At Sealaska Heritage, we field a lot of questions from the public, researchers and the media about Northwest Coast cultures. This question comes to us from an Alaska educator.
Question: Why do some of SHI’s programs give preference to Native participants?
SHI President Rosita Worl:
The answer is complex and long and is rooted in centuries of history. The answer has its foundation in international law that had its roots in Catholic papal pronouncements and history beginning with the arrival of Columbus to the Americas in 1492. These two events set the stage for defining the rights of Europeans to newly “discovered” lands. These “discoveries” in turn led to defining the rights of Indigenous peoples who owned and occupied the lands but who had no input into the principles that would guide the expropriation of their lands.
To answer the question, the legal and political differences between Native Americans/Alaska Natives and other Americans must be understood. As noted, the need to define the rights of Native peoples initially began with the arrival of Europeans to the Americas. Later in history, many educational and cultural programs were subsequently established to address the consequences of colonialism, including the suppression of Native culture and languages and the resulting trauma.
The theological debates that arose as a result of the discovery of new lands were heavily influenced by the economics of land and enslavement of Indians that occurred primarily among the Spanish and Catholics. The underpinnings of the ideological cannon of the “Principle of Discovery” that conveys the right to discovering nations to extinguish “aboriginal title to the land” found their way into Chief Justice John Marshall’s United States Supreme Court decisions in the early nineteenth century.
Marshall drew from international law and practice in resolving Indian questions. He made three decisions in the Supreme Court in the 1820s and 1830s which serve as the foundation of American Indian Law. The “Marshall Trilogy” established the principles of
- aboriginal land title,
- the federal trust responsibility, and
- inherent governmental powers of Indian tribes.
These decisions served as the basis of U.S. Indian policy and law and for dealing with Alaska Natives. As treaties and federal law were enacted, Indian tribes were compensated for land taken. These compensations evolved as the basis of federal “entitlement” programs for Native Americans.
Native Americans/Alaska Natives have dual citizenship as both American and tribal citizens. The federal funding they receive is based on legal/political rights—rather than their ethnic status as Indians—for the historic taking of the continent. It is a double-edged sword in that the restricted funding provides much needed benefits for tribes, but seemingly runs counter to other ideals such as equality. It further adds complexity and challenges to SHI’s goal to “promote cross-cultural understanding.”
SHI has promoted culture-based education and cultural immersion for both Native and non-Natives. We have a number of programs that target primarily non-Natives such as our Thru the Cultural Lens project and our annual Culturally Responsive Education Conference which some 250 educators attend, the majority of whom are non-Natives. Our programs in schools, at the University of Alaska Southeast and Juneau’s correctional center are open to both Native and non-Native. We welcome the public to multiple and ongoing events and programs at the Walter Soboleff Building. News photos of our summer camps and activities often feature both Natives and non-Natives participating. Our archives, library and ethnographic and art collections are open to the public and most all of our visiting scholars are non-Natives.
SHI’s policy is to include non-Natives in our programs as we are able and without running counter to the federal program guidelines. SHI’s objectives are to ensure our cultural survival; to promote the general welfare of our members; and to educate the public about our cultures, which we feel enhances the conditions necessary for our cultural survival. We believe that cultural diversity enriches our society.
It is today a fairly well established fact that trauma among our population resulted as a consequence of colonialism and the efforts to suppress Native culture and language. Many of our parents were sent to boarding schools and did not have the benefit of growing up in nurturing homes, which in turn affected our parenting skills. I experienced this trauma first hand when I was kidnapped at the age of 6 by a missionary and sent to a boarding school. Native communities have high rates of social pathologies as evidenced by alarming facts that we represent 16% of Alaska’s population but represent 36% in Alaska’s correctional institutions. We have the highest suicide rates in the nation, notably among our young men, whose suicide rates are twenty-one times that of the national average. Our communities are economically depressed and many of our families are impoverished.
The status of Native academic performance and retention rates in schools are well established. Many of our programs are designed to address these academic needs. For example, SHI’s Baby Raven Reads program is designed to improve literacy of Native youth and also to engage and train parents in instructional activities with their children. While these challenges may exist in the non-Native society, I believe I would be accurate in saying they are not at the significant rates that characterize the Native community. The point that I am making is that the federal government recognized the need to address these problems and the trauma that arose as a result of colonialization and the suppression of Native languages and culture and established special programs to resolve them.
These answers may not address all concerns, but I am hoping it might provide a better understanding of Native life and issues. This understanding is especially critical for educators whose classrooms include both Native and non-Native. We don’t believe in discrimination as too often we have been the target of discriminatory practices. While we seek to protect our legal rights as Alaska Natives and American citizens, we also seek equity and social justice.