ALASKA NATIVE EDUCATON:
HISTORY AND ADAPTATION IN THE NEW MILLENIUM
Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Journal of American Indian Education
Volume 39, Number 1
Nature as Metaphysic
For the Yupiaq people, culture, knowing and living
are intricately interrelated. Living in a harsh environment requires
a vast array of precise
empirical knowledge to survive the many risks due to conditions
such as unpredictable
weather and marginal food availability. To avoid starvation they
must employ a variety of survival strategies, including appropriate
storage of foodstuffs that they can fall back on during the time
of need. Their food gathering and storage must be efficient as
well as effective. If this were not so, how could they possibly
survive? To help them achieve this balance, they have developed
an outlook of nature as metaphysic.
Not only are humans endowed
with consciousness, but so are all things of the environment. The
people live in an aware world. Wherever they go they are amongst
spirits of their ancestors, as well as those of the animals,
plants, hills, winds, lakes and rivers. Their sense of sacredness
practical nature, not given to abstract deities and theological
rationalization. Pragmatism is the theme of their sacred ways.
The Ellam Yua., or
Creative Force, is not given the same ultimate stature as the
Biblical God. Because nature is their metaphysic, Yupiaq people
with maintaining harmony in their own environment. The Creative
Force is acknowledged and often given gratitude, though it is
of nature that is most important.
The Yupiaq people have many taboos, rituals, and ceremonies
to observe and practice that poignantly signify a harmonious ecological
orientation. They behave accordingly because of what their culture
as well as an abiding belief in what they and others have experienced
first hand. There are mysteries of the world that to Yupiaq
such as the Ellam Yua, but these are accepted. Such mysteries
keep them humble and ever mindful of the powers around them.
members of the Yupiaq community that transcended all human
levels of knowledge. These were the shamans, the dreamers, and
others who were receptive to nature's voices and intuitively deciphered
which was passed on by myth, taboo, ritual, ceremony or other
forms of extraordinary happening. The shamans were gifted to
in the unseen world, and they often would return with new
songs, taboos, rituals or ceremonies to teach. They were skillful
their knives and were able to reify their remembrances and
of the gift from a spirit with wood, bone, skin, feathers,
These would become sacred objects to be used in special ceremonies.
Amulets were also prescribed by the shamans to those requesting
and willing to trade for them. These often consisted of animal
parts and/or other pieces of earthly creations. Taboos were often
with the amulet or medicine bag, which was usually worn as
a necklace or sewn somewhere on the parka. There are many stories
were used when encountering an antagonistic spirit, animal
or another human being. This kind of healing is not new to the
The patient's belief in its healing power most likely had
do with the results.
The Yupiaq are told that if they take from another
persons traps, the person may not know, but the Creative Force will
see that people
their deeds and recognize the kind of person they really
are. People may try to change a person's tendency for stealing
embarrassing him or her in public. However, if there is
then he or she might be shunned by the community. Taking
another's life without cause is considered a heinous crime with
banishment from the village traditionally being the justice rendered.
The Yupiaq people were admonished to never do harm,
abuse or even
animals. Since Yupiaq people live in an aware world,
and everything else will always know. Several years ago, there was a news account of several walruses found dead on a beach with only their heads missing. The Fish and Wildlife managers lamented the fact that this was a wanton waste of meat and hides. One old Native man's comment to this was that it was unfortunate that it happened, and that the walruses had not been properly cared for. He concluded by saying that these animals would not be returning to earth. According to him, the misuse, abuse and disrespect shown the animals would cause the spirits not to return to earth to be born and renew their kind again. From a Yupiaq perspective, this is why certain plants and animals have gone into extinction, and many others are on the endangered species list.
Certain animals represent power, e. g., the bear, the
wolf, raven, eagle and beaver. Their commonality is strength and
a strong will to live, along with cleanliness and care of self. Each
possesses certain characteristics which set them apart from all others:
the bear with its strength, the wolf with its social organization,
the raven with its ability to remain airborne for great lengths of
time, and the eagle with its visual acuity. The oil gland of the
beaver is used for amulets, as well as for medicinal purposes. If
a person has a shortness of breath, they can chew on a small piece
and swallow the juice, thus relieving the stressful feeling. It is
also thought to be particularly strong against spirits, so that merely
having it in the hand is enough to keep a spirit at bay.
When the Earthês Crust was Thin
Stories and myths abound from Distant Time, when the
earth's crust was thin, when it was easy for people and animals to
communicate or transform from one to the other. Some tell of animals
and birds wearing special parkas with hoods. If they needed to communicate
with man, all they needed do was raise the hood, very much like taking
off a mask. Lo and behold, there would be a human face underneath
able to communicate in human language. This was an excellent way
of learning about animals and how they wanted to be cared for once
they gave themselves to the hunter. There is one important difference
between human beings and animals. The animals seem to have not been
given the knowledge of death. It is only the human who possesses
this dubious knowledge. However, the Yupiaq person does not consider
death the end, but rather a completion of a cycle which continues.
As such, most have no fear of death.
The following story, told by
William Oquilluk (1981), an Inupiaq Eskimo from the Bering Strait
area whose ways are very similar to the Yupiaq, provides an illustration
of how observations of the characteristics of animals are integrated
into the fabric of the Native mythology.
