Friday, August 24, 2012

Thoughts on the Education of Alaskan Natives in Earlier Times

I'm reading a very interesting book, "A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska". It is from the memoir of Hannah Beece, which was edited and researched by Jane Jacobs, the writer on American cities, the inspiration for Jane's Walks, and Hannah's great niece. From 1904 to 1917, Hannah was a teacher mostly in northern Alaska and The Yukon but her story and Jacobs's research enhance my experience here.
Reading "A Teacher in Old Alaska"
In Sitka, we visited the Sheldon Jackson Museum. It was a wonderful collection of native artifacts from all over Alaska. I remember being conflicted by my interest in the cultural items on display and my concern about how they were acquired. It turns out that Jackson hired Hannah. Hannah describes the beautiful fish-skin clothing of some of the peoples; we saw samples of that fascinating clothing. Jacobs's summary of Jackson's written disrespectful (and grossly inaccurate) description of Native Alaskans' culture and practices is hair-raising.

Then I read about the school that Jackson opened for Native children. Parents had to sign a contract giving over their children for 5 years. He also had other methods of forcing children to go to his school. Conditions were slave like, with no mention of play, just chores. Children were punished for speaking their mother language at any time of the day. Two people took Jackson to court in order to retrieve their young relatives. They won and 50% of the children walked away. Hannah's methods were more sugar coated.

Remember that very nice, well-to-do woman who gave me a ride to the main post office so I could mail a parcel to Canada? I peppered her with questions. I described the often deplorable conditions in Canadian residential and missionary schools and asked if something like that had happened in Alaska. She said that Native children received education but the conditions were good.

This week, CBC aired a program that ended with the description of a documentary on residential schools, "We Were Only [Just?] Children". I was surprised to hear that many Canadians do not know about the children's experiences in these schools, especially since the last one was closed in the 1990's.

Have Alaskan Natives not been as vocal as Canadian? Were the Alaskan schools closed earlier than in Canada? Did the Land Claims Settlement in 1971 with Native Alaskans help heal the emotional wounds?

And now I'm remembering the conversation with the taxi driver who drove us back from the grocery store. He is Native and married a Philippina, because most of the Native women in Sitka were drug users. So maybe the legacy of the Native schools, etc is still being felt.

1 comment:

  1. Now how many women would go out with a taxi driver from Sitka in the first place? Think about it...Ane