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Episode 81: Alaska Inuit Circumpolar Council education conference shares language and culture as medicine

By KTVA Alaska 7:46 PM November 13, 2016

The words on the big screen at a conference room at the Anchorage Hilton this week, at the first ever Inuit education conference, read: “Education as Medicine.”

The speaker was Graham Smith, a New Zealand educator and recognized world leader in indigenous education. He urged the crowd of Alaska Native educators in the room to take control of their schools and get parents involved.

Smith’s message: Education has to embody Native language and culture to be effective. He said the Maori of New Zealand have the same struggle and the first step towards healing is to understand the impact of colonization and to not perpetuate it. He told the gathering that the failure of Native children to succeed in school does not reflect on them but on the system of education.

This week on Frontiers, we explore those themes.

Some of this week’s highlights:

  • Heidi Ahsoak Profile: We spent a day with Heidi Ahsoak, who heads up the bilingual preschool in Barrow, soon to be renamed Utqiagvik. Ahsoak, who is of Irish-German ancestry, married into an Inupiaq family and has embraced the culture and the language.
  • Inuit Education: Some highlights from the Inuit Circumpolar Council of Alaska’s education conference, held in Anchorage this past week. Several hundred Native educators called for radical changes in they way children are taught in Rural Alaska.
  • Our guests this week: Jana and Qaiyaan Harcharek, a mother and son team of advocates for the Inupiaq language. Jana is director of the North Slope Borough School District’s Inupiaq education program. Qaiyaan is president of the borough’s school board and spearheaded the drive to change Barrow’s name to Utqiagvik.
  • Closing credits: Watch the children from the Anchorage Native Charter School perform one of their dances.

The Alaska Native movement to incorporate indigenous language and culture has been decades in the making — enough to see some of the early efforts of educators bear fruit. During our show, we only touched briefly on the accomplishments of two young adults from Toksook Bay, studying to be teachers at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Here’s a link to a story we did on Byron Nicholai and Olivia Shields on our news Friday. Nicholai has a voice that reaches out and grabs your heart.

The word “Inuit” refers to Northern peoples, who live in Alaska, Canada and Greenland — the Inupiat, Yup’ik, Siberian Yup’ik and Cup’ik, who are in the same language family.

This is a show that’s kind of like the tip of an iceberg. The issues are old and they run deep, and they are the kind of issues there isn’t time to explore fully in the context of TV news, but we hope this episode of Frontiers is a good beginning.

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