It is a story of "Two Brothers" living with their
mother and father. They are young boys always roaming around their
environment. One day the boys
are walking amongst the trees when they spot a camp robber
nest. The younger boy says to his brother that these birds always
steal from the camps and
that he will sharpen a stick and kill the young birds. This
he does. He climbs the tree and as each bird opens its mouth, he
thrusts the stick down
their throats killing them. Finally, there is only one left
and the older brother forces the younger boy down, thereby saving
one bird. Meanwhile,
the parents are flying around making frantic noises.
One winter, when the
boys are hiking around they spot a rabbit. They give it
chase. They get separated and are lost. Many animals help each boy
during the year. They
are invited to homes very often housing small people. They
are housed and fed for a few days. When it is time for them to leave,
they are told to
go a certain distance before looking back. One time when
leaving a home, they looked back and saw a beaver house with two
beavers swimming about.
The younger brother ended up in a large community house
with many couples living inside. He stayed with them many days.
Finally, the eldest man said
that he hasn't much time to live, and that the boy will
have to leave. The wife tells him how he had killed her children,
save one. Because one had
been left alive, she would spare his life, but he would
have to take the girl as his wife. The little human beings changed
to a variety of birds,
and left in pairs each singing its own special song. He
turned to look at the girl. She had changed to a full sized human
being. They departed and
went to their camp which turned out to be quite close
The older brother is shown by others the direction
to go home. He soon joined the other brother. They grew to a ripe
age, and eventually the
older brother died followed closely by his younger brother.
The latter slipped into another world and immediately saw his
brother walking toward him. He
could see that his brother had a cut on his lip. He
noticed that he too had a similar cut. He told his brother that this
his punishment for
killing those birds. They pondered the question of where
they should go. The older loved the land, while the younger felt
at home in the ocean. They
decided that they would separate and go to the place
of their liking. The older brother became a rabbit, the younger a
seal. To this day they are
classified together as they both have cleft lips and
Mythology is an invaluable pedagogical tool which transcends
time. As the storyteller
talks, the Yupiaq listeners are thrust into the world
of imagination. As the story unfolds, it becomes a part of their
As you imagine and
visualize in the mind's eye, how could you not become
a part of it and it a part of you? There is no separation. The
story and words contain the epistemological
webbing; how is it we got to know these truths? The
storyteller's inflections, play on words, and actions give special
listener. How the
participants are to act and interact in the whole are
clearly conveyed. To the outsider attempting to understand the
it may appear to be merely a story, but to the insider
it becomes reality leading to a spiritual orientation in accord
with nature. This is quality
knowledge whose end is happiness and a long life.
The Yupiaq people are admonished not to take themselves
too seriously, but to laugh at themselves, with others, and
make light of a lot of life's triumphs
and tribulations. Joking is a necessary part of life.
matter how serious a ceremony, there will be joking and laughing
interspersed between singing,
dancing and moments of silence. Silence is embraced
as a time for introspection and collective mindfulness for a greater
better life. Because of this
collective mindfulness, the individual man or woman
greater as a provider or as a homemaker. And as rational thinking
would have it, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.
Through the millenia of their existence, the Yupiaq
people worked as stewards of their world and maintained a balance
between their culture, technology and the environment around them.
Their psychological satisfaction with their nature-mediated technology
was on an even plane with their technological attainments. This allowed
for nature as their metaphysic. However in the last sixty years or
more there has appeared an ontological discontinuity. This is the
period of time in which they have participated in the destructive
acts of misuse, abuse and disrespect of the ecological processes
which produce life in their environment. How did they come about
making this destruction of life? What has happened to cause their
social organization to disintegrate with concomitant decay of their
morality and disillusionment with their way of life?
Traditionally, men and women had very defined roles.
The man was the provider, the one to work with nature in hunting
and trapping. It was a solitary effort ã solitary in that he did many activities by himself, but in reality was always acccompanied by spirits and in close contact with the animals and earth. His role as provider was to learn as much as possible from his father, extended family members, elders and others, so as to be a success.
The woman, on the other hand, had to learn womanly
duties from her mother, grandmother, and others. This included child
rearing, food preparation, garment making, observing taboos having
to do with menses and giving childbirth, and mindfully supporting
her husband. The man's success as hunter was just as much her responsibility.
They made up a team, complemented one another, and were very much
equal in standing. The community members bondedness to each other
was mutual, adding to their wholeness and vitality.
When a child
was born, the name of a recently deceased person was anointed to
the newborn by pouring a little water into the mouth or sometimes
sprinkling onto the head. Thereafter, that was his/her name. The
gender was unimportant. The relatives called the baby by that name
and the kinship term associated with the person whose name was
bestowed on the child. For example, if the deceased person's wife
the child, she would address it by name then follow it with "my husband". Thus a "new relative" was made whether blood related or not.
The traditional houses in which families lived were
constructed of sod in a semi-subterranean fashion. A high, dry location
was chosen, a circular hole dug down three to four feet in depth,
and then a framework of driftwood was constructed. Sod was cut and
carried to the site and placed on the wood frame with the vegetation
covered side next to the wood. Sometimes grass was placed between
to serve as a natural vapor barrier. An opening at the top was covered
with a seal or walrus gut canopy. This was removed when a fire was
made in the firepit for cooking or a fire bath. The house was a circular
and domed structure with an enclosed entranceway much like the snow
igloos of Northern Canada.
