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Friday, October 7, 2011

Clash of the titans....

One of the first things my Father ever taught me was to see beyond words and platitudes. I think he meant it as a way to teach me to avoid the wrong type of boy in my teenage years but I guess I carried it on into my adulthood and tend to apply it to pretty much everyone.....  I learned to judge people on what they do, and not what they say.  Which is why you can imagine that I avoid politics.

One of the most persistent litanies I heard growing up as an Inupiaq in a small native village was "get an education, come home and use it here."  My elders proclaimed that it was what I could do to help, that I would become valuable in their eyes.   Everyone talked about the need for sustainability and home rule and reclaiming the reigns.  Corporations created scholarships,  fancy plaques were brandished and speeches were given about how it was the next step in our growth as a people and as human beings living in this day and age.  

So I did.  I left and got an education.  Many people ask me why I did it.  And I always answer them truthfully.  Because my parents were SERIOUS when the said I am going to college.  They put away a very large sum of money piled from PFD's and ASRC shareholder checks.  My father sat and growled at me till my paperwork was done. Since I was young he had been grooming me for an education, slowly adding more and more responsibilities, getting a joint bank account, making me memorize my social security number, and many many other small things.... it was never what was aid to was always what was done....

And I still apply that sentiment to what everyone was telling me as I grew up.  And I find that we are at a turning point when it comes to educated villagers.  A place of change and thought and changed thought.  We are at the meeting of generations, which is normal and expected, yet no one really is looking closely.

I'm still sitting on a large school loan I had to take out to go to grad school.  I was very very surprised to find out that my local village corporation does not provide scholarships for Graduate level school, only a small amount for undergrad.  The only funding I found was from the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation of which I am a shareholder (and pretty much every Inupiat on the Slope is), and it was at the same amount given for undergrad school.  I knew from experience that I did not qualify for any state of federal level grants as I was too 'rich' as a ASRC shareholder.  The school I went to for my undergrad diploma had promised me a $1000 scholarship per semester for four years, but when they took a look at my FAFSA and found out I was a shareholder at ASRC they took the money back and sent me a letter that said that regrettably it had to be "reassigned."  So I took out three credit cards and maxed them out and took out a $10,000 loan and burned all of that money in a years time.  I ate mainly cup o noodles and lived on campus in a very small dorm room the color of chalk.  I remember thinking back to those speeches that I heard growing up, and I wondered where all that support and encouragement went, and if it was only empty words.....

ASRC is the richest native company in the State of Alaska.  It pulls millions ,billions?,of dollars a year from the oil being pumped out of Prudhoe bay.  The board members get fat bonus checks every year, and subsidiary companies span across the lower 48.  Yet despite all of their money they proclaim to be established for the good of the people, our people, to better our lives.  What I think is glaringly opposite of their claims is that in 1995 when I went to college they gave me $3,500 a semester for school.  I'm grateful for it don't get me wrong.  But it is odd that despite the massive increases in college expenses over the years since then, they have not increased their scholarships a dime, and no one has protested this weird disconnect.  If it wasn't for my parents forethought in saving a bunch of money I would never had been able to afford college.  I was actually thinking of going back to college but realized that there is no way I could afford it.  And I have no idea how kids afford it now.  If Education was really a real priority, wouldn't the proof in action be that no native ASRC shareholder would ever have to worry about paying for an education?

But lets say by tooth and nail and struggles you do get an education and return to the village you grew up in.  You are looking for a job.  Here is where I think where there is a culture clash.  Getting a degree or two or three and beyond is a 'western' thing, knowledge and respect is based on passing tests and taking classes and doing other things far away from your village. For thousands of years we as Native people have based respect on age and observed actions and use of knowledge.  The leaders in the villages are often older than 40 years of age, and have gained knowledge through...well BUILDING the systems that exist today.  A clash is born.  

Now back to the 'actions' thing.  I do not believe that any young punk should be able to just come back and take over no matter the degrees or education.  But I think that if those who came before us really wanted educated youth, there should be an established system to incorporate newly educated Inupiat into the established system.  I think a paid mentoring system would benefit everyone, at every level, in every corporation and local business.  If what they are EXPECTING is highly educated people returning then there should be a smooth transition into positions that already exist.  What we are seeing is a very tangible frustration of the people returning to the village to find that they cannot get a job, they are 'overqualified' or the position is filled already indefinitely, and so they leave to the cities to find work.  

