In 1972 the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and State-Operated Schools (SOS) were the two systems that controlled education in rural Alaska. One hundred plus rural communities, some with less than two hundred people in them had no kindergarten program and only grades one through eighth. Both the BIA and SOS organizations had structured viewpoints of what should be taught to Alaska Native children. Parents were not included in any of the educational decisions and instructional techniques did not utilize the traditional way children were taught by their elders for decades. Alaska Native people believed learning was reached by observation and participation while doing the task. This was not communicated to new educators when they arrived which I found strange, given the community and school were so small and dependent upon each other.
Educational Administrators’ travel from Anchorage out to rural schools was time consuming and uncomfortable for many of them which left teachers in small Alaska bush schools with a considerable amount of autonomy and independence. Teachers for both the educational systems primarily came from the lower 48 states and occasionally Hawaii.
Unbeknownst to us, a lawsuit against the State of Alaska for failing to provide equal access to education for rural students was brewing. Alaska had become a state in 1959 and yet, only children that lived in larger locations of the state had access to high schools. With little connection to communities most educational decisions were based on non-native values and opinions, many Alaska rural students were not receiving meaningful and relevant education.
The lawsuit, titled The Tobeluk Agreement, was in motion for failing to provide equal access to education for rural students in Alaska. This grievance, referred to as the Molly Hootch (based on the name of one student) case, was presented to the 1973 Alaska legislature. It was argued on the grounds of racial discrimination and resulted in a legislative decision to dissolve both the Alaska State-Operated Schools (SOS) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) systems. A second decision was still in discussion that would give villages more local control over their children’s education. Conversations amongst the state, villages and communities across Alaska were already taking place about how the new system would be developed. The proposed structure was to divide the rural areas of the state into 21 Regional Education Attendance Areas (REAAs).
The Molly Hootch case was a major step in changing the way Alaskan rural schools were organized and education was implemented. Finally, the time had come for Alaska Native people to have a say in the education of their children. Alaska Native people had experienced similar patterns affecting other American Indian and indigenous people across the nation in that everyone knew what they needed without even asking them. The new REAA system would change this flawed arrangement and provide opportunities for local involvement in educational decisions.
A huge bonus to all of the proposed changes was for the first time Alaska Native students would be able to stay in their home community and continue education after eighth grade until they graduated. The REAA system would support the building of small high schools in rural communities with eight or more high school students. The cost of building the high schools was projected to be high since many of the building materials would need to be flown into a village. A large and very significant issue was the time factor in building the 100 plus small high schools across the state because of the short building season.
To make matters worse, many Alaska Native adults still had the emotional and psychological scars from having their mouths washed out with soap by missionary educators for speaking their native language. The damage done had created generational cultural trauma for many Alaska Natives. Fortunately, the formation of the Alaska Federation of Natives (1966) and the support of a group of educators at the University of Alaska Fairbanks were helping to make positive changes in education and other social issues.
Want to know more about Alaska Native Education – visit these two resources –