The structure of the Yupiaq sod house
has been likened to the woman's reproductive system. The ceiling's
name in the Yupiaq language means "the above covering" a term which is now used to mean "heaven." The skylight is likened to the umblical cord leading to the Ellam Yua, the interior to the womb, and the tunnel-like entrance to the birth canal, or "the way to go out." In the old days, when a person died, he or she was never removed through the entranceway, but through the skylight. The body was lifted and passed through the opening to the place of interment. The act was very symbolic of the spirit's journey to the spiritual land. The body was then placed with knees to the chest and arms around the knees bound together at the wrists ã a
fetal position, signifying completion of the life cycle and readiness for
reincarnation and renewal. The body was then covered with driftwood or rocks,
or sometimes with wooden planks, a canoe or kayak overturned with the body
The qasegiq, or community house, was mainly the domain
of men and boys prior to puberty. This is where much of the storytelling,
of arts and crafts, tests of skill and strength,
and learning of rituals and ceremonies took place. It was the site
of reintegration and renewal
of spirit and where balancing occurred. When
special ceremonies were conducted, participants from other villages
were invited. The whole community and visitors
from invited communities all participated
and enjoyed the generosity of the host village. They renewed acquaintances
and made new friendships, acknowledged
the unseen greater powers, paid respects to
their ancestors, celebrated the animal spirits, and even made a few
marriage arrangements. The ceremonies
reaffirmed the truths that the people chose
to live by.
Much of man's and woman's activities were patterned
to the landscape. For
those living on the upper riverine systems,
the activities were bound to catching and perserving fish and hunting
for land animals. Those on the
coast hunted sea mammals, fish and seasonal
birds and eggs. The technological tools and implements were made
from natural resources most abundant in their
location, or were gained in trade from other
areas. The materials consisted of wood, bone, stone and skin, or
sometimes nature-refined copper. They
may have intuitively known that their technology
would be restricted to unrefined natural resources, and that this
would conform to their nature-adaptive
They may have observed themselves
and others aging, tools wearing out, rivers getting shallow and
changing course, trails where nothing grew,
and that death and decay occured everywhere.
When a certain amount of matter and energy are no longer in usable
state, some degradation is inevitable.
Were they to refine natural resources,
they would speed up the entropic process.
A few years ago, there was an old Native
man on the Kobuk River speaking about the tundra fires raging
state. He said that the earth is
like a human being; it is aging, its
skin is drying and greying. Therefore the fires never burn themselves
out, rather they have to have firefighters
or heavy rains put them out. He recalled
fires years ago that naturally burned themselves out because
and moisture. He talked of
the earth as a living being, aging,
decaying, and perhaps, needing to be renewed. The Creative Force
the patience nor compassion to accept
a people that defile and destroy, and
will take the shortest route to heal a festering sore.
Consequences of Adaptation
The encroachment of Western civilization
in the Yupiaq world changed a people that did not seek changing.
Yupiaq peoplesê systems of education, governance, spirituality, economy, being and behavior were very much in conformity with their philosophy of life and provided for harmonious living. The people were satisfied with the quality of their life and felt that their technology was in accord with it. The culture- and nature-mediated technology was geared to a sustainable level of self-sufficiency.
The people in general were sufficiently content with
their lifestyle that they did not readily accept Eurocentric education
and religions when the first envoys of the dominant society set foot
in their land. Eurocentric knowledge and technological might did
not bring the Yupiaq people to compliance ã rather it was the incomprehensible diseases that decimated the people. A great number of elders, mothers and/or fathers, shamans and children succumbed to these new diseases. Whole villages were wiped out. The missionaries began to open orphanages and schools for the newly dislocated exiles in their own land. A hospital was located on the Kuskokwim river near Akiak and the Moravian Church established a –Childrenês Home” a short distance up river. The Federal Bureau of Education established –contract schools” with religious organizations. Money was paid to these organizations to establish schools and pay for the missionary teachers. The children were taught a new language (English) along with new knowledge and skills to become servants to the newcomersê needs and as laborers for newly established businesses. The Compulsory School Attendance Law was enacted, requiring families to remain in one location for many months of the year, thus ending the Native peoplesê practice of moving from place to place according to the seasons and migration patterns. The restrictive law initiated a twelve-year sentence given all Native children to attend school. Today, that sentence has increased to thirteen, including kindergarten. This has greatly reduced the freedom of people to be who they are, to learn traditional values and to living in harmony with their environment. It has meant that the families and children no longer experience the great freedom of earlier times.
The schools do not require that the Yupaiq children
learn their own languages and lifeways, but rather they are expected
to learn a foreign language and the related humanities and sciences.
The majority of teachers are from the outside world and have little
or no knowledge of the people with whom they are going to be working.
To the original people of the land, these are an immigrant people
with a different way of being, thinking, behaving and doing from
the Yupiaq. Few teachers recognize that the indigenous Yupiaq are
not like other European ethnic groups, such as the Irish, French,
or Italians, who have chosen to leave their homeland. By not teaching
the Yupiaq youngsters their own language and way of doings things,
the classroom teachers are telling them that their language, knowledge
and skills are of little importance. The students begin to think
of themselves as being less than other people. After all, they are
expected to learn through a language other than their own, to learn
values that are in conflict with their own, and to learn a –better” way of seeing and doing things. They are taught the "American Dream" which, in their case, is largely unattainable, without leaving behind who they are.
