Staff Cultural Orientation

I’m returned from ten days in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where I’ll be teaching, having attended a staff cultural orientation with fifteen new teachers and one new principal.

Outskirts of Tuluksak
Outskirts of Tuluksak

We spent five days in Akiachak where the district headquarters is located, addressing the same questions I’ve been asking myself about the imposition of western culture on native peoples. We explored two threads:

  • The Alaskan sub-arctic is a dangerous and difficult place to live. Yup’ik culture, a product of thousands of years of social evolution, contains a set of implicit rules for thriving in this environment. The language encodes a mindset or worldview that helps its speakers adapt to living here (see the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis), and this effect can’t be translated into and transmitted through English. By interrupting the generational transmission of native culture, we are interrupting the transmission of this worldview and set of rules which allow the people to survive the sub-arctic.
  • Through the media and education, western society imposes a worldview and a set of values on the native people. For a variety of geographic, economic, and social reasons, most Yup’ik are unable or do not want to participate in the mainstream western lifestyle. This creates a psychological conflict, which may result in questions about identity and feelings of inadequecy among people who have been made to feel that mainstream western society is superior to their own traditional society. Many native populations are in absolute psychic crisis because of this conflict.

The message was: accept your own ignorance and seek to be an aid to the residents, not a guide.

The other five days we spent in our own villages. We were assigned to wonderful mentors among the village residents, who invited us into their homes and introduced us to a bit of their subsistence lifestyle. We also had a chance to meet those of our students who were attending summer school. The kids definitely try to see whether they can get under your skin, but I feel I passed their tests.

I’ve started to read Enlightenment’s Wake by John Gray. Gray writes that the fulfillment of the Enlightenment is the central project of western civilization. In my own words, the Enlightenment is the instantiation—the particular form, realization, or instance—of the Conqueror Mindset in western civilization; other cultures would have different projects of progress centered on the universalization of Sharia and Islam, Confucianism, etc.

So as westerners, we believe that science and reason can help us produce a template for a prosperous society with a minimal set of rules that allows people to fulfill their own independent, personal values. Since the template allows people to define their own personal values, it can in theory be lain-over any population without disturbing local culture, so long as the population chooses to value and retain that culture. But Gray points out that independence is itself a value that is taken for granted by this Enlightenment project, and that we may be better served by a model of civilization which does not allow for independent assignment of value.

By my interpretation, if you lay the Enlightenment project over a culture which assigns value collectively then the native culture will crumble and fail. More thoughts to follow.