Josephine Tatauq Bourdon, a 30-year veteran teacher, in Nome, Alaska
Josephine Tatauq Bourdon is a 30-year veteran teacher in Nome, Alaska (Brian Adams)

The Alaska Native Teacher Upending the Legacy of Colonial Education

Josephine Tatauq Bourdon, a 30-year veteran teacher, worked to bring Inupiaq culture to every part of her elementary school’s curriculum.

Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.

NOME, ALASKA—It’s early August in the subarctic tundra, and the light winds from the Bering Sea bring cold moisture over the blueberry bushes glistening in the grassy meadows. The arrival of blueberries signals the peak of the short and cool summer season here in Nome—one of the northernmost communities in the U.S., and one of the most remote in Alaska.

The cold defines the rhythms of living in this part of the country’s largest and least densely populated state. September often brings freezing temperatures. By January, the Bering Sea ices over, and remains frozen for nearly seven months. Nome’s roads, houses, and schools are typically covered in snow from November to March. But in June, when the school year ends, the long dark nights and harsh cold are finished. The sun shines all day and most of the night. Many parents allow their children to play outdoors as long as they can stay awake, and locals spend much of their day by the sea or in the tundra.

During the short summer season, the tundra is home to a rich variety of berries, wild greens, and roots, Josephine Tatauq Bourdon, a 30-year-veteran elementary-school teacher, explained while searching for blueberries in one of her favorite spots a few miles away from Nome. Inupiat people like her—who hail from northern indigenous communities in Alaska, Siberia, Canada, and Greenland—have been relying on the tundra and the sea for sustenance for at least 1,000 years. Local plants, fish, and mammals still make up close to half of the Native diet in this part of Alaska, locals told me.

But spending time in the tundra or by the sea is not just about access to healthy food or recreation, Bourdon, who was born and raised in Nome (called Sitŋasuaq in Inupiaq), told me. “Connection to nature is central to being Inupiaq,” Bourdon said as we walked toward the Bering Sea, passing fishing cabins where locals cut, clean, and preserve salmon, seals, and walrus. “The land is our life. The land is our livelihood. It feeds our bodies, minds, spirit, and soul.”

As one of the few Alaska Native teachers in her hometown, Bourdon has worked hard to bring this connection to nature and the Inupiaq culture into her classroom—something that was not a part of her schooling experience in the 1970s and early ’80s. She began her teaching career in the nearby village of Wales in 1988, where she became the first—and at the time, only—Native educator in town, serving 60 Inupiaq students. In 1990, the district of Nome had an opening for a fourth-grade teacher in the city’s only public elementary school; Bourdon took it and stayed there for 28 years, until she retired in 2018.

Even though Inupiaq culture was not a part of her school curriculum growing up, Bourdon was immersed in the traditional system of Inupiaq education provided by the local elders and her kin, designed to help the Inupiat people live a fulfilling life in a harsh climate without hurting nature. When Bourdon turned 3, her uncle took her on a week-long trip to gather salmonberries in the tundra. Every berry-picking trip was an opportunity to learn how to pay close attention to the direction of the wind, cloud formations, and water levels. In a place where winter temperatures can drop to –40 degrees Fahrenheit, observing the weather is a skill needed to avoid fatal accidents. (Alaska still has the highest hypothermia mortality rate in the nation.)

As a child, Bourdon was encouraged to share the first bucket of berries she gathered, and the first fish she caught, with an elder. The custom serves a practical function, and a spiritual one: Cooperation and sharing are imperative for community survival in harsh conditions. And restraining the human tendency to accumulate material goods meant that individuals were more likely to enjoy what they had “to the utmost,” as the late Alaska Native teacher and scholar Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley once wrote.

When Bourdon began the first grade, in 1970, the curriculum of Nome public schools was not focused on living in harmony with nature, but rather on preparing a skilled workforce to participate in the national and global economy. Emphasis was placed on learning how to read, write, compute, and pass tests in English. While Bourdon recalls most of her teachers as caring and invested in engaging their students, she didn’t have any Native teachers, and couldn’t take any classes in the Inupiaq language. The curriculum didn’t include Alaska Native history or culture, except one elective class on Inupiaq culture in high school.

