Educators say school is still falling short for Alaska Native students

Eagle feathers stuck in a law in front of a white building
Over Memorial Day weekend, 215 feathers were placed on the lawn of Sitka’s former residential school, Sheldon Jackson, in remembrance of the 215 children whose remains were discovered at a former residential school in Canada. (KCAW/Tash Kimmell)

The discovery of hundreds of graves of children buried on the sites of former residential schools in Canada has brought up painful memories for many Alaskans impacted by similar forced assimilation policies.

Alaska Native educators say there’s still work to be done to address the loss of language and traditional knowledge that began generations ago.

Paul Ongtooguk recently retired as the director of Alaska Native Studies for the University of Alaska Anchorage. He spoke Tuesday on Talk of Alaska about his experience teaching in rural Alaska and pushing for culturally-relevant curriculum. He said teacher and administrative turnover made it a constant struggle.

“You can develop great material, but within a couple of years you get a new generation of teachers and they don’t know it, so they’re uncomfortable teaching it,” Ongtooguk said.

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In the 1970s, Alaska Native students Molly Hootch and Anna Tobeluk sued the state for failing to provide local high schools for students in rural Alaska.

The case determined that all students, regardless of where they are in Alaska, should have access to a public education. The state eventually opened more than 100 high schools. But communities have to maintain a certain number of students for local schools to stay open.

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Lynda Prince is a social studies teacher at Bartlett High School in Anchorage and a graduate of Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka. The school serves mostly Alaska Native students from many different parts of the state.

Prince grew up in Grayling, and says even though she chose to attend boarding school away from home and had a great experience, it’s important for rural students to have options.

“I think the small village schools should still be funded better. So it’s not like that’s the only choice to get any education is that you must go to a regional school,” Prince said. “That shouldn’t be what it is. That you can still stay home and have a great education is super important.”

While language revitalization programs aimed at young students have expanded around Alaska in recent years, many schools in the state don’t offer Native language programs.

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