. Everytime I was there I noticed a girl eyeing at me. We kept looking at each other all that time. I’d thought that this young lady wasn’t just around ten years ago. But why didn’t she do that among people her own age? Did she ever think I may have had other affairs while I was away?

Of course I was getting interested in such a young, attractive looking girl. Later we got acquainted starting from a card game. We waited on a meeting to be left alone by other people, and not be caught outdoors by a person on a porch with my arms around her.

Six months later she refused my inquiry for marriage. I left the village again and heard she had married a young man from down the coast.

A year later I met her again in Fairbanks. She was half-drunk on the streets. There on the roads I tried battling to free my arms from her strong grip. It was raining and people were looking at us from the cars. So I gave up the little struggle and joined her in a bar. She was accusing another girl in the city which was of no concern to me. So all that time it may be that our trouble is communication which is too late to be solved now.

Perhaps one of the most important parts of the broadening experiences which the Program affords is the home-living aspect of the session. Rather than stay in the dormitory for the six-week period, each student lives with a carefully selected western family. In some cases it is possible to place the student with a family whose father is engaged in the profession he wishes to enter.

We have found that during the regular school year the native student rarely mixes socially with non-natives. Experience has shown that native students are inclined to eat together, room together and socialize within their own group. Strong social pressures are exerted by the group to preserve this unity. The native student who chooses to socialize outside of the group is often ostracized by them - a most painful experience if he is not yet secure enough to act independently.

Living with a family during the summer gives the student an opportunity to socialize and mingle with non-natives without the risk of social penalty from his own group. It affords him a glimpse of the kind of home and life he may someday decide he wants for himself. It allows him to meet and know people he might not otherwise encounter, and it gives him an understanding of the middle-class western family which he can acquire in no other way.

At the conclusion of the Program each student was given a 13 page evaluation form, to be submitted anonymously, in which he was asked to rate the worth and interest value of each aspect of the Program.

These are some of their individual responses about the Program in general:

I never experienced such a free atmosphere before in school, in high school I was dominated by rules. Here I make my time and studying convenient for me.

I truly enjoyed these six weeks here at the University and with (my host family). I know that in my years here, I will always have somewhere to go if I ever get lonely. I now have a second home.

They weren’t strangers anymore.

I will always remember their kindness, consideration, helpfulness and the way they accepted me into their family. They will never be forgotten by me.

I wish I didn’t have to go back home. I want to stay here until I finish college then go back home.

Everything is new and different, makes it fun to find new things. I beginning to know who I am and what I want to do. I’m not as confused as I usually am.

My interest in outside things is improving. I find that its more fun.

I have a better look at the totality.

I’m beginning to find out that I have to be independent in whatever I do. I plan to make mistakes on my own accord and not with someone else involved.

I have found that in order to make friends all you have to do is be friendly and talk.

We can make no real evaluations of the worth of this Program until we can follow our students through college. Some of them will drop out of school for one reason or another, and certain benefits of the Program may not accrue until these students have children and send them off to school. It is certain that acculturation cannot be effected in a six-week, a six-month or even a six-year program. It must begin with the earliest school experiences of the child and develop through a curriculum specifically designed to meet his needs. A dramatic modification in methodology and materials is necessary if we are to solve this problem. We hope that this pilot program represents a significant step toward the solution of many similar crosscultural communication problems in the world today.

Notes

1. The remaining 80,000 constitute: Military and dependents (75,000) and D. E. W. (Distant Early Warning) line personnel and dependents (5,000).

2. Seymour Parker, "Eskimo and Indian Values and Motivation for Education in Three Selected Alaskan Villages," in Alaska Native Secondary School Dropouts, a Research Report, Charles K. Ray, Director, University of Alaska. 1962.

3. Eskimo term for white person. Derived from Russian word, Cossack.

4. College Orientation Program for Alaskan Natives, project D-157 jointly supported by The Cooperative Research Bureau of the U. S. Office of Education, The Bureau of Indian Affairs and The University of Alaska Division of Statewide Services will terminate in Fiscal 1968.

 
 
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