The messages from the school, the media and other manifestations
of Eurocentric society present Yupiaq students with an unreal picture
of the outside world, as well as a distorted view of their own, which
leads to a great deal of confusion for students over who they are
and where they fit in the world. This loss of Yupiaq identity leads
to guilt and shame at being Yupiaq. The resultant feelings of hurt,
grief and pain are locked in the mind to emerge as depression and
apathy, which is further reinforced by the fear of failure in school,
by ridicule from non-Natives, and by the loss of their spirituality. There are many contributing factors as to why Native children do not excel in school. I advance the following as a possible variable. I will do this by
telling you a Yupiaq story:
Aka tamani, ellam kainga mamkitellrani, In distant
time, when the earth's crust was thin, is a crane flying around looking
for a likely place to eat. The sky is blue, the sun is shining, the
tundra is warming. The crane decides to check out the weather. He
begins to fly in a circle. Each time he completes the circle,, he
gains altitude. He looks at earth from a very high altitude. He then
decides to descend and look for food. He flies over a river and sights
a skin boat with Yupiat in it slowly paddling down the river. He
continues his flight and sees a lake. He flies to to it, and finds
many kinds of berries. He is very hungry.
He lands on the river bank. He contemplates going
back to the tundra to eat berries, but his mind cannot forget the
Yupiat coming down the river.
He knows that he could be hunted. He must think of a way to warn
him when the people approach. He sits there and thinks. He finally
decides that he will use his eyes as sentries. He removes his eyes
and puts them on a log. He instructs the eyes by telling them, "Now
when you see people coming down the river, you warn me. I will
come down and get you and fly off."
After telling them so, he goes back to the tundra
and starts to eat berries. Soon he hears his eyes shout, "Crane, crane, there are people coming down the river!" He hurries down, finds his eyes and plucks them back in the sockets. He looks. There is only a log drifting down the river. The branches must have resembled people. He gets upset and says to his eyes, "Now you be very careful and make sure they are people before you call for me." He goes back to the tundra and eats. Soon, he hears his eyes calling him, "Crane, crane, there is a boat with people in it coming down the river. Come quick!" He
hurries down to the log and picks up his eyes and looks. There
is only a chunk of tundra drifting down. Tufts of grass move up
and down with movements of the clump of tundra.
"Now, look eyes you have made a second mistake.
Look very carefully before you call for me. I'm going back to eat
some more berries."
Soon afterward, the eyes call, "Crane, crane, people are coming down the river in a boat." This time the crane does not heed the call. He is thinking, "Well, I suppose they see something else that might resemble a boat and people. This time I won't respond." He continues to eat. Soon the eyes call, "Crane, crane, the people are almost upon us. Come quick." He
does not answer.
Some time elapses, then he hears the eyes calling
from a distance, "Crane, crane, the people have us, and their taking
us down the river."
The crane runs down to the riverbank and finds
the log. He feels around, but there are no eyes. He sits down and
thinks, "What am I going to do for eyes?" After much thought and consternation at not being able to see, he ambles back to the tundra. A thought occurs to him, "Why not try berries for eyes?" With
that he finds blackberries. He
plops them into his eye sockets. Lo and behold, he sees, but the
world is different shades of black and grey. This can't be,
so, he disposes of the blackberries.
He finds salmonberries, and tries them. But the world is orange
with its color variations and does not look right. So,
he gets rid of them. He tries cranberries,
but again the world is not the right color. It shows a place of
Finally, he tries blueberries. This time, the skies
are blue, the tundra is green and varied in color, the clouds are
white. Whew, these are to be his eyes.
And, that is how the crane got
This is very mythical (as defined by Joseph Campbell)
and magical. The myth is an analogical way of relating
to their environment; it reflects the human minds response to the
world; it has to do with understanding; and it tells them
that we humans have the heavy load
of intelligence and responsibility to have a beautiful world to inspire
them; and it is healing. The Yupiat people accepted
this on faith because of the need
to know and understand. To them, it made beautiful sense. If these
people believe in a worldview that includes a language, an ecosophy,
epistemology, and ecopsychology
all contingent on Nature, so why should the things
of Nature not be understandable
and interchangeable. All have a spirit therefore a consciousness,
an awareness of the world around them. So, the eyes are able
to communicate, perhaps, not verbally
but maybe through unsaid words. To the Yupiat listening not only
with the ears but with the mind and heart were essential
to become aware of patterns of
events that natural laws describe. The sun will rise and descend
each day, the earth will continue to revolve around the sun,
the spruce seeds will germinate,
and so forth. These recurring phenomena will continue to occur in
a given way. We accept these on faith that life is science.
Case in point is the crane flying in circles and ascending.
The Yupiat knew that the tundra warms under
the sun. This becomes visible as one looks out across the tundra.
One can see a disturbance over the tundra, heat waves rising.
They know the scientific principle
that hot air rises. This is the principle that the crane is using
to get high into the air to look around. Is he not a
scientist? Nature is science, science
The Eurocentric scientists tell us that a gene or a combination thereof
will produce an eye. After seeing
this happen time and again, we accept on faith. We will never understand
the creative design behind the genetic mechanism for
producing the eye, just as we will
never know what creative forces or what entity started the physical
laws into motion to bring about the "big bang". The scientific laws of nature merely explain or describe what physicists, astronomers, astrophysicists and others have observed. The preconditions leading to this phenomenon has not been seen and are unimaginable. The Yupiat accept that which is unknowable, uncontrollable and immeasurable.
