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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Shame is a learned attribute....

When I moved to Northern California for college I brought no mementoes of my culture. No pictures, no handmade clothing, I took care to avoid mentioning where I was from. When people assumed I was Asian I was happy to let them think it, because Asians were smart and clean. My dorm room was bare of my cultural past, the village was scrubbed from my skin. For months I got away with it.

Eventually I did have a lichen flavored epiphany, and through a different kind of birth I emerged to love 90% of my being. There were a lot of tears and a lot of pain and for a while I was ashamed not of my heritage but of my denial of my heritage. I will live the rest of my life in finding the fragile forgiveness of my ancestors.

But after a while I began examining where this burning self hate came from. I looked into my past and the influences that made me who I was. I looked at each and every thought and prayer and hope I held next to my heart. The examination took years.

Be careful of the ears that hear your judgements. Be careful that your words or actions do not plant poison in younger minds.

I grew up hearing from people that I spent the most time with everyday tell me that my beloved home and my brown skin were less. That the things I could not change about myself were things to be ashamed of. I don't think they did it on purpose. I instead think they thought thy were imparting us with great guidance and wisdom, hoping that these revelations would dispel laziness and uncaring. A twisted motivator.

I write this not to be vindictive, but I do write to make someone, at least one person I hope, aware. I am angry about my experiences, but that anger is surrounded by tears and pain. I still work to untangle the tangled unmapped threads.

And yes I am talking about teachers. The teachers that work in the villages. I do want to point out that not all teachers are bad or are doing badly. But there were a few in my life that did damage to me and others. They wove cruel words into our daily diet. With statements like "if you do well in this class you can get a good grade, go to college and get out of this place." Or comments about animal smells, dirty environments, or how they REALLY can't wait to leave this dreadful/lonely/isolated/cold/desolate place and go to a REAL place with theaters and bowling alleys and things to do. I grew up hearing these offhand comments. I grew up watching teachers snort at and judge kids that had bad attendance, even though everyone else knew it was because the kid was hunting/camping/fishing/being Inupiaq. They deemed them "behind" and "slow", and so we learned early that being Inupiaq meant that the smartest people in the world thought you were dumb, and they would separate you from the rest of the kids and spend more time with you and speak slowly like you lost some brain cells. Of course we all thought these teachers all knew. And we learned that Most teaches did not enjoy your home. That they thought it was dirty or boring and they all left when they could, running from the village like it was on fire.

It was like someone walked into your house, a house your family has owned for generations, with a degree in Awesome Homes Authority and a clipboard full of official papers. And then they proceeded to write everything they thought was wrong with your house. Not just the broken things or the missing things but the fact they hated your choice in furniture and the curtains were not the right color, and there were not enough rooms or things that they deemed necessary for you to be happy. They wrote it all down, and even thought you did not see the could still hear them and see them.....

I think the easiest way to ear the respect of a village as an out of town teacher is to stay a little bit for the summer, or the winter Christmas celebrations, voluntarily. Though we can't always hope that everyone will absolutely adore our culture and villages, we can at least hope that they don't openly hate them. I still think that they need to offer a "inupiaq Manners" course for new teachers, as with any cultural interactions there are differences in mannerisms and nuances that cause many a issue.

The tragic part is that people think that all of these issues only existed in the past, that no teachers are guilty of any of these things anymore. But it would surprise most to find that it still exists rampantly. There are organizations and people working hard to incorporate and raise Inupiaq knowledge and attributes to the same heights as Western knowledge but it will be a long term battle. As a teacher I was once asked by another teacher how I " can pretend to be so Inupiaq with my education and fit in with them after work."

.....and how many of your children remark that they find the village boring and Native and lame and that they can't wait till they get out of there?.....


  1. Hmm, We see it down here too, but if you're an observant parent, you can convince (force) the administration to move your child into a teacher's class who's been there for years. At least here, we have teacher's in every grade who have been tenured for a loooong time. I've been asked those same questions too. But its through their ignorance that we find hope in those young, few, teachers who just think this is the GREATEST PLACE ON EARTH! And I know there are some out there. People are sometimes surprised to find out that we didn't have running water and that I actually lived in a canvas tent frame and used an outhouse in forty below weather, etc, etc... But, if you have the right family, the things teachers say, just won't bother you. The one time a teacher did say something to me, I told my mother, who stomped into the school and told the teacher exactly what she thought about "her kind" coming here, etc. It was epic...and the administration made all the teachers go through a sort of "orientation" after that.
    As a mother of young inupiaq kids, I take the time to educate my kids teachers and invite newcomers to ALL of our activities. Especially teachers. And since I have insight about some families hunting, or or spending money at Bingo instead of school lunches, I tell their teachers and they seem to understand. :) Great post Uuma!

