Hene’enovohostotse (Learning)

Volume 26, No. 3 - Spring 2015
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Global Indigenous education among Indigenous peoples was once an alien concept. But technological advances now form and inform the Indigenous millennial generation’s educational repertoire—and educators must prepare their students and institutions accordingly.

Over 20 years ago, I worked in K–12 schools that served nearly 150 villages located throughout Alaska. Some of these villages could be only accessed via skiff, snowmobile, airplane, or by foot, depending on the time of the year. Some places, if they were located close to a river, could be accessed by automobiles, as a frozen river served as an “ice highway” over which wheeled vehicles could travel.

The difficulty of being able to get from one place to another has contributed to many of the stereotypes concerning Alaska in general, and its people in particular. Living in Alaska for a few years destroys many of the stereotypes that we in the lower, contiguous 48 states accept as truth. For instance, we think of Alaska as a cold, cold place. It isn’t always cold though—sometimes in the interior of Alaska, temperatures can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. And in Anchorage temperatures are moderate because of the warming effects of the Japanese current. Furthermore, just as we Native Americans no longer live in tipis, Alaska Natives do not all live in igloos. Nor do they all mush around by dogsled. I could go on and on trying to dispel the comfortable but wrong views we have about Alaska.

Living there changed my outlook on many things. It was in Alaska that I first encountered global Indigenous education, though I didn’t know it at the time. In a western Alaska village where I was visiting schools and offering technical assistance, I was walking through a classroom filled with students sharing computers. I talked to three young girls who were speaking in the English language, which was unusual because most of the time they would talk in Yup’ik, the Native language of that region. Out of curiosity, I asked them what they were doing. They said they were talking via computer hookups to a group of Aborigine students in Australia. Now this was about 20 years ago, when much of the cyber-world was not as sophisticated as it is now. And I myself was still resisting the use of computers in education and daily life. But that one incident changed my mind about computers and related technology. I embraced their global reach in being able to educate Alaskan Natives about other Indigenous peoples in all parts of the world.

After my time in Alaska, I was privileged to visit Indigenous and mainstream schools in Hawai’i and New Zealand. Among the Maori of New Zealand, there was an all-pervasive, healthy presence of their culture. I remember visiting an elementary school where the kids were going about their normal classroom routines and one of the teachers asked them to demonstrate the haka. All the little boys were magically transformed into little warriors with wide-eyed, menacing looks. Their tongues flicked out of their mouths, as they stomped their feet and beat their chests to the rhythm of the songs they were singing. They performed at least four haka, much to our enjoyment, and when their performances were concluded they went back to their classroom routines almost as if what they had just done was routine. It was an amazing experience to watch this transformation right in a classroom.

On one of my trips to Hawai’i, a group of us went on a tour of a newly constructed school and its environs. Our tour guide was a young high school student. He was guiding a group of moldy old college professors and presidents and I kept wondering why he had been selected as our tour guide. It was obvious that he knew a lot about the school and about school routines. He was very tolerant of our ignorance about Hawai’i, Hawaiian Natives, and about the newly constructed school. At one point, he told me he went to a Hawaiian language school from kindergarten to high school. He said he took all of his classes in the Hawaiian language, regardless of what the course of study was. I asked him what his plans were, and he said he’d been accepted to Stanford University and was going to the mainland soon after graduation to get accustomed to California and the people there. He also told me he had volunteered to be our guide.

The commonalities that I saw from my experiences in Alaska, New Zealand, and Hawai’i are the great hunger for knowledge outside one’s own cultural understandings and a desire to know about the organizations, religions, and cultural ways of people in other parts of the world. I think this kind of an attitude is healthy for our tribal college students who sometimes only see as far as the boundaries of our reservations or villages. Our reservations and villages provide us comfort zones which are really difficult to give up.

Even with my experiences and education away from home, I am back on my own reservation and I am comfortable with that. I could probably have gone anywhere in the world and found a job that was satisfying and lucrative, but it would not have been on my reservation. The pull of the reservation is powerful. But we need to break these comfortable bonds, if only temporarily, and attend four-year colleges so that we can eventually better our lives— whether we choose to live on or off the reservation or village.

My experiences in the various places I have visited do not make me an authority on any of them. I am only recounting what I saw and how encouraging these experiences were for me as a Northern Cheyenne educator.

Richard Littlebear, Ed.D., is Northern Cheyenne and president of Chief Dull Knife College.