Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
August 26, 2000 - Issue 17

Navajos Visit Cousins in Alaska to Improve Student Achievement
Story by Pat Carr The Observer
art by Cecil Youngfox

FAIRBANKS, Alaska—When the automatic glass door to Fairbanks International Airport slid open, Maggie Benally, a Navajo language teacher from Fort Defiance, Arizona, stepped outside the terminal. She slowly glanced around the brightly lit landscape and looked at her watch. “It is 2:30,” she whispered. “Where are all the people and automobiles?”

“Yeah, 2:30 in the morning,” replied one of her companions, Wilfreda Allen. “Even here in the land of midnight sun, we’ll probably not see much going on at this early hour.”

Benally and Allen were part of a Navajo delegation that visited Alaska this summer to meet some Athabascan cousins who reportedly are having success in increasing student achievement by building upon the culture of their local communities.

For over a century, Navajo students depended upon a pedagogy or system of learning primarily limited to Western European values and worldviews. Many Navajos today feel this system is responsible for the loss of their language and traditional values. They now seek to improve upon the old system by including language, culture, and the experiences children bring to school from their local communities.

“We have been hearing about things our brothers and sisters are doing up there in Alaska,” said Genevieve Jackson, director of the Navajo Nation’s Division of Education. “We are particularly interested in how they are embedding culture into their curriculum and what they are doing with their Academy of Elders.”

Jackson also said that the Dine Division of Education was planning to consolidate all educational programs into the Tribal Education Department in order to design a system that combined both Western education and traditional Navajo ways. “We are building the capacity to address our education needs through our Learn in Beauty Project and the Navajo Nation’s Rural Systemic Initiative,” she said.

After a few hours of sleep in the sunshine, the six cheechakos, as new arrivals are called in Alaska, met with Dr. Ray Barnhardt, director of the Center for Cross-Cultural Studies at the University of Alaska. With more than 30 years of experience with Alaska natives, Barnhardt has a well-deserved “sourdough” status that signifies he knows his way around, up here in The Last Frontier.

Barnhardt shared curriculum materials and books produced by the Alaska Native Knowledge Network with the educators. He discussed the Alaska Academic Standards and said that standards essentially depict “the destination” deemed desirable for all students in the state. “Curriculum is the means of getting to the destinations spelled out in the standards,” Barnhardt explained.

“Each school is responsible for developing a local curriculum to assist their students to achieve the state’s academic standards,” Barnhardt added. Barnhardt also introduced the visitors to the Guidelines for Preparing Culturally Responsive Teachers for Alaska’s Schools and the Alaska Standards for Culturally Responsive Schools. These materials were adopted by the Assembly of Alaska Native Educators in l999.

“Culture standards are meant to enrich the academic standards and provide guidelines for nurturing students in the rich and varied cultural traditions that continue to be practiced in communities throughout Alaska,” Barnhardt explained. “They provide schools and communities with an instrument to examine the extent to which they are attending to the educational and cultural well-being of their students.”

“We are not advocating that the schools teach culture as an isolated subject, but that it serves as the foundation for teaching all subjects,” Barnhardt said. “We are suggesting that teachers connect students to the curriculum by building upon the experiences that they bring to school from their local communities.”

“Culture standards,” Barnhardt pointed out, “are not intended to be a recipe or formula for schools to follow, nor do they call for any sort of standardization. They are more like a matrix or model that can be followed by local schools.”

Barnhardt said that for the past three years they have been tracking student achievement to compare schools that are implementing the cultural standards with those that are not. “Schools that have been using the local culture as the foundation for the curriculum have been showing a slow but steady improvement in standardized test scores, while the other schools have stayed the same or declined,” Barnhardt.

The new pedagogy that Barnhardt explained is called “place-based learning,” said Rosita Murphy, director of the Learn in Beauty Project for the Navajo Nation. “It builds upon their experiences in their local communities, helps instill confidence in the students and gives them a sense of place,” Murphy added.
The Learn in Beauty Project is funded by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation’s Rural School and Community Trust, and has school sites in Tuba City, Window Rock, Newcomb, Ganado, Chinle, Rock Point, and Little Singer. Each site has its own unique project that addresses a local need. Each site shares its experiences with other schools similarly situated.