  2. This story makes me angry at your teachers who do not deserve the name. Children are so porous, they believe whatever anyone (adult or child) tells them. Their innocent hearts are so beautiful that it is a crime that they learn to be ashamed of themselves or their homes or their culture.

    Kind and smart people know better than to say damaging things but many people are not kind or smart. And I have learned that they say hurtful things to make their own fears or insecurities feel better.

    Openness is the answer. Tell your children to talk to you if anyone makes them feel bad. Tell them they are beautiful and special and that those teachers are wrong. And believe it yourself.

    I know you are being truthful but I was amazed that you pretended to be Asian rather than Inupiaq which I think is SO very special. You have an ancient culture and such a special homeland.

    Every minority culture gets put-down by the majority. You name it and every different type of people have been mocked, repressed, even killed. What makes our country great is it's diversity. Don't let the ignorant people win.

    Keep your children safe and believing that they are perfect and wonderful. Tell anyone who makes you feel bad that they are wrong.
    Fire teachers who don't respect your culture.

    But don't become like the "haters" and only like people who look like you do or are from your culture. Then you become one of them.

    My teachers were Dominican nuns who never let anyone make fun of other people. And we had lots of poor kids, less than smart kids, kids of different races, etc. I'm not a Catholic anymore but will always value that part of my schooling.

    But you are right that kids always want to get out of the town they are in. I couldn't wait either. If I had a home village to go back to where everybody knew my name I'd probably be there now. There's no place like home but some of us have to make our own homes in a world that is broken apart by time, distance and jobs.

    Great article, I enjoyed reading it even if it brought sadness.

  3. I just think it odd because wanting to leave the village is not a Inupiaq trait. It's not a cultural trait. It's a very odd thing to want to do. My students would stare at me wide eyed and in silence when I told them it was always my dream to live in the village. That I found that there was neater stuff to do in a village then there was in a big city. I think we were both surprised at one another.

    I also had a teacher tell me I was not going to be anything but a baby machine after I graduate high school. And then as a teacher I was reprimanded for "acting too Inupiaq" in my classroom (using Inupiaq words and sitting next to students and having dinner with their parents) and that it would confuse my students. There was too much pain for me in teaching to be able to stay in it for long.

    I guess i think too much! lol.

  4. As a teacher, in a village, let me say a few words. I support my students when they go on subsistence leave. In fact I wish more students were able to take an active roll in their culture. I wish we had more support from the community in terms of teaching the important native skills that may belong to a few. As an outsider I can not do it myself, but I will support it in any way I can. I want to learn to. I have learned to scrape skins, sew a ruff and mittens, and hats, and clean a rabbit or a bird, and cook caribou. I do love it here, but I also enjoy my time out. Just because I leave for a weekend out does not mean I love the village any less. I feel very blessed that I have had the privilege to live in Anaktuvk pass.

  5. Hiya KDog!

    I think part of the problem that I saw as a teacher and as a native is that the school environment and procedures are very unfriendly to Cultural teaching. It is quite opposite of how one teaches youth in our culture. That is you are given a specific time to appear, offered no food or drink (most of the time) or time to adjust to the surroundings and meet the people, are placed in front of a captive and silent group, and told to "perform".....within a specific period of time. And in that short period of time you must demonstrate how to do something that probably takes more than an hour to learn. In a cultural setting the student and teacher are actually DOING the learned activity together, side by side. Very few if any words are said. There are no time limits or set appointments just when something needs to be done is done.

    Not to mention that no normal Inupiaq would possess the knowledge to create a structured lesson according to federal guidelines. It makes the Native teacher and the students both uncomfortable. It's something that needs to be honestly worked on. And I think the first step is to remove it from the classroom and lift the 55 minute limit. But we know how hard THAT is to do. Even as a trained, certified teacher I found it nearly impossible to incorporate Inupiaq Skills in a non-Inupiaq environment and teaching structure. In fact the only time I taught my students in an Inupiaq way I was yelled at for it. The learning structures are so different that it's not something you can do without major planning.....

    anyways....thanks for commenting I really appreciate it!

  6. Will it be asinine for me to assume that this shame of being Inupiaq is the result of the racism that is inflicted upon the native people?