I don't really speak much about my experiences as a teacher, simply because they were a bit traumatic to say the least.  But one aspect I thought was incredibly peculiar was the expectations on me as a Inupiat teacher from other Inupiat.  They were vastly higher than what they expected from non-native teachers. At first I thought this was simply because I was new teacher, but befriending the other new teachers made me realize that I was being treated ...differently.  I was continually reprimanded by my supervisors (non native) and by locals (native) for ACTING Native.  For using Inupiat words in my classroom.  For sitting next to and chatting with my cousins kids.  For talking about Inupiat hunting and stories and.....well for just BEING Inupiat, which was always met with a sort of confused panic.   I always felt that this world that exists on the Slope today is not actually built for Inupiat people to take it over.  And it seems that in every institution there is this belief that by ignoring the cultural differences it will somehow make those differences disappear.  The system as it exists is not built for us to run,  it is instead modeled after a system found in a western world, which worked to save what we have and get our fingers deep into the fabric, but does not move us beyond hanging on by just our finger tips.

I also think there is a disconnect in communication of what jobs are available in the villages.  Leadership positions are almost always filled by locals, yet the ranks and ranks of workers under them are almost always contracted out to non-natives in the cities.  Positions like lawyers and accountants and teachers and managers and mechanics.....which to be fair are positions that places like Ilisagvik College are educating people to fill, but they are finding little to no support despite their efforts.  No one thought to define what they meant by 'get an education' and so we are finding young people very confused....and educators scrambling....

I do believe in the strength of our people, and the amount of greatness achieved in such a short time is amazing. But one thing I want to see is when buildings are decorated with photos honoring our elders and those that are amazing that they include some young faces, to give hope and make a place for the young punks coming up behind us.  And personally I know that I will work to take the brunt of anger and crazy and birthing pains that this time offers if it means that the youth in college right now will have less frustration to deal with when they return.  And I hope that there will be places for them to return to.  


  1. Funding is something I have also struggled with as I progress further towards my degree. I am a senior now and wonder what type of support I will receive when I continue on towards my master's degree. Currently, I use a scholarship search engine: fastweb dot com to search for scholarships. I apply for EVERYTHING I can, including scholarships beyond what are available to Native students only. I keep a binder with all of my scholarship stuff organized in it.

    My native corporation does not differentiate funding for an undergrad or graduate student either Rainey; it's the same across the board. One thing I am going to do, is write a letter to the board that oversees our scholarship program. I am going to urge the board of trustees to consider a sliding scale system for students. Freshmen would receive the lowest amounts, and seniors receive more. Meanwhile, masters degree and doctorate students would receive the most financial support since the cost per credit hour is undeniably more in these programs. Also, most students in graduate degree programs are unable to work other jobs because of the research time required to complete these degrees.

    I think sliding scale funding would be beneficial because:
    1. It would reward students and offer an incentive for progressing farther in their degree programs towards graduation.
    2. It would adequately support those of us that are completing degrees.
    Perhaps you could write a letter to your scholarship program too.

    I would love to see more of our Native corporations offering a loan program that a portion of the loan is forgiven for every year of service at home. (I believe some programs are in place for health professions now.)

    If anything, this scholarship shortage has increased my savvy at applying for other funding sources. I'd gladly share my tips with you. ~Tasha

  2. This was very enlightening to read. I always thought corporations paid your
    full way through college. Yes, I can understand that others would hold you
    by a double standard in the classroom. Many times we are the hardest on those
    like us. It isn't right or fair and can drive us away to the city, with bitterness of spirit. As a teacher I was the happiest teaching children who looked like me
    but it was apparent behind close doors that there were some professionals who didn't want to deal with other cultures. As long as you are meeting the evaluation standards, you are doing more than fine. It takes a long time to grow into the merging of culture and mature in your teaching skills. In the 80's there was a study done in CA to find the behaviors that would directly improve a child's performance. It was called TESA. Interesting that some of the things you mentioned doing are prescribed. No one uses TESA anymore, but relating to
    your students is important. As for language, once a student asked me not to speak in Spanish because it confused her and I learned a lot from that.
    I learned that the last place that value your education is your home town.
    I also learned from a lifetime of moving that people like to hire locals. It does not
    improve the educational system, because they soon make things too easy and succumb to community pressure, however it is painful to the "Outsider."
    Be true to what you discern, then vocalize the struggle to help others understand. Merging isn't like brick work it has some definately cobblestones that trip you in life.