The Eurocentric scientists tell us many things, such
as that there are particles in the atom that are so small that no
one will ever be able to see. They exist only in mathematical statistics.
But, we as a people accept these on faith. Do mathematics and physics
really exist in Nature, or are they merely constructs of the human
rational mind to try to make sense of this world? The important aspect
to consider is that the modern creative scientist only deals with
the physical and intellectual essences, in other words the outer
ecology. In addition, the modern scientist makes theories based on
sometimes limited facts, and these theories are made to fit their
constructed technocratic societies. They do NOT necessarily fit reality.
If these socio-politico-economics and scientific theories do not
describe reality, they most certainly will not work in tribal societies
because they are transrational. Perceptions can be far removed from
what is real, and in Yupiaq thought are incomplete and often erroneous
knowledge. This fragmentary approach disassociates them from the
whole. In trying to understand the parts to understand the whole,
and their scientific methods skew their way of looking at things.
Their assumptions and expectations muddle their efforts to see things
as they really are. The Native creative mythology deals with the
whole ® physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual of inner and outer ecologies. The Native person realizes that he/she is a microsm of the whole, the universe. Therein lies the ultimate difference between the two.
Another problem is that the scientistês own identity remains a mystery. They try to control nature for narrow dehumanizing purposes. They invent antibiotics and weapons of mass destruction. Their lack of self knowledge leads itself to nature keeping its secrets when we most need to let the book of Nature speak for itself.
The above Yupiaq story is a creative mythology of our
ancestors. But is not the physicist who creates the statistics of
unseen particles a creative mythologist? Is not the genetic microbiologist
who determines what gene(s) cause alzeheimerês a creative mythologist? Is not the microbiologist who creates a clone of a dog, not a creative mythologist? This latter thrusts me into the technomechanistic world whereby things discovered are rendered into useful tools and gadgets, such as the 747 jet, the snow machine, outboard motor, cloning living things, antibiotics, flouride toothpaste, skyscraper buildings, and plastic raincoat. All are intensive in the use of natural resources and energy. They do not consider that the natural resources and energy sources of Mother Earth are finite, but the ultimate is to gain control over Nature and manipulate it for purposes of humankind. Supposedly, in the Eurocentric eyes, technology will produce more food, energy and natural resources when they are used up. "Technology is the answer! (But what was the question?)" is a quote from Amory Lovins. Often, the industrial leaders are mainly concerned about financial gains which are driven by greed and ambition. Technological products and inventions are improved means to an often foggy or meaningless end. When a product such as a talking doll, cellular phone, new material for clothing are made, it does not change a small segment of life, but all of life. Psychological and economic change are impossible to measure, just as bad and evil cannot be quantified. Because of this technocracy has no conscience.
Mathematics, and the disciplines of science have there
own languages and areas of expertise. Each are isolated from the
other so that there is no understanding of interrelationships and
interconnectedness of all phenomena of this universe. In fact, each
area of study has its own contrived language which make disassociation
with other disciplines and Nature easy. In these fields of study
are an abundance of well funded research projects generating rampant
information and technological devices. But, what do these means lead
to? Surely, not to abundance of natural resources, natural beauty,
and diversity, but, maybe, to natural degradation and poverty and
confusion not only of humans but creatures too. Our educaton skews
our view of reality because of expectations and assumptions it produces
as to what it should be.
I now delve into the Yupiat ways of knowing and being
in harmony with Mother Earth. I have enclosed a diagram of a tetrahedral
metaphor of the
Alaska Native worldview.
I have drawn a circle representing the universe or
circle of life. The circle represents togetherness which has no
beginning and no end.
On this circle are represented the human, natural and spiritual
worlds. There are two way arrows between them as well as to the worldview at the apex of the tetrahedral. These two way arrows depict communications between all these functions to maintain balance. The Yupiat say Yuluni
pitallkertugluni , –Living a life that feels just right”. One has to be in constant communications with each of the realms to know that one is in balance. If the feeling is that something is wrong then one must be able to check to see what might be the cause for unease or dis-ease. If the feeling of being just right comes instinctively and this feeling permeates your whole being, then you have attained balance. This means that one does not question the other functions intellectually, but that one merges spiritually and emotionally with the others. The circle brings all into one mind. In the Yupiat thought world, everything of Mother Earth possesses a spirit. This spirit is consciousness, an awareness. So the wind, river, rabbit, amoeba, star, lily, and so forth possess a spirit. The human consciousness with its ability to merge into one with all consciousnesses of this world produce the holotropic mind. The holistic mind is given to the nurturance of health, and an environmental ethic.
Thus, if all possess a spirit/soul, then all possess
consciousness and the power that it gives to its physical counterpart.