  7. It is strange; the manner in which we sometimes learn our lessons on this earth. It's like, the fact is we are BORN human, and yet we spend our entire lives learning how to be human. I spent a good part of my life away from my family. As a young man, I made poor decisions and choices that took me away from them. In prison, the native circle is comprised of many nations. I was brothers with Lakota,Menominee,Anishinabe,Apache, Oneida, and on and on...I was blessed to learn from elders of all these nations, to be in sweat lodges with some of their holy men, and to listen to sacred women story tellers who volunteered to come into a hostile environment in order to help us "men" learn who we truly are and become MEN. I am forever grateful to these people. They are a light that shines brightly on my heart.I grew up in Wisconsin. My dad is German and swiss, and my mom is Inupiaq. I always knew that being Inupiaq was a special blessing. When I was young, I read my Great Grandfathers book, "People of Kauwerak" countless times. I felt as if it was written just for my eyes. I love all things native, but for a long time, I was starving for teachings from my people. "Inupiaq"; I always loved the way it sounded. As a kid, I hung around with alot of mexicans. It was natural for people to ask "are you half mexican?"...I loved to say, "I am Inupiaq"... They always asked me what that was. As I got older, I began to ask myself that question. Many elders of the Lakota nation have told me, "You need to go to your people and know your ways. A time is coming when we must all remain close to our original instruction, and your people have good medicine.".. I ask my Grandma more questions now than I ever have... I soak up stories like a sponge... I tell them to the peoples in our native talking circle... They tell me they are grateful. I tell them, not as grateful as I am to be able to tell them...At 32 years old my Grandma told me I was "a good boy" for the first time in my life! She is proud of me for my efforts in understanding who I am and for showing gratitude towards my ancestors. I try to learn the language to the best of my ability. I try to THINK in the language. I try. I have alot of work to do, but it is so fulfilling, I cannot put it into words. It's like mist. Rainey; when you put up that "Inupiaq manners list", my Grandma and I had a very enlightening exchange. It was very special to me... Quyanaq Puk. You cracked that door open for us, just as the people in your life cracked it open for you, and theirs for them...I feel that a time is coming when that door gets kicked off it's hinges. When the alcohol has rusted it's locks and the weight of it's atrocities weaken it to the point of no return; a mukluk will knock it down and where that door once stood knowledge will pour through... I feel our light shines brightly; not think... feel...-Pimusuk

  8. Nightstorm.....

    Not racism really. But maybe something else.

  9. Hello, Please look for a package next week at the post office. A little treat for you and the ladies from Deb. I will not spoil the the entire secret but I can tell you that the fresh Strawberries taste mighty good :) and the Blue berries will make good hotcakes. Be joyful Rainey... Spring time is here ... I miss the blessings of Alaska

  10. I used to teach too, at a ghetto (that's what the students called it) high school in Anchorage, and I stopped because I felt more like a jail guard than a mentor. Literally it came down to the absurdity of bathroom passes, I mean, c'mon, a 16 yo knows when they need to use the facilities wo me signing off on it. And I'm assuming (bc we're the same age) that you started teaching in the 2000s like I did. Since I'm drawing a parallel between our experiences I want to say that I was born and raised on the Kenai Peninsula/Anchorage and that I'm white. Being a product of the 1980s/1990s meant that I had no notion of how people lived in the majority of the state until I went to Guatemala my sophomore year of h.s.. Maya life is very present there (as is racism) and I started to think about the two places comparatively, studied up on ANCSA and left the State for college. I worked summers in a village on the Kenai that has very messed up politics--in part bc of ANCSA--but had never been any place that was majority Native until I got my teaching certificate at UAA. The program was really new, trying to align with Alaska Cultural standards, they had a fat grant and they sent my entire cohort to different villages in Western Alaska for 2 weeks. I loved it, and went back to the same LKSD village 3 more times and once to Cev'aq.

    Just curious, have you any experience with LKSD? They have some excellent programs--including a Yup'ik first program in a few villages. They do some amazing stuff in spite of NCLB.

    I think maybe what Nightstorm was pointing at was the institutionalization of racism--i.e., it wasn't just that the teachers said what they did, but that what they said echoed all the other messages we received as kids (from books, from Ak. news, from the tv, from parents, from religious workers, etc.) and wasn't strongly resisted by other sources (and I'm not blaming the victim here...if your folks HAD pulled you out of school to learn you probably would have been shipped to an urban foster home before you even got out the door). I mean, mainstream tv culture isn't supportive of much other than white consumerism. And that racist legacy goes back way further than the 1990s--parents sent to boarding schools, religious education, etc. That's probably part of the reason why your students had such a hard time believing that someone would actually WANT to be in the village.

