The importance of the positive and beneficial impact of Tribal Education

by Willie Kasayulie

The Yupiaq had a system of education that took into account the universe of the human being, including respect for all renewable and non-renewable resources the Ellam Yua (Creator) created. The building used for educational, spiritual and traditional cultural events was the qasgiq (Traditional Men’s House). Everything was passed down orally and teaching of subsistence tools and methods was by observation and hands on. The Elders and Uncles took the role of a teacher to the younger generation.

Although this method of traditional education has been diminished substantially due to many factors, it still is practiced in various ways within each family unit today. The westernized schools and churches have practically eliminated the traditional Yupiaq education method and have taken nearly all responsibility of educating our children today.

Many of the administrators and educators that are imported into rural schools have little or no knowledge of the culture and history of the people they serve. There are some long serving superintendents, principals, and teachers, that have made a positive impact on the students they serve and who have contributed to their success in both Yupiaq and the western worlds. However, too often the negatives are publicized and the extraordinary successes are not celebrated.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Preamble states, “Recognizing in particular the right of indigenous families and communities to retain shared responsibility for the upbringing, training, education and well-being of their children, consistent with the rights of the child,”. Article 14 – “1. Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning. 2. Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to all levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination. 3. States shall, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, take effective measures, in order for indigenous individuals, particularly children, including those living outside their communities, to have access, when possible, to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language.”

Alaska is home to nearly 40% of the total number of federally recognized Tribes in the United States. These 229 Tribes are primarily located in rural Alaska with the powers “To do all things for the common good which it has done or has had the right to do in the past…” and “To guard and to foster native life, arts and… native customs…”. Among these “powers” is to enact Tribal Laws for the benefit of its’ members. Where Alaska Tribe(s) exist, village schools exist.

The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) has developed a series of documents under the Indian Education Legal Support Project since the 1990’s. NARF has also assisted several Tribes in the continental United States in drafting Tribal Education Codes. A Tribal Education Code can accomplish many things for the benefit of the Native children attending school. Although the Tribes have an inherent right to establish their own educational system, a Tribal Education Code does not create schools but allows for enhanced collaboration with their respective school districts to move towards improving the education that Alaska Natives receive in the westernized educational system.

The Akiachak Native Community adopted the Akiachak Native Community Tribal Education Ordinance (“Code”) on March 10, 1999 through a referendum of the membership. The Declaration of Policy identified five important areas: (1) Tribal government must provide for education to protect its membership; (2) Education must be effective, appropriate, and relevant to the Tribe; (3) Education shall help prepare students to perpetuate the Tribe; (4) Tribal government shall work with State and Federal governments to improve education; and (5) Ultimate education goal of the Tribe is self-determination consistent with its heritage. These objectives will ensure the integrity of the Tribe and its distinct status, authority and rights.

The Code created the Tribal Education Department which would collaborate with the school district to develop culturally relevant curriculum on Yupiaq language and orthography; Yupiaq history and culture; tribal governance and tribal/state as well as tribal/federal relations and relevant declarations; stewardship of lands and waters that provide subsistence resources and health and nutrition wellness; importance of parenting and family; advancement of the Tribal economy in relation to national and world economic conditions; and protection of Yupiaq homelands, natural resources and the overall community environment.

With the support of the three Tribes that comprise the Yupiit School District, the district established the Tribal Education Department to implement the intent of this Code. To date, curriculum has been developed based on local education conferences and interviews of the Elders conducted over the years.

The Code is not primarily for the K-12 school. It also applies to pre-school, headstart and monitoring of tribal members seeking for support for higher education. Many of the requirements outlined in the Code have been developed by the district over many years. Consistent with the Code, data will be collected on the success and areas for improvement of all students. The result will be an annual report on “Status of Education” to be provided to the tribal membership and through tribal gatherings.

Granted, many of the rural residents serve on the local and regional school boards, they have to comply with state and federal educational policies, laws and regulations. However, this innovative approach will allow for tribal government involvement in the education of their tribal children, ultimately fulfilling their inherent authority “to do all things for the common good” and “to foster native life, arts and …native customs…” for our generations to succeed in any environment.

The regional Native organizations, AFN, First Alaskans Institute, Association of Alaska School Boards, the Association of School Administrators, and Tribes across the state of Alaska need to understand the positive and beneficial impact that Tribal Education Codes can have on Alaska Native students everywhere. It is my hope that all concerned will embrace and promote this concept. More important, the Alaska State Board of Education, the Alaska Education Commissioner and the Alaska legislature must support these initiatives and collaborate with Alaska’s Tribal Governments to achieve the real success that we want for our future generations. Such an initiative will contribute to the continued existence of the distinct cultures that Alaska Native Tribes represent.

Willie Kasayulie is a resident of Akiachak, Alaska.