It allows the Native person to have the ability to have the aid of
the spirit to do extraordinary feats of righting an unbalanced individual
psyche, community disease, or loss of communication with the spiritual
and natural world through irreverence toward beings of Nature. Harry
Robinson (Robinson, 1992) calls this nature power, the life-sustaining
spirituality. Dr. Grof refers to –power animals” (Grof,
1993) which gives its possessor the power to communicate with them, adopting
aspects of their wisdom or power, and re-establishing links with them when
the connection has been lost through negligence or lack of reverence, or
by offending either the animal spirits or one of the greater spirits of
the natural world. These are not available through Eurocentric scientific
research methods but only through the ancient art of shamanism or Nature
thought. From this you can see that when we rely on Eurocentric means of
research, it is a limiting factor, and this is what our institutions of
higher learning espouse and teach. All areas of social and scientific research
teach one way of trying to learn and understand phenomena. Our technological
and scientific training imprison the students minds to its understandings
much to the detriment of the learners who enter the mainstream Eurocentric
world to become its unerring members of progress and development.
The Alaska Native needed to take lives of animals to
live. To give honor, respect, dignity and reciprocation with the
animals whose lives were taken,
people conceived and put into practice many rituals and ceremonies
to communicate with the animal and spiritual beings. These are corroborated
through the Alaska Native mythology which are manifestations of fundamental
organizing principles that exist within the cosmos, affecting all our lives
(Grof, 1993). It then behooves the Alaska Native person to leave something
behind such as a piece of dry fish when getting mouse food from the tundra.
The mouse food is gathered in the early fall so that the mouse and its family
will have opportunity to collect more food for the winter. The seal when
caught is given a drink of water so that its spirit will not be thirsty
when it travels to the animal spiritual kingdom. This is done to show respect
to the animal for having shared and given its life to the hunter. Medicinal
plants are gathered respectfully knowing full well its power to heal. It
is also to recognize that these were given freely by Nature and that requires
that we share these freely. The Alaska Native person is aware that if we
do not use these gifts of Nature regularly, mindfully and respectfully,
they will begin to diminish through disuse or misuse. Earth, air, water,
fire and spirit must always be in balance. Its elements and creatures have
an important niche to play in the ecological system. With this concept in
mind, it then requires that we carefully examine the lifestyles and technology
that is extant in this world. Our lifestyles have become materialistic and
given to technological devices and gadgets galore that are not geared to
sustainability. Our modern cities with their network of buildings, transportation,
communications, goods and services distribution centers are destructive
and given to conformity. Likewise, the studies of natural resources are
given to conformity. They are approached in a fragmentary way such as an
expert in harbor seals does not know what the expert in herring fish is
doing or has discovered. This type research is geared for measuring and
objectifying the species studied for commercial purposes and not for sustaining
In the Eurocentric world of science and technology
exist many alternative approaches that are nature-friendly and sustainable.
They await the time
when the global
societies evolve from consumerism and materialism to ones that are
oriented to conservation and regeneration. As Alaska Native people
and other indigenous societies, we have much to share with the modern world.
I believe, it is much more difficult to live in tune with and in concert
with Mother Earth than it is to plunder earth, air, fire, water and spirit
using the sciences and there offspring the technologies as tools of destruction.
With our realization that Eurocentric mathematics and sciences and the resulting
technomechanistic inventions impact and change our ways of thinking and
present new tools to think with, including the computer and other means of communications. These modern inventions and thinking are inimical to living in nature, with nature, and being of nature. It behooves us as indigenous and minority peoples to learn both ways of knowing and doing, so that we can begin to develop a caring consciousness and a technology that is kind to our being as humans, to the spiritual and the natural.
The question now is: How do we counteract the depression, hopelessness and despair that derive from the unfulfilled promises of the modern world, and what role can schooling and education play in this effort? To address this question, it will be necessary to take a closer look at how traditional education and Eurocentric schooling have fit into the lives of the Yupiaq people.
Learning From Nature
It is through
direct interaction with the environment that the Yupiaq people
learn. What they learn is mediated by their cultural cognitive map.
map consists of those –truths” that
have been proven over a long period of time. As the Yupiaq people interact
with nature, they carefully observe to find pattern or order where there
might otherwise appear to be chaos. The Yupiaq peoples' empirical knowledge
of their environment has to be general and specific at the same time. During
their hunting trips into the tundra or on the ocean in the winter, they
must have precise knowledge of the snow and ice conditions, so over many
years of experience and observation they have classified snow and ice with
terms having very specific meanings. For example, there are at least thirty-seven
terms for ice, having to do with seasons, weather conditions, solar energy
transformations, currents, and rapid changes in wind direction and velocity.
To the Yupiaq people, it is a matter of survival. This knowledge is passed
down from generation to generation by example, by showing, and by telling
with stories to reinforce the importance of knowing about the varying conditions.
This comprises the rational side of the Yupiaq people.
The rational mind
ability to see and store many bits of observed information, which
be mulled over and shared with others for more ideas of what it
may mean. This may evolve into a tentative assumption of how and why something
is the way it is. Being self-aware of the subconscious and intuition, the
Yupiaq people let it play in their minds until a direction or answer evolves.
They observe nature's indicators and come to a tentative supposition, followed
by testing with further observation of variables that may affect the conclusion.
They know that nature is dynamic and they have to change with it. Thus their
conduct of life changes with nature. They pass on the truths to the next
generation, knowing fully well changes in interpretation will occur, but
that certain of their values, such as caring, sharing, cooperation, harmony
and interconnectedness with the created whole of their environment, will
continue. This then validates and gives dignity to their existence.