    (sigh). But then, after that pretty good program, I had such bad administration. And it sounds like you did too. I think we need to get our experiences out there, like you're doing, bc otherwise kids are just getting the same old, same old. I'm not saying working within the educational system necessarily (at least not for me--I'm no longer willing :P) but in other ways...

  11. Nuna Inua, someone here at UAF passed along your blog to a group of graduate students, and I'm so happy to have found it, you, and your work. It's ironic that a few short years after you were yelled at for teaching in an Inupiaq way, the college-aged "evidence-based" teaching methods being taught to college instructors sound very much like teaching in an Inupiaq way (to an extent, of course). But, there's a focus on meeting students where they are in learning, activity-based learning, student-centered learning, etc.

    I've never understood why K-12 teachers as a class were regulated so thoroughly in their job, unlike so many of us. Is there any chance for charter schools in villages? Or do you think they would have trouble fitting radically different styles in a way that would allow federal funds?

    I'm glad you're doing what you love, now, and I think your blog is great. If you come down to UAF, stop by for tea!

  12. Andrea...

    I did some teaching in the Yupik territory as part of UAF's Graduate Program. It was named something like "rural awareness" (totally wrong title but that was the gist) course. I pleaded with them to just send me home for a visit if they are going to spend the money to send me to a village. They very kindly and understandably said no. It was another hoop to jump through. It was also very obvious to me by the courses required for the program that they did not plan or expect a Native Alaskan from a small village to actually got through the program. I did enjoy and value what I learned though. And I did enjoy my stay in Emmonak.


    The problem is funding funding order to get get Fed monies you have to live by Fed standards. As a consequence the schools live and breath by a testing schedule. Our lovely NCLB act is trying desperately to make our native students exactly like our students in New York and Austin Texas. Which means they must be able to separate themselves from their Native Heritage long enough and well enough to do well at tests. Which is a recipe for disaster and low self esteem if you ask me.

    I have a feeling that a tear will appear soon, where the people will either force a change onto the system or separate themselves from the system completely. It's a very bad time for concerns about education now though as other issues are in the limelight for the North Slope of Alaska such as Global warming (which effects our food sources) and natural resources and ...well...Palin....

    I find it ironic though that a woman in Florida can find the drive to raise a massive amount of money and media support to build (and force upon a culture) a modern football field in the arctic which is hardly used, which takes away future funds also for other school needs. Yet there are no Art teachers (but one in 8 villages) in our schools or music teachers . I remember as one of last Art teachers to exist that I was given $400 for one year and 300 students. Let's just say as I was going broke by spending my own money in my classrooms, I was giving the evil eye to the famous snow covered football field.

  13. Hello Again, It looks as if you have been and are going to be breaking trail for many to follow. Try to enjoy every day. I am 52 years young and want to encourage you and your Ben. I have so much to try to say but I see that people with the power to really do something have caught on to your Blog. If they were willing to give you the opportunity... and the cash... how could you teach the traditional skills blended with non traditional ? My father in-law taught us all how to live the camp life and produced children who have great sewing , beading and art skills as well as the ability to live in the country. He also wanted them to have an education . All I know right now is you seem to be a person who could start to put this puzzle together and others will join in with you to complete it. How about it UAF ? I have all the faith she can do It !

  14. Once again, your post is so dead-on right and SO needed to be said. Every word rings true. I think about this all the time as I am teaching/creating curriculum. I really do agree with you that education bears a lot of responsibility for creating shame among students.

    However, I also agree with what you said in your comments that tears in the veneer is coming. I feel like the last of those kinds of teachers are at retirement age here in the next few years. I think everyone coming in is of a different mindset, more open and willing to be flexible and bend themselves to the culture, rather than bending the culture/students to them. Also, I feel like in our school we are on the cusp of being able to push through and implement changes and programs that will make a lasting impact. I have hope! It takes a time and a lot of work, though. Those powers that be are not always willing to listen and it takes perseverance.

    Also, I think the biggest thing is that to be a respectful individual living inside a culture that is not your own, you have to constantly be on watchdog alert for yourself and your co-workers. You have to be willing to constantly look at each issue, each plan, from all the angles and seek out possible friction. It takes listening with many different ears and seeing from multiple directions to live respectfully as a white teacher in a native village. It's a lot of work, and things can happen that make it feel disheartening. But I try to step back when I feel that way and look at the big picture -- I almost always see that living respectfully is worth it -- rather than the western way of just powering through something, bulldozing everything in the way. Or I find that I of course I don't have to change myself or my ways -- I just have to choose appropriately which situations to use which set of skills. :)