Such schools were a legacy of the education system founded by the American missionaries, miners, and government officials who began to settle in Alaska in the late 19th century. As researchers described in the anthology Alaska Native Education: Views From Within, new schools established by the settlers of European descent were designed to assimilate Native people into the Western system of values by erasing local languages and culture. Until the landmark class-action lawsuit filed by Alaska Native high-school students in 1972, which eventually led to more Native control of schools, and opened doors to a limited number of Native teachers, indigenous people had little say over the design of their own education.

Now researchers estimate that out of about 13,500 Inupiat people who live in Alaska today, only about 3,000, including Bourdon, speak fluent Inupiaq. Across the state, while nearly 80 percent of students in rural Alaska schools are Native, only 5 percent of teachers are indigenous. If Inupiaq language and its oral traditions continue to dwindle, Bourdon told me, much of Inupiaq culture will be lost. The Inupiaq language, for instance, has at least 120 words to describe ice—each term communicating subtle information that is important for practicing local activities, such as safe and respectful hunting practices in the subarctic climates, among many others.

All of this compelled Bourdon to become the first person in her family to earn a college degree so that she could be a teacher. After graduating from the University of Alaska at Anchorage, it took her several decades to shift from teaching mostly in the Western style she experienced as a student to one integrating both worldviews and languages in her lessons. When Bourdon was a student, and later a new teacher, she said, Native knowledge was treated as an occasional curiosity—there might be a brief lesson on how to build a sled or make traditional ice cream using local berries and seal oil. In the late ’90s, Bourdon and her colleagues designed lesson plans that were far more in-depth and holistic, rooted in the local culture and in themes of the tundra and ocean cycles, and integrated throughout the entire school year across the core subjects of reading, writing, math, and social sciences.

At the time, Bourdon and her colleagues were a part of a growing movement across Alaska, led by other Native teachers, who worked to upend schools’ devaluation of their culture and expand the role of Native communities in defining notions of “legitimate knowledge” and “rigor in education.” “Learning how to provide for the family, staying connected to nature, and speaking your own language is just as important as learning how to compute, write, read in English,” Bourdon told me.

The new systems that Alaska Native teachers like Bourdon, Kawagley, and others have built are not a rejection of Western education, Bourdon emphasized. Instead, they are playing to the strengths of both Western and Native models—helping students learn how to thrive locally while participating in a global society.

One sunny August morning last year, Josephine Tatauq Bourdon was recording her mother speaking Inupiaq in the living room of their small, two-bedroom house decorated with family photographs, Inupiaq art, and pictures of blueberries. Bourdon’s mother, Esther Aġunaat Bourdon, who turned 90 last year, belongs to the last generation of Inupiat people who were raised primarily in the traditional Inupiaq education system—and are more fluent in Inupiaq than English. As part of her efforts to preserve Inupiaq culture after retiring from the classroom, Bourdon uses her recordings of her mother to teach her native tongue to children and adults in Nome through classes and a column in a local newspaper.

Esther Aġunaat grew up in the village of Wales (Kiŋigin in Inupiaq), one of the oldest and largest Alaska Native communities, located about 55 miles from the Siberian coastline. One of her earliest memories is watching her father on the Bering Sea, towing a whale behind his boat. In those days, people looked to the sea and the tundra for most things they ate and wore. The hardest-working person who shared the most held the highest status in society. Everything was recyclable or biodegradable.

When Esther Aġunaat was growing up, Inupiaq education was designed as a holistic, interdisciplinary system that integrated core concepts in math, biology, and meteorology with technical skills, and social and emotional competencies such as empathy and ethics—all taught in a deeply local context. Education like this that integrates academic, social, and emotional domains would today be called “teaching the whole child.” Many Native researchers believe that this system of traditional education was responsible for the survival of northern indigenous communities in the harsh environments they call home.

While there were no formally scheduled classes, textbooks, or libraries, every seasonal activity was accompanied with specific stories—refined through generations over hundreds of years, as an Inupiaq teacher and researcher, Paul Ongtooguk, has documented. These tales, myths, and activities contained explicit directions on how to make a living—avoiding frostbite, building a fishing rod, finding medicinal plants—and provided guidance on how to live a purposeful life rooted in collective and environmental responsibility.

Oral traditions and games also emphasized key dispositions for living a satisfying life in challenging weather conditions. Building resilience, for instance, meant accepting the impermanence and uncertainty of nature, as Kawagley documented. Pride in individual accomplishment was condemned in the stories that Bourdon’s mother heard and later told her daughter, the reasoning being that arrogant people would be more likely to make lethal mistakes in the subarctic temperatures.

