Can teaching Native languages improve graduation rates in Alaska?

This is first time UAS has had graduates with a Bachelor of Liberal Arts in Alaska Native Languages and Studies. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
The University of Alaska Southeast graduated its first Alaska Native Languages and Studies majors in 2014. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Many of Alaska’s rural schools are not working. Low student performance and high teacher turnover are just two of more obvious indicators of problems in these mostly Native school districts. Those working in the schools say it’s time for radical changes.

Paul Berg has taught in Alaska for more than 40 years — 10 of them in villages.

“You want to see racism go to a village school,” said Berg. “You’ll see Outside, usually Anglo teachers have the best jobs, the most pay. Vast majority of administrators will be Anglo. It is not working. The statistics and the data are very clear. ”

Berg, now 70, teaches high school students during the summer and works as a cross-cultural specialist for the Goldbelt Heritage Foundation. He, among other educators meeting this month at the University of Alaska’s Natives Studies Conference, describes schools as colonial forces not that much different from the boarding schools of years ago that punished Native children for speaking their languages.

“Education is the means whereby a culture perpetuates itself and transfers itself to the young. Public education has taken this away from the Yupik, the Inupiat, the Aleut and others and given basically middle-class America to these people,” said Berg. “As to the degree that they wish that… that should be their choice but they should have the inalienable undeniable right to transfer the culture and the language to their children. It’s called the right of culture sovereignty and English-speaking nations are among the last on earth to recognize it.

Xh'unei Lance Twitchell addresses the crowd that had gathered for the signing of HB 216, a bill making Alaska's Native languages official state languages. (Photo by Jennifer Canfield/KTOO)
Xh’unei Lance Twitchell addresses a crowd at the 2014 Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. At the event, Gov. Sean Parnell signed HB 216, a bill making Alaska’s Native languages official state languages. (Photo by Jennifer Canfield/KTOO)

“My prayer is that Tlingit is going to live forever because we want our little babies to be talking,” said Xh’unei Lance Twitchell.

He is using every means possible to make sure his children speak his Native language. He speaks Tlingit to them instead of English, knowing that the media environment will make sure they learn English. He wants bilingual and Tlingit immersion schools. He sees the shortfall in state education funds as an opportunity, because it prompts many to ask the question — why keep spending lots of money on a system that doesn’t work?

Diane Hirshberg is the director of the University of Alaska Anchorage Center for Education Policy Research. She has studied the indigenous education systems throughout the world to find out which were successful, and why.

“So we’re talking from Maori students to Greenlandic students to Hawaiian to lower-48 American Indian. And it is really clear that ownership of the schools, some degree of self-determination is necessary,” said Hirshberg. “It’s not sufficient. It’s not enough but it’s how you get started.”

Hirshberg joins many Alaska Natives in advocating that the state help tribes access federal Indian Education funds to support Native schools. They argue it’s time to spend money on something that works.

“I don’t know to what extent the state is willing to say, ‘Well, it’s OK. You can get this other funding, legally it’s allowed. Maybe you should take this on. You know, it relieves the pressure,’” said Hirshberg. “The state constitution says we must provide an education, but if those students are receiving the education from a voluntary tribal run system that is paid from outside, is the state willing to set up the conditions for that to happen?”

Natives living in rural Alaska say they need successful schools teaching their children Native language and traditions. Rayna Hartc, whose mother’s family is Yupik, says failing to provide such an education is not an option.

“The failure to educate a child in our area isn’t just that the child doesn’t get an education. For us it very often becomes a civil rights issue, a human rights issue because many of these children don’t fit in and they don’t belong and lead to … to suicide,” said Hartc. “This isn’t an educational issue. This is the right of a child to have a vibrant and viable future.”

Rayna Hartc is acting superintendent at the Yupiit School district.

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