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 me...it 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.