The Star with My Name: The Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative and the Impact of Place-Based Education on Native Student Achievement

Last Updated: January 01, 2004

The Star with My Name

Report PDF (198 KB)
By Dr. Emeka Emekauwa, Edited by Doris Williams

The year 1784 marked the beginning of Western efforts to divest the Native People of Alaska of their identity and resources under the guise of formal education. Russian fur trader, Gregorii Shelikhov, established a trading post on Kodiak Island and after slaying and taking hostage many of the Natives, opened a school to teach their children arithmetic, the Russian language and "the precepts of Christianity." What Shelikhov and those who followed did not anticipate in their quest to "Christianize" and "civilize" the Alaskan Natives was the strength and resiliency of an indigenous knowledge system that had been in existence for thousands of years. This system was rooted in a deep understanding of and respect for the natural world and the natural order of life. It did not require textbooks, but relied on unwritten, collective wisdom passed from one generation to the next through stories, observation, and practice. It was a system that enabled Native peoples to flourish in a land where survival depended on intimate knowledge of and harmony with the environment. Eben Hopson, former Mayor of North Slope Borough in Barrow, Alaska, described the traditional knowledge system of the Inupiaq in this way:

For thousands of years, our traditional method of socializing our youth was the responsibility of the family and community…Boys and girls began their education with their parents and, by the time they reached their teen years, they had mastered the skills necessary to survive on the land here. From that time forward, the youth — with his family and within his community — devoted his attention to his intellectual and social growth.

After nearly two centuries of denial within Western education institutions, the indigenous knowledge systems of Alaska's Natives are being recaptured through the work of the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative. These knowledge systems, coupled with the best of Western science, form the foundation for a new type of education — one that is place-based, culturally responsive, academically rigorous, and capable of propelling the achievement of Native children forward.