Education in the Bush has always been a hard job

I read with sadness the story of the Kivalina school.  I know how hard so many people have worked to bring quality education to the bush. And I know how much that education means to them.

I was in Barrow in 1975 when the BIA was asked to leave so that the borough could form its own school district. The late Eben Hopson Sr., then mayor of the borough, told a poignant story of being left on the beach by the BIA when the boat came to bring his classmates out to high school. He wasn’t picked up because he’d been tagged as an agitator, a troublemaker. 

He was denied an education because he refused to be treated as a second class citizen in his own village. He was marked as someone who might have a tendency to be “uppity” and the ruling powers of the day would have none of that.

I can still hear Eben describing how he refused to leave the beach after the boat left, sure they would come back for him, sure they would realize they’d made a mistake.  He talked about standing there waiting for the boat to reappear.  It didn’t.

Eben never did get over being uppity. And he eventually got his education.  More importantly, he realized that Alaska’s Native people would have to develop power if they were ever to be allowed to again determine their destinies.

To quote from his testimony before the Berger Inquiry on the Experience of the Arctic Slope Inupiat with Oil and Gas Development in the Arctic, “When I was a boy in Barrow, we were governed by teachers, preachers and traders. I recall being drafted into the Army in 1943 when my wife, Rebecca, was eight months pregnant with our first child.  I did not meet my first son until I returned from the Army after the war. It was an all white draft board that drafted me when other single boys were available. Government was often very painful. We were no longer governing ourselves. Had we governed ourselves, I know my people would have let me stay in Barrow at least until I could see my wife through her first pregnancy. It was little things like that that built up our great resolve to govern ourselves once again.”

Eben came from an amazing generation of Native leaders that left behind such organizations as AFN that give Native people power by giving them a voice.

Eben knew that education was the key to power. His people needed to have control over how their children were educated in order to maintain control of their destiny in the future.

You can engage in a long debate over the success or failure of education in the bush. You can argue that the consistently failing test scores experienced in so many bush schools are proof positive of failure. You can argue that the fact that this new generation of Native youth are more aware of who they are and proud of it as a sign of success.

But what has never been arguable in my mind is that the people in the Alaska bush are passionate about educating their children. And while the winning formula for this education has perhaps not yet been discovered, that doesn’t mean they want to give up the search for answers.

All of which makes the Kivalina school situation that much sadder. I’d be willing to guess that the majority of students there are as intimidated by the coterie of bullies as are the teachers. I’d be willing to guess that kids who kill and mutilate family pets to get even with a teacher have problems way beyond anything a school system can change. And I’d be willing to bet that more than one Kivalina parent is going to sleep at night wondering how such a wonderful thing as local education went so horribly wrong in their village.

What Eben and his generation fought so hard for is being made a mockery of by both the attitude of the problem students and, most especially, their parents. Eben’s generation would never have tolerated that behavior in school. School was a place to learn because learning was the key to the future.  It’s too bad that lesson got so lost on some people in such a short time.