All of that began to change when Alaska Native educators, including teachers like Bourdon, began to develop new, innovative models of schooling that would integrate Western and Native concepts. In August 2019, I spent a week with Bourdon in Nome, Alaska—where she grew up, went to school, and taught for 28 years, after her two-year tenure in Wales. She retired in 2018. This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.
Kristina Rizga: Your family raised you in traditional Inupiaq ways. What did that look like in your home?
Josephine Tatauq Bourdon: The Inupiaq family unit and the way we educate children is deeply connected to the seasonal cycles and the land. My family—grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins—all lived near each other in Nome, and we did everything together. We hunted, went fishing, gathered berries and greens on the tundra, preserved the food, put it away, and ate together.
As soon as I could walk on my own, my uncle took me salmonberry picking in the harbor. You take a boat for half a day to get there. We’d go for two weeks at time. The first bucket of berries, or your first catch, you must bring to an elder. Sharing, cooperation, and respect for elders are some of the most important Inupiaq values.
Seasonal activities are connected to Native tales, passed down through generations. I remember when I first began berry-picking with the whole family—mom, grandparents, uncles—they would always say: “Don’t waste anything. Don’t overharvest or deplete. Only take what is needed for you and your friends.” I also remember them saying: “Don’t bring harm or turmoil to any living thing. Animals are not there to entertain you.” To this day, my mother refuses to watch sports-fishing channels for this reason—for her, catching and releasing fish is torture. If you fish, do it only for food.
Close to half of our diet here in Nome consists of Native foods. In the villages, it’s much more. Store foods in Nome are flown in or brought in by boat. They are expensive, and many are heavily processed. The Native diet is full of nutrients, and it’s gathered in a respectful way that inflicts the least amount of harm to nature.
Rizga: How did your family feel about Western education?
Bourdon: My mother went to school only up to the second grade and my father up to fourth grade, but schooling was very important to them. They really stressed education and homework, and they participated in all of our school activities. I was the first in my family to get a college degree, and they were very happy and proud that I attained that.
Rizga: Were there any classes in your school as a student—and later as a teacher—in which Inupiaq was the primary language?
Bourdon: None, and that’s why the language is slowly disappearing. English is pretty much solely spoken in Inupiaq families these days, unless they have a grandparent who is still fluent. When I was a student, we didn’t have any Native teachers, and most were often not from Alaska. Native people worked as cooks, janitors, or in maintenance. In my high school in Nome, you could take an Inupiaq-culture class as an elective and learn Native crafts. Now the big push is to incorporate Native languages. Nome High School currently has a class in the Inupiaq language. So that’s one big and positive change.