Dr. Joseph Martin, an associate professor at Northern Arizona University and a founding board member of the Rural School and Community Trust said that Navajo schools are venerable local institutions able to help local Navajo communities face their problems. Their mission is often seen only as preparing Navajo children for life elsewhere and too many schools do not even do that well. “They teach Navajo children that leaving is expected of them, and schools help send them off without a sense of the place they have come from, or respect for the idea of reservation-community itself.” Martin said. Martin, a former school superintendent, said that if he had an opportunity to serve as a school superintendent all over again he would place more emphasis on building a school program “that links academic excellence with a sense of place and respect for local-reservation community.”

The Learn in Beauty Project works closely with the Navajo Nation’s Rural Systemic Initiative. This initiative was funded by the National Science Foundation to increase academic achievement in math, science and technology. Dr. Rachel Misra, director of the NN-RSI, said she was pleased with what she saw going on in Alaska. “They have been building upon thousands of years of learning to live in their environment with remarkable success.”

“We can learn a lot from our ‘cousins’ up here in Alaska,” said Elsie Carr, a curriculum development specialist for the Tuba City School District. “When I discovered their web site ( I had to get up here to see what they were doing.” Carr said that Navajos and Athabascans have much in common, such as the need to preserve and build upon the wisdom of their Elders as a resource for education. They also share the need to develop culture-embedded curricula, design authentic assessment instruments, and train teachers so that they can effectively increase student achievement by using both the Western and indigenous knowledge systems.

“Student achievement can be increased by aligning the Navajo Culture and Language Curriculum Framework with the Arizona standards,” Carr said. Carr also noted that schools would benefit from the blessing of technology.

“With today’s telecommunications, Navajo teachers can collaborate with teachers in Alaska as easily as they can collaborate with teachers in their own schools. The Internet gives us the ability to design, develop and share cultural-imbedded curriculum. We were not even dreaming about such opportunities a few years ago,” Carr added.

In addition to visiting the Center for Cross-Culture Studies at the University of Alaska, the educators flew into Nulato, an isolated Athabascan village on the banks of the Yukon River.

The Russians had established a trading post here before they sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 for about 2 cents an acre.

They spent three days in an Athabascan fish camp, about 12 miles down river, where Native educators were studying with Native Elders and learning traditional crafts, knowledge and worldviews that their people had accumulated from 10,000 years of learning and living in the area. Navajo visitors were invited to partake in the fishing camp activities with the Native teachers and Elders. They learned how to clean, smoke and cook salmon. They also learned how to make fish boots and tan beaver pelts, all while learning some of the worldviews of Athabascan Elders. The locals laughed about the campers who brought flashlights for their camping experience. “You won’t need a flashlight around here,” they teased.

The similarity in physical features between Navajos and Athabascans is remarkable. “Not only do we look alike,” observed Maggie Benally, “but our languages have similar words. I could not follow their conversations, however,” Benally said, as she scratched her leg and swatted the mosquitoes that hummed in her ear.

“I am impressed with the way they are using their Elders up here,” said Timothy Benally, the Northern regional coordinator for NN-RSI at Dennehotso. “We need to involve our local Navajo Elders and work their knowledge and world views into the curriculum in our local schools,” Benally added. “We could develop sheep camps instead of fish camps and bring teachers and Elders together to learn with and from each other.”

Carline Murphy, Southwest regional director for NN-RSI, treated her hosts to a taste of Navajo fry bread while Rosita Murphy, Rachel Misra and Maggie Benally combined their culinary skills to make Navajo tacos. Carline Murphy said that she was pleased to contribute to the cultural exchange and left a recipe she suspects might some day be included in Native culture.

As the plane banked and headed for the runway in Sky Harbor Airport, Maggie Benally stared out the window at the little lights that sparkled through the darkness that covered the city. It was a real night out there—not one illuminated by a midnight sun. She was thinking about the new things she had learned on her trip: Darkness does not always follow daylight...You do not always need a flashlight for camping...Salmon sustained the Athabascans in a way that sheep sustained the Navajos. But most importantly, our Elders have a lot to teach us about the ways of the world and we must make use of their wisdom.

“Now we have to return and put these ideas and practices to use in our schools. We must all work together to preserve the Navajo language and culture and help our students receive a better education,” Benally said.

Alaska Native Knowledge Network

The Athabascans



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