Alaska Native Education: Views from within and Crossing Mountains: Native American Language Education in Public Schools

By Hall, Daniella | Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online), January 15, 2013 | Go to article overview

Alaska Native Education: Views from within and Crossing Mountains: Native American Language Education in Public Schools


Hall, Daniella, Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)


Alaska Native Education: Views From Within and Crossing Mountains: Native American Language Education in Public Schools Citation: Hall, D. (2013). Review of the book Alaska Native education: Views from within, by R. Barnhardt & A.O. Kawagley, and Crossing mountains: Native American language education in public schools, by P. Ngai. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 28(2), 1-4.

"Why don't we celebrate Columbus Day on the Reservation?" My fourth grade student asked me this during my first year teaching on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico. My answer lefthim unsatisfied. "But we didn't exist until he discovered us," the student cried.

My student's response exposes the frightening reality of Native American education in the United States. Throughout our educational system, Western perspectives on history, culture, and values supersede Native ones. In my classroom, few of my students understood basic elements of their heritage, such as identifying their family clans, and only two spoke Navajo fluently. Even though we lived on the largest reservation in the United States, my students' knowledge of their cultural heritage was shaped by fetishized stereotypes perpetuated through mainstream culture. New teachers, particularly non-natives like myself, generally lack knowledge, training, and resources to adequately address native students' culture.

Two new books on Native American education address educational issues relating to Native tribes in the United States. Alaska Native Education: Views From Within (2010) is a collection that examines the history, culture, language, and religion of native Alaskan tribes through an educational lens. Crossing Mountains: Native American Language Education in Public Schools (2012) investigates indigenous language acquisition programs in public reservation schools in Montana. Both of these books are insightful and comprehensive additions to the field.

Alaska Native Education, edited by Ray Barnhardt and Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley, is a compilation of academic articles, speeches, reports, essays, and other written pieces addressing indigenous education in Alaska. "Many of these essays have been in limited circulation for years as readings for college classes or passed on from person to person, but most have not been readily available to a broad general audience," the editors note (p. xi). The book offers a broad and diverse perspective on Native Alaska education, unified by a cohesive vision of integrating indigenous knowledge within the framework of a Western educational system.

The book is divided into six thematic sections: "Alaska Native Education: Past, Present, and Future," "Native Pathways to Education," "Honoring Indigenous Knowledge," "Culturally Responsive Curriculum," "Strengthening Native Languages" and "Education for Self-Determination." The book incorporates a range of publication dates from 1974 to new works. The format also interweaves voices from the major Alaskan cultures, including the Aleut, Alutiiq, Yup'ik/Cup'ik, Iñupiaq, Athabascan, and Southeast (Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian) tribal regions.

In spite of the diversity within Alaska Native Education, the book coherently addresses the central theme of integrating indigenous and Western knowledge within Alaska's education systems. In the mid-1970s, legislative changes and a lawsuit shifted control of Alaska's schools from federal and state government to local communities, enabling students to attend school in their home communities instead of boarding schools. This also began the reversal of entrenched educational practices that pushed native people to assimilate into the Judeo-Christian culture of mainstream America. This major policy shiftserves as the pivotal issue for the book. This becomes clear when the authors examine the impact of the educational system on native cultures, describe indigenous knowledge and traditional educational systems, and offer suggestions for reforming Alaskan schools to incorporate these values into the traditional Western pedagogy. …

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