One cannot be conscious of the world without first
being aware of oneself. To know who you are, what your place in the
world is and that you are to
seek life is what self-awareness is all about. It is the highest
level of human knowledge, to know oneself so intimately that you
are not afraid to tell others of life, and to help those that need help with compassion
without being dragged down by the troubles of those being helped. Knowledge
of oneself is power, and you acquire it by looking into yourself to see
what strengths and weaknesses you have. You accomplish this through looking
at your own reactions to everyday situations, both good and bad.
sense of oneself involves meditation, visualization, intuition, and
tempering all thoughts and actions with the "heart," which is on a higher plane than knowledge of the mind. –Heart” can
best be explained by giving examples: to give freely of oneself to help
a person with personal problems; to bring a little bird home with a broken
leg and care for it to restore its health; to come upon a moose mired in
soft snow and shovel the snow away to free it; to be motivated by kindness
and care - these all involve the exercise of heart. You can recognize people
with heart by the respect shown them by others through kind words, inclusion
in community activities, and acceptance as a stable and common-sensical
member of the community.
The Yupiaq's careful and acute observational ability
many years ago the presence of a Creative Force. They saw birth and
death in the human, and in nature. This Creative Force flowed through
- the years, months, days, rivers, ligthening and thunder, plants,
and earth. They were awed by the creative process. They studied,
and nature became their metaphysic. It gave them empirical knowledge.
Products of nature extended to them ideas for developing their
The spider web provided the idea for the net; the snowshoe hare's
tracks, their snowshoes; the mouse's chamber lined with grass,
their houses; the moon's phases, their calendar; the Big Dipper and the
North Star, their timepiece at night; wind directions, their indicators
of weather; flint and slate, their cutlery. Certain plants and herbs gave
them their healing powers and they discovered that certain living things
were adapted to live in certain areas, while others were able to make physical
adjustments through changes in coloration, forming a heavier coat for winter,
hibernation, estivation, etc., all under trying conditions. They noticed
change across time and conditions, and they recognized that they too would
have to change with time and conditions to survive.
It was meaningless for Yupiaq to count, measure and
weigh, for their wisdom transcended the quantification of things
to recognize a qualitative level
the spiritual, natural and human worlds were inextricably interconnected.
accomplished through the Creative Force having endowed all earthly
spirits, which meant that they would have to deal with all things
and aware. Having a Raven as creator of man and woman and everything
that humans would never be superior to the other elements of
creation. Each being endowed with a spirit signified that it possessed innate
survival skills. It had the will to live, propagate, and care for itself,
thus the need to respect everything and to have taboos, rituals, and ceremonies
to keep the three realms in balance.
Nature's indicators and voices give
for making a living, but the intuitive and spiritual knowledge gives
wisdom to make a life. Therein lies the strength and tenacity with
Yupiaq people continue to maintain their identity, despite assaults
on the philosophical,
epistemological, ontological, economical and technological
Their template has certainly eroded, but the continuity of their
ways to comfort and create harmony persists. As long as the Yupiaq
is intact, they will withstand.
A Yupiaq Educational System
If the Yupiaq
people are to really exercise the option of educational control
it will require that the schools become Yupiaq controlled, Yupiaq
in practice. Outsiders have to realize that outsiders' control,
resulting forms of curricula and teaching are not well synchronized
to Native consciousness. The Yupiaq people have not been dehumanized to
the level that they are unable to devise and implement their own programs
to release them from the clutches of poverity and self-degradation. Why
should someone from the outside come in with foreign values and forms of
consciousness and impose them upon another? The people know their reality
far better than anyone else. The Eurocentric models of education and progress
have not been able to bring to fruition their promises, so they must acquiesce in their "cognitive imperialism" and
allow the Yupiaq people an opportunity to plan and work for their own destiny.
It is for the Yupiaq people to strive for an educational
system which recognizes their language and their culture, including
their methods of doing science,
they have learned from their environment and have lived in harmony
They do not have to become someone else to become members of the
global society, but can continue to be their own people. Yupiaq spiritual
are still applicable today because they are nature-based. Yupiaq
has enabled them to be survivors for many thousands of years up through
the 20th century. This survival continues as Yupiaq values, beliefs,
and problem-solving strategies are modified and adapted to fit
political, educational, economic, social and religious institutions.
this allows the Yupiaq infrastructure to expand out from the village
institutions such as Native corporations, schools and churches. The
values embedded in these modern institutions are often in conflict
so a blending of traditional and modern values becomes necessary.
people assert greater influence on the educational system, there
will begin to emerge a Yupiaq educational philosophy and principles which
give cultural and cognitive respect to the Yupiaq learner. Formal schooling
can be coupled to the community in such a way that the natural learning
that is already taking place can be validated in the same way as the formal
learning which occurs in the school. Students can first learn their language,
learn about themselves, learn values of their society, and then begin to
branch out to the rest of the world. They may later make a choice as to
what they want to do and where to live. Given such a foundation, they can
fearlessly enter any world of their choice, secure in their identity, their
abilities, and with dignity as human beings.
There is a crying need for healing among the Alaska
Native people. One desideratum of this process is the need for Alaska
Native people to retain
unique Native identities. This is best done through the use of the
language because it thrusts them into the thought world of their
ancestors and their ways of apprehending and comprehending their
use of the Native language, the students begin to appreciate the
richness and complexity of their philosophical and spiritual worldviews.