When Esther Aġunaat turned 7, in 1936, her parents sent her to a one-room Western schoolhouse run by the U.S. government. Her teacher was the only white person in Wales. Even though Esther Aġunaat and her siblings didn’t speak any English, they were not allowed to speak their native language at school. All lessons and texts were in English and contained stories about faraway places and people. Whenever Esther Aġunaat and her classmates said anything in Inupiaq, they were asked to stand in the corner, facing the wall. Esther Aġunaat left school in the second grade to help her parents with hunting and fishing—and never returned to formal Western education.

By then, missionary and government schools like this had been opening up across the state for five decades, as the U.S. continued its expansion and settler colonialism. This process was led by a Presbyterian clergyman, and the head of the U.S. education agency in Alaska, Sheldon Jackson. In his report to Congress in 1892, Jackson described Native communities he encountered as “uncivilized” and in need of instruction not only in “reading, writing, and arithmetic,” but also in “everything that elevates man.” In the new schools that Esther Aġunaat and, later, Bourdon attended, the values of European settlers, such as speedy answers, competition, and individual achievement, were elevated over Inupiaq values of consensus-building, sharing, and cooperation.

Schools were among some of the first colonial institutions, Kawagley wrote, and they left in the “previously self-directed Native people a sense of subordination, confusion, and debilitation.” Similar efforts in forced assimilation of young indigenous Americans took place all over the U.S. As part of this ideology, many Alaska Native children were removed from their families and placed in faraway boarding schools to eradicate Native culture, including rural life and reliance on a subsistence economy. As one 1966 government study stated, “The ideal high school … should reflect an urban technological society,” and would help “accelerate the breakdown of old village patterns, patterns which may retard the development of rural folk into a disciplined and reliable workforce.”

While Bourdon didn’t have any Native teachers as a student in Nome public schools in the ’70s, she was still fully immersed in the traditional ways of Inupiaq learning at home, through the daily presence of her large, extended family, who mostly spoke Inupiaq and lived near one another. “It was a very tight-knit family and we did everything together,” she recalled.

At the same time, her mother and father emphasized the importance of Western education. “My school and homework was very important to my parents,” Bourdon explained. “My mother had to learn English on her own. She understood the barriers to opportunities in a modern world without Western education.”

Bourdon with her mother, Esther Aġunaat. (Brian Adams)

In 1928, the federal government published a scathing report documenting harsh conditions in schools educating Alaska Native students, including corporal punishment and malnutrition. Later reports documented alcohol, drug abuse, and suicides among Alaska Native students, linked to trauma endured in the boarding schools.

Such findings led to successive rounds of federal and state reforms, but despite these efforts, Native students continue to post low performance outcomes by most measures. In 2016—the most recent available data—only 72 percent of Alaska Native and Native American students graduated high school, the lowest rate of any demographic group. In the past two decades, scores on national tests for Native American and Alaska Native students have been stagnant or falling.

Many Alaska Native educators and researchers have argued that such outcomes are the result of a top-down educational system that for more than 100 years blocked indigenous communities from participating in the design of their own education. They argued that the Western educational system is based on many unspoken assumptions, including a preference for knowledge derived from Western tools of data collection and record-keeping. Knowledge that has been passed down over millennia through oral traditions is often dismissed as inferior. Information that can’t be quantified, such as cultural autonomy or community wisdom, is typically overlooked in conversations about the purpose of public education.

“I think that the educational outcomes and social ills that we see in my community today, such as high rates of alcoholism and suicides, is caused by the lack of connection to our land and Native culture,” Bourdon told me.

In 1994, citing the dismal outcomes of Native students in the system founded by outside experts, the Alaska Natives Commission, a federal and state task force, called for all future efforts related to Alaska Native education to be initiated from within the Native community. This prompted a variety of Native-led projects, such as the Alaska Native Curriculum and Teacher Development Project, Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative, and Alaska Native Knowledge Network, that developed and disseminated culturally responsive curricula, oral histories, language materials, and relevant research. Alaska Native educators and scholars created “cultural standards,” which were adopted by the state, and provided guidance on how traditional wisdom, including environmental responsibility, can be integrated into formal Western education systems.

As a result of these efforts, in the late ’90s, Bourdon and two non-Native fourth-grade teachers at her school were encouraged by their administrators to develop their own culturally relevant lesson plans. From 1997 to 2000, Bourdon and her colleagues met every weekend to design science-driven lesson plans that they then implemented during the week, all rooted in the local geography of Nome, its history, and its culture. Fall lesson plans in math, reading, writing, and science focused on the theme of insects and their life cycle. In the winter months, students investigated the ocean. Spring was all about edible plants, and in the summer, students would learn about fish, berries, and land mammals.