  3. This was an interesting read. I find myself in the midst and yet outside of the author's thesis here.
    I am non-native but grew up on the Slope. I agree that youth on the Slope are encouraged from an early age to "get educated", meaning a high school diploma and college degree (which I did). I agree that there was a clash after earning a diploma - I was not accepted by the powers that be and could not get a job. A job I was encouraged to get that would help members of the community I had grown up in. At the time I was told I was not qualified, and yet native people were hired instead with the same or less qualifications than I. It was then that I found out double standards and reverse discrimination do exist. I left the only home I'd ever known and had to strike out on my own elsewhere in a place foreign to me - with no family ties or friends.
    So I left the Slope 20 years ago and have spent my professional life educating youth in another region of the state. Time I could have and willingly would have spent where I grew up. Now I teach youth of a different culture, yet Alaska native. And yes, sometimes I do reflect and wonder what could have been. In my opinion, the leaders on the Slope waste not only talent, but also burn those who wish to serve the people. Trust me, the list of people like me is a long one across the state. To me, the mantra of "go get an education, come back, and help out" was just lip service.
    Case in point: a close friend of mine found the fabled "no not hire" list during a Slope job interview years ago. Who was on this list? The offspring of non-natives who grew up on the Slope, got an education and tried to come back to give back to the wonderful people we had come to admire, respect and love. That list had over 15 people on it. All have college degrees and the majority have advanced degrees. Not one of the people on this list has ever bothered to return. What a waste of talent and what a waste of funds. We all received funding from entities on the Slope which we were quite grateful for and weren't even given the chance to make good on it.
    There are jobs elsewhere, but we can never truly go home to work as the professionals we were encouraged and brought up to be.

  4. I can understand your feelings and frustrations. 5 years ago as I prepared to finished my last year of school, my tribal corporation told me that because I chose to go back to an out of state school I no longer qualified for our scholarship. So I ended up taking out a $6000 loan to cover the remaining cost. I feel it was a sacrafice well made, I graduated a year later with A's B's and here it is 4 years later I have a job that I enjoy and has a good pay. My choice to go to an out of state school was that I felt UAA & UAF was too close to home (the village) and I wanted to experience the real world.

    Growing up in the village, my parents always told me and my brother that we had more opportunities than they did at our age. Even if I never left the village, I feel that I would've expected myself to do some thing with my life.

  5. My husband and I also found this to be an enlightening article. You've given us some food for thought. Thank you for sharing your experiences with all of us. We look forward to your future posts.

  6. LOVE LOVE THIS BLOG POST!! I am an American Indian who does not belong to a federally recognized tribe and received no finanical aid other than my Pell Grant. I am employed by the State of Alaska but have such a desire to work with Native Youth.. however I have over $30,000 in student loans because I do not hold a BIA card.. this does not make me less NATIVE than my ASRC friends but does benefit them greatly. Many graduate and get super high paying jobs and have NO STUDENT LOAN DEBT AT ALL. I've had to cover medical/dental cost out of pocket throughout my adult life and hate when others.. ASSUME.. I get FREE everything because I'm INDIAN. Did people learn this in school growing up or what? I just want to follow my passion.. however to get this Upper level jobs I must obtain my Master's which is not covered by a Pell grant and I would be responsible for all costs. As a mother of two I am unable to do this as I am saving for their future education costs.. Mixed messages across the board. Universities are not in the business to get people jobs.. they give you a piece of paper that is valued.. how and by who $$. I am the first in my family to have a college degree and I am proud to have been successful due to my ancestors!