Most of the residents of the eastern Arctic of Canada (Nunavut), Northern Québec (Nunavik), Greenland, the Saami districts of Scandinavia and the villages of Alaska, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories are indigenous peoples. The peoples of the Arctic face opportunities and problems that transcend national boundaries. Changing lifestyles, cultural differences from dominant "southern" populations, and the challenge of preserving traditional ways while developing local economies and employment opportunities are factors that link the villages of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and the north of Scandinavia and Russia more closely to one another than to urban areas within their individual nation-states. These communities also share Arctic ecosystems—the total physical environment of which human settlements are one part. Acknowledging the bonds among them, indigenous peoples have created organizations to discuss common concerns with other indigenous peoples. These organizations include the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), the Saami Council, and the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON).
Education is a chief concern among these social and political organizations and factions. Worldwide, native peoples have historically been excluded from policy-making, administration, and teaching in the school systems in their communities. Teachers come from the outside and formal training is valued over knowledge of local languages and cultures. At present, a small percentage of young people in the Arctic advance to the university level. Despite social reforms and changes, acquiring a formal education and success in the village or the outside world are often tenuously linked.
A lack of clarity about the purposes of schooling, a distrust of the formal system, parents' own negative experiences in school, and their desire that children remain in the community have all led to a lack of confidence in formal education. Equally significant factors include lowered expectations for student performance held by some educators, high teacher turnover rates, and inferior instructional materials, libraries, and other resources. Struggles between Native and non-Native institutions and individuals, limited funds, and issues of power and control contribute substantially to the conflict.
Across the North, individuals and institutions in the 21st century seek ways to increase decision-making and control of educational programs by local communities. As elementary and secondary education increasingly comes under local control, which includes recognition of the need for Native teachers and administrators to take the lead in reshaping northern education, respect for traditional ways and recognition of human and other resources within communities are increasing. The village school was, and still too often is, a southern-style formal institution that has excluded the knowledge and values of the community it serves and has done a poor job of preparing young people for future roles.
An additional force in educational change—in the Arctic as elsewhere since the 1960s—remains the recognition of parental and community input and involvement as an essential element in effective schools. In a 1985 study of 162 of Alaska's small rural high schools, University of Alaska researchers Judith S. Kleinfeld, G. Williamson McDiarmid, and David Hagstrom found school-community relations and relations among local professionals, community members, and central office administrators to be two of five major factors in differences between good schools and poor schools. According to their research, in effective schools, professional educators consult regularly with community members, and a partnership is formed to set and achieve educational goals. Across the North, parents and community leaders are demanding significantly higher expectations for student performance, including rigorous coursework and regular assessment of skills development.
Educational policy and instructional programs in the Arctic have traditionally been developed in the south for the north. Historically, these materials have gone into northern classrooms with little adaptation. Since the 1970s, with the advent of locally elected school boards and a growing recognition by all educators that effective schooling begins with the child's developmental experience and radiates outward, programs and materials have been reshaped to reflect the culture and environment of Arctic communities. Over the years, many excellent pedagogical materials have been developed and subsequently lost. Exemplary materials are few, particularly in mathematics and science and for upper-level coursework in all subjects. The processes and commitment for the creation of culturally based programs and materials are in place in some school systems, but inadequate funds and staffing limit this development. Curriculum developers in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have achieved exemplary results working collaboratively with community members to create entire programs and pedagogies using northern contexts rather than adapting southern designs.
The acknowledgment of indigenous scientific worldviews, including systems of land and resource management, also influences Arctic elementary and secondary education. The Dene Cultural Institute (DCI) in the Northwest Territories has focused on traditional environmental knowledge as an area of major research since 1987. The Dene Cultural Institute has also worked with the Northwest Territories' Department of Education and the Northern Heritage Society to integrate traditional knowledge into social studies and science curricula. In addition, the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative (AKRSI), a project of the Alaska Federation of Natives and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has also successfully realized important work. Initiated in the mid-1990s with funding from the National Science Foundation, AKRSI initiatives include the development of an indigenous science knowledge base that emphasizes a cultural atlas, a culturally aligned curriculum that stresses cultural standards, and Native ways of knowing and teaching that incorporate parent involvement.
A primary concern is that graduates of Arctic schools are able to function both in and outside of their home communities. Schooling ought to produce adults who are confident in their cultural identity and proud of their people while possessing the necessary academic skills to have choices for future studies and careers. A related concern is that students are not receiving a firm grounding in either their mother tongue or a second language. Many educators recognize that students who have strong skills in their first language will more easily acquire English language skills as well as the content of upper-level courses taught in English. In the report Language Development Among Aboriginal Children in Northern Communities, prepared under contract with the Government of the Yukon for presentation and presented at the Circumpolar Education Conference at Umea, Sweden in June 1990, Jim Cummins of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education reviewed a number of programs supporting aboriginal language development among school children. Based on his research, Cummins concluded that strengthening children's aboriginal language skills did not negatively impact the development of English or French academic skills. Indeed, programs elsewhere in the world demonstrated that development of academic skills in a majority language was helped by continued development of skills in a first language. Thus, in communities where the indigenous language has weakened, programs are being created to rebuild the language.
Funding continues to be a problem. Severe budget cuts at the state or provincial, district or divisional board, and individual school level retard the development of new approaches to elementary and secondary education. Limited private foundation support in the Arctic compounds the decline in public sector funding. The perception that revenues and income from oil and other resources have generated sufficient funds for education and other needs restricts private sector support.
One tremendous challenge facing communities, educators, and researchers in the Arctic remains the development of genuinely indigenous approaches to education, not just sprinkling cultural materials into approaches designed for southern systems. In order to combat this historical tendency, Native and other northern educators, most trained in southern systems, must reimagine and challenge the boundaries of the systems in which they were trained. Educational change by its nature causes conflict. Most of the change in schools (not just in the Arctic) is aimed at improving the quality of what presently exists. The key to educational reform lies in changing the underlying culture of the system. Every system, including educational institutions, develops its own way of operating, patterns of response that become traditional, established methods for dealing with conflict. If educational change is understood as cultural change, reformers and others will expect real change to take time.
Educational change goes hand-in-hand with sustainable development, including the creation of jobs. In the 21st century, indigenous peoples are assuming the professional jobs previously held by southerners in Arctic communities. Although village economies are diversifying, particularly in the service and tourism sectors, employment opportunities are still limited.
The control of education and economic development comprise part of the larger movement toward self-governance for indigenous peoples. The Greenlandic Home Rule government, the creation of the new Canadian territory of Nunavut, and the Norwegian Saami Parliament stand as leading examples of this dynamic. By establishing their own systems of governance, education, economic development, justice, and social services, indigenous peoples of the Arctic are taking back the rights and responsibilities lost over the last four centuries.
See also Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN); Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA); Greenland Home Rule Act; Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC); Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami; James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement; Nordic Saami Institute; Nunavut; Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON); Saami Parliaments; Self-Determination
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