In all these lessons, Bourdon and her colleagues aimed to incorporate both Western and Native knowledge. When students studied local fish, for example, Bourdon invited a community elder to her classroom to teach students how to split and clean the fish using a traditional cutting tool called an ulu. When students studied the traditional practices for preserving the fish, they also learned about science and math by discussing the processes that took place in the cutting, drying, smoking, and storing of the fish. While students were learning cultural content and history, they also had to improve their skills in taking notes, collecting data, writing reports, and presenting research papers. Thematic myths, dances, and songs were incorporated into every unit, to teach the key social and emotional skills that Bourdon learned as a child.

Bourdon thinks of this period as a highlight of her career. “We didn’t care that we spent every weekend working without pay for months,” she said. “It was such a rewarding experience for us, because our students were so engaged in these lessons.” The new lessons erased the distance between abstract ideas in the textbooks, nature, and the community life. Most important for Bourdon, she told me, the process helped her and other educators begin to erase a damaging assumption that Native students can’t become writers, inventors, and participants in a global community if their education includes traditional ways of learning.

Then the No Child Left Behind law was passed in 2002 and swept across the country, pushing the idea that better outcomes on standardized tests are the best way to achieve the nation’s goals of preparing a skilled and successful workforce. As the journalist Sarah Garland documented for The Atlantic, in 2012, the Obama administration invested $2 million to support culturally relevant instruction in Native schools across the country, but also sent $3 billion in grants to push for increases in student test scores in struggling schools.

This discrepancy in resources allotted to different reform strategies meant that many educators were pressured to focus on test prep at the expense of less measurable forms of instruction. As administrators in the Nome school district turned over, Bourdon said she and her colleagues were gradually asked to abandon the place-based curriculum, projects, and visits by the elders, and focus more on preparing students for the tests. (School officials didn’t return our requests for comment on the record about this.) Discouraged by these changes, in 2012, Bourdon took a different position, as a culture-studies teacher, to move away from the classes under intense state testing pressures, and to continue her work in integrating the Inupiaq and Western content through other courses.

Despite these challenges, efforts like Bourdon’s seemed to be working. When the Rural Systemic Initiative, a Native-led coalition representing 50 organizations working in education, gathered data from 20 rural schools serving majority Alaska Native students that participated in implementing culturally relevant curriculum from 1995 to 2000 (compared with 24 other rural districts, which continued to teach in traditional Western ways), all schools showed gains in student-achievement scores, a decrease in the dropout rate, and increased college attendance.

But beyond outcomes measured using Western forms of data collection, Alaska Native educators provided a template for all American schools on how to fundamentally reconsider and expand the notions of “rigor” or “knowledge” in education. To upend the ongoing damage inflicted by the legacy of colonial institutions, Kawagley reflected, education-reform efforts would have to value the cultural well-being of diverse communities just as much as outcomes on standardized test scores. Even though participation in the subsistence economy among indigenous communities, for instance, may not serve the national goals of training a workforce that increases the country’s GDP, it promotes daily opportunities to practice Native culture. As another report evaluating the outcomes of the Rural Initiative noted, cultural survival is hard to measure, but it can be felt and observed by the families served by the education system.

The newer education systems that foster collaboration between Western and Native ways of knowledge and learning in Alaska are still in their infancy, as Kawagley reflected in 2011. The biggest, most recent threat to the sustainability of these efforts in Alaska is likely to come from the looming cuts to public education. Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy cut $25 million this year, and plans to cut $45 more million in the next two years from the University of Alaska, which trains 43 percent of all teachers for the state.

Back in Nome, Bourdon told me she was concerned about what these cuts would mean for the state’s ability to prepare teachers, and the future of the innovative approaches that she and other Alaska Native teachers created. As early fall brought cooler temperatures, Bourdon was bracing for these uncertainties by engaging in daily practices that have sustained the well-being of her family for generations: She went to gather cranberries in the tundra, made jam and cooked for her family and neighbors, and told stories she’d heard from her mother about the power of communal bonds. “I am fortunate to hear my mother speak Inupiaq every day, and be able to teach our language and values to young people through her stories,” Bourdon said.

This article is part of our project “On Teaching,” which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.