Paul Ongtooguk is one of the developers of The Native Studies Curriculum and Teacher Development Site also known as the Alaskool Web site. The project brings together teams of teachers, elders, and community members in various parts of Alaska with university specialists to develop curricula on Alaska Native studies and language for use in schools throughout Alaska. The Institute of Social and Economic Research and the College of Health, Education, and Social Welfare at the University of Alaska Anchorage provide technical and logistical support. The project is supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
We asked Paul to discuss why he helped start the Web site.
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As an Alaska Native growing up in Alaska, I was often surprised that in schools where most students were Alaska Native, we learned so little about the issues and history facing our unique State and Alaska Native communities in particular. The Alaskool web site has much of the information I wished had been taught in Alaska schools when I was a student.
Take these questions, for example: If the United States bought Alaska from Russia, did the Russians buy Alaska from the far more numerous Alaska Natives? What are the stories about the old artillery laying and silently rusting beyond the local Nome runway? Why did so many elders have Eskimo Scout badges and certificates? Also, my dad talked about the racial segregation of the only movie house in Nome and about attending a Native-only school when he went to elementary school. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Why in a town where the majority of people were Alaska Native were there no Alaska Natives on the school board at the time?
Students Learned Not To Ask
As a student I found few explanations for questions like those, or answers about why the community we lived in had come to be like it was. I also found it strange that when I asked those sorts of questions, people looked at me as if I were asking about the crazy uncle who had been sent away. Adults would just push the conversation in another direction. Students learned not to ask.
However, an event that I could not ignore came when I was learning about the Nome Gold rush. I was excited to start the project: Here was an event that had some connection to the community, and a wooden sign had been put up for tourists in Nome. Happily, both the school and the sign agreed there were three lucky Swedes who in a near miracle walked out into the Alaska wilderness and came across gold.
But in town at the time was Old Man Joshua. He spoke in a booming, deep voice that Charlton Heston tried to achieve in "The Ten Commandments." Old Man Joshua, though, did not even have to try. He was sometimes frightening, even when he was politely asking for sugar for his tea. I remember his leathery skin, thick white eyebrows and his hands that conveyed power, even though he shook hands politely.
Old Man Joshua
One day Old Man Joshua asked me what I was learning in school -- something he did from time to time -- which was usually followed by an admonition to study hard. I explained the story of the three lucky Swedes. After hearing this with his head down while concentrating he looked up and firmly said in that room-filling voice, "It is a lie!" I was stunned.
He then proceeded to tell me about how an Inupiat named Gabriel Price was one of a number of Alaska Natives who knew where gold was. But like other Alaska Natives he could not file a mining claim -- by law, only white men could. So Gabriel Price finally decided to tell a white man who could be trusted. Price selected a missionary -- P. H. Anderson, believing that Anderson, as a missionary would have no desire for earthly gain and would want what was best for the Natives in the community.
Old Man Joshua then said that Anderson explained to Price that it took at least three white men to start a mining district and that with more men they could stake more of the land as claims. So Gabriel Price took these three lucky Swedes to the gold and the Nome strike was started. Gabriel Price died a poor man. He received almost nothing from the gold strike, while Anderson and the Covenant Church got rich.
Now, as a student, I was confused. On the one hand I had a written school history backed up by a large, publicly posted wooden sign saying that the three lucky Swedes had found gold. On the other hand, I had an Inupiat Elder, Old Man Joshua, who had provided me with a very different account of the Nome gold strike. Adding to the confusion was the fact that Old Man Joshua was an ordained minister in the same Covenant Church that had treated Alaska Natives so poorly in his version of events. Could it be confusion in old age? How could a school go wrong? I imagined that college educated experts checked these sorts of things out before teaching and testing them to students. I did not pursue the issue at the time. It was too big and I was not sure I would like the answer.
Years passed after the event. I eventually went to college and more remarkably did pretty well as an undergraduate. One day, during this time, I came across a history of the Covenant church titled By One Spirit. I turned to the section on the Nome gold strike and immediately, Old Man Joshua was vindicated. According to this text, Gabriel Price did take his missionary to the gold and the missionary took along some other white men. One of the claims was especially rich.
As it turns out, P.H. Anderson was sued in Federal Court in Chicago where the headquarters of the Covenant Church is located. The suit, however, did not involve his failing to protect the interest of his congregation. (There is no Federal law on that matter.) Rather, he was sued by the church, which claimed that since he was a paid full time employee of the church at the time of the claim filing, then the church owned an interest in the mine. The eventual settlement for the church was substantial. The debts of North Park College were paid by Anderson; a building program was also paid.
And Gabriel Price? His estate was eventually paid the comparatively small sum of five thousand dollars.
Personally I regretted ever doubting Old Man Joshua. Nothing in his character or manner ever gave me reason to do so. In retrospect, it was just the opposite.
But I did learn to question received history, even when written, approved, and taught in school. The school version never really made much sense anyway, when I thought about it. What were the chances of just wandering around Northwest Alaska and finding a gold field?
It turns out that the reason Gabriel Price and many other Alaska Natives don't show up in those pictures of hearty Alaska gold miners is simple. The Federal Mining Claims Act of 1870 allowed only two categories of people to make legal claims - U.S. citizens and immigrants intending to become U.S. citizens. By this law the only people who were specifically denied the right to establish gold claims are Alaska Natives and other Native Americans. I suppose that made sense too, in a way. After all if Alaska Natives could have established gold claims, who was more likely to know where to make those claims?
According to a Heartland article in the Fairbanks News-Miner, the Rampart gold strike was started by two Alaska Natives who tried to stake claims. Their claims were over turned because they were Alaska Native. A similar story is told about the Circle City strike. The gold strike in Juneau also began with Alaska Natives knowing where gold was, but not having the legal means to establish ownership.
I would not have known any of this from what I learned in school. Instead I wondered why Alaska Natives did not also stake claims. I heard that it was because Alaska Natives did not work hard or that they did not know the value of gold. The latter was especially strange since anyone could see that a person with gold had access to their choice of store-bought goods including firearms, cooking utensils, garments, etc.
So, during my college experience, I was not only learning, but, as Herbert Kohl has noted, unlearning.
A Matter of Perspective
It is important to note that I did not learn that "It is all a matter of perspective." Nor do I believe in revising history for political reasons. When studying history, primary documents are essential. Alaskool contains historical records that offer students, teachers and parents an opportunity to read original materials, out of print materials, see historic photographs, and consider multiple readings about topics of particular interest to Alaska Natives.
A significant portion of the web site is devoted to the history of Alaska Native education, because that history is so important and yet it has not been readily available to the public. Today, it is just as important as ever, for all Alaskans to become better informed about the history of Alaska Native education, because many of our contemporary issues focus on the status of Alaska Natives. As we debate such issues as subsistence policy, we should be informed by what has already happened and by what has already been tried.
The Alaskool site also supports people learning about Alaska Native languages through audio and visual tools and materials. We have obtained permission to include various Alaska Native authors whose works have gone out of print, but whose value is enduring.
Alaskool is a vote of cautious optimism. Cautious, because we still do not have a place in our schools for students to learn our state history and learn about the unique issues we face as Alaskans. Optimistic, because we are working with the hope that when students and teachers do find time to learn about these issues, that we will contribute to their learning in a significant and lasting manner.