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Education on the North Slope: Local Iñupiaq Teachers Needed

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Like many regional entities and programs, the Uqautchim Uglua (Language Nest) initiative at I?isa?vik College works for indigenized education and Iñupiat educational self-determination on the North Slope of Alaska. Unlike some other programs, however, Uqautchim Uglua is relatively new, designed in 2011 and implemented in 2012. But the roots of the program, and the issues which it is intended to address, go back much further.

Prior to the late 19th century, education of Iñupiat children on the North Slope was traditional—children were taught skills and knowledge pertinent to their lives in Iñupiaq, by Iñupiat, and in Iñupiat settings. This changed with the establishment of Western-oriented schools in centralized locations. The intent of these new schools was not to prepare Iñupiat children for their lives as Iñupiat, but to quash Iñupiaq language and culture, assimilating the Iñupiat themselves into the American mainstream. Children who exemplified their culture or spoke even one word of Iñupiaq in the classroom were frequently punished by shaming, ridicule, and/or corporal methods. The governmental strategy of the time is exemplified in the 1887 Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, which states:

Education should seek the disintegration of the tribes and not their segregation. They should be educated not as Indians, but as Americans. In short … the Public School should do for them what it is so successfully doing for all the other races in this country. Assimilate them.”

Varying degrees of this philosophy were implemented in North Slope schools well past the midpoint of the 20th century.

The assimilationist tide began to turn with the advent of the North Slope Borough (NSB) and home-rule government in 1972, when visionary leaders such as Eben Hopson immediately prioritized Indigenized education. In a televised speech a few years after the NSB had been formed, Mayor Hopson famously noted that possibly the greatest significance of home rule “is that it enables us to regain control of the education of our children.”

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“Foremost,” he said in this speech, “we must encourage and train our own Iñupiaq to become teachers.”

More than 40 years later, much has been done to accomplish the vision Mayor Hopson shared with the people of the North Slope. Great strides have been made in incorporating Iñupiaq language and ways of knowing and teaching into regional classrooms (notably through NSBSD programs such as VIVA, ILF, CAMS and the NSB School Board’s Qar?i initiative). Much also remains to be done. At present, there is just one certified local Iñupiaq teacher in the region’s entire certified teaching workforce (about six tenths of one percent). Iñupiaq is largely not a primary or equal language of instruction in local schools, with fluency declining. Iñupiaq history and traditional knowledge are also not generally subjects of the same importance as Western equivalents in most classrooms. It should be reiterated: we should be proud of what has been accomplished to date, but much remains to do.

Uqautchim Uglua was formed as a cooperative community, regional and family initiative to carry on one part of this labor—we place primary emphasis on early childhood learning and ongoing development of a local Native certified teaching workforce, as well as other directly-related issues. To this end, we have opened an Iñupiaq immersion Early Childhood Education classroom for 12 local ECE-aged children and their families; an Iñupiaq Early Learning AA degree program which can be delivered almost entirely by distance delivery (students can complete this degree while remaining in their home villages) has been implemented. Those who complete the degree will have completed the first two years of a baccalaureate teaching certification degree. Further, through articulated agreements that allow students to remain at home, teaching certification can be fully completed through other colleges, with the option of a North Slope-based practicum. I?isa?vik is always working to improve and enhance these opportunities: a mentoring framework exists to help degree students and work is being done to evaluate the feasibility of a Slope-based bachelor’s degree.

For this to succeed as it is intended to, we must attract students into the degree program and involve our communities and families in our work. To date, our teaching student cohort has seen low enrollment and high turnover. This is something we want to change. There is a great need for local Native certified teachers and education professionals, and a solid program to address these needs is fully in place. It only needs students to make it complete.

We invite the community to become actively involved with our program and its activities and encourage our young people and students to consider teaching and education as a career option. The need for local teachers will always be there—and for those who may choose to help fulfill it, Uqautchim Uglua and I?isa?vik College will be there every step of the way.

For anyone who desires further information about Uqautchim Uglua, its work and activities or the Iñupiaq Early Learning degree program, contact I?isa?vik College at 907-852-3333 or visit us online at We look forward to hearing from you!