Thus, the need for Native languages to be the foundation upon which the
camps rest. The camps must also take place in all the seasons with the Native
elders being the prime movers. The Native language description of traditional
activities best convey the relationships between a Native concept and practice.
The bridging camp must not only include Native languages and practices but
also Eurocentric scientific concepts and practices. All daily activities
must be coordinated to effectively and efficiently teach and validate both
The bridging camps must not overlook the Eurocentric
mathematics and scientific concepts. The students have to have a
and research as many of there findings corroborate Native observations
also show why Mother Earth is suffering. Many research activities
may be for the sake of science or research, but they do show globally
This makes it absolutely necessary that they learn Eurocentric concepts
as their own ways of recongnizing patterns, symbols, estimation/intuitive measurement, and ways of keen observation of place. The Native students
have to realize that our ways of measuring and knowing are identity-building
processes. Native students can then pursue careers in mathematics and the
sciences but buttressed in a Nature-way worldview giving them a kind and
polite disposition to the world.
The following are merely suggesions and may be revised
to suit your own situation and needs. Three types of Alaska Native
camps are described for
needs. The fourth are the AISES camps that are geared for the Eurocentric
Immersion camp: students who have a good command of
the Native language or dialect of a particular region.
a. all activities are done in the Native language
only and addresses things done to make a life and a living;
all planning and implementation
always includes Native elders
activities are explained by elders and other knowledgeable Native
what and why things are done the way they are for cultural adaptability
c. use of plants "and animals" - times for harvesting, how and why certain rules are followed to ensure continuation of species; explain
the traditional preparation and preservation techniques; explain how the process contributes to natural diversity and cultural adaptability
d. medicinal plants there use and how they have been
preordained by the Ellam Yua to have power to heal certain diseases;
harvesting process, preparation, preservation, how to use being mindful
of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual inclinations of
the person; how does it contribute to natural diversity and cultural
e. explore the Nature-mediated technology of the Alaska
Native people - materials, preparation methods, explanations of
why certain parts of materials are used, how the idea came about,
of parts, use and care of the item; does it have to be unrefined
resources and why?, biodegradable, spiritual aspects, how does
it contribute to natural diversity and cultural sustainability and
knowing the natural sensemakers of Nature for weather, seasons,
knowing time, its measurement
h. finding direction using Nature
i. using song, dance and drumming for transmission
of culture, especially its spiritual aspect; bring to a realization
that a Native person does is a form of prayer and paying homage
Ellam Yua or whatever name a tribe has for the Great Being
j. use mythology and stories for value creation and
teaching what it means to be human, "the entire process must be value-creating and give a cultural orientation - an identity"
k. live off the land as much as possible using techniques
and technology traditionally used
l. the scheduling must be flexible
and determined by the elders to do things when it feels right
Language development camp: students who have little
or no understanding of the Native language, or have little or no
process is best determined by the elders and teachers. But, it
would seem logical to start with the Native language being used with
interpretations, then progressing to an hour or two in which only
the Native language is used. The last week may be all in the Native
language. Otherwise all of the above apply.
Bridging camp: adding from the Eurocentric viewpoint
to the above
a. All or most of the above activities apply. All activities
are coordinated to best bear understanding. The tradition activities
are not separate activities from Eurocentric mathematics and
sciences but are planned to be compatible with one another.
b. determine the most used Eurocentric scientific terms
and coin Native words for those words with help from elders and students
in using Eurocetric science knowledge and theories determine
that knowledge will add to or detract from one's Nativeness
d. determine whether that Eurocentric knowledge is
useful and applicable in place or is it just show 'n tell/extraneous
estimation/intuitive measurement, recognition of pattern and
without mathematical equations to confuse the issue - the universe
is not all numbers
f. use computers and other technological tools sparingly, "our memories are becoming obsolete"
g. does adding this Eurocentric knowledge to the traditional
enhance or detract from natural diversity and cultural adaptability
h. does adding these technological gadgets to the camp
add to environmental and mental pollution
i. does it produce the
value of cooperation
and harmony or competition and individualism
j. in what to include in the camp from the modern world,
the planners and implementers should always have the values in front
of them "for guidance"
A Yupiaq Curriculum
The educational process must begin with the consciousness
extant in each Yupiaq
school should not
exposure of students
and art should
The students can find out from elders about plants
and herbs with medicinal value and
educational system told
the –good will” of others. Education has made Yupiaq people consumers instead of producers in charge of their own livelihood.
The time has come for the Yupiaq people to pick themselves
up and remember the spirituality, common sense, intelligence, creativity,
ingenuity, and inventiveness of their ancestors. They must return
to an emphasis on –soft technology” - technology that is adapted to culture and environment. They have been victimized, as have many other people in the world, by the myth of progress and development. Their minds are imprisoned by the modern world, with its syncopating lights and gadgetry that is hypnotic and desirable, but in reality presents a mishmash of images in a shotgun fashion, with little connection to the vagaries of real life. It is time for the Yupiaq to get in rhythm with their own culture. There is no need to forsake all that has been presented by others. Technology and schools have their place, but they must be used with reason and in a sacred way to edify and enhance Yupiaq peoplesê culture,
and the world
as a whole.
OQUILLUK, WILLIAM (1981) People of Kauwerak (Anchorage, Alaska Methodist University)