Diversity, Self-awareness and Change: An Exploration of Alaska Native Ways of Knowing

By Dorothy Shepard Dunne

Dorothy Shepard Dunne Poster

Context of the Inquiry

HS 31000 Understanding Diversity, Self Awareness and Change is a required junior level course for students at Alaska Pacific University who are working towards a bachelor's degree in Human Services. Students in the degree program typically are adults who are already working in a broad spectrum of helping agencies. They are a diverse group themselves in many ways.

The purpose of the course is to examine differences in perspective among human beings, so that students as helping professionals may move towards greater cultural competence in working with clients of varying backgrounds. We begin by examining the concept of cultural self identity. Culture is defined in two ways for the purpose of this course. 

From a course handout on "assumptions:"

Culture is one of the major concepts we'll explore this semester. 

This is a word that is defined in many ways.

If you ask a person, "What culture are you from?" someone might say, "I'm Athabascan." Someone else might say, "I'm Scotch-Irish."

This is ethnicity.

These days, there are many who define "culture" more broadly. They say that a person's culture can come from any group which shares a common self identification. For example, one person can belong to a nation or region, a gender, religion, race, interest group, and so on.

In this class, we will use the term "culture" in both the very general way just described and also to refer to ethnicity. Please help us to carefully state how we are using the term at any given time.

 You may have had the experience of having someone else seem to define you by your ethnic or racial "culture." However, different people identify more or less strongly with a different set of the groups (or roles) to which they ascribe. These can also change in different phases of our lives.

For this course, one of our goals is to examine how we view ourselves in terms of "culture," broadly defined, in order that we may be aware that every person who seeks our assistance in our human services work has his or her own unique self-defined cultural identity.

Students participate in exercises and read articles intended to assist them in thinking about their own cultural identities, in the broader sense and in terms of ethnicity. We then explore some of the parameters concerning how human beings may view the world and have differing expectations of human interactions and behaviors. For many people, the realization that others may have ways of knowing that are both valid and not the same as our own is a new and challenging idea. It is also fascinating, and leads to dynamic and engaging discussion.

We also explore materials relating to oppression and racism. By the time we begin to approach this part of the course, students have been interacting with one another for some time. Bonds of positive connection have been formed, as well as the habit of discussing increasingly difficult concepts. The subjects of racism and oppressions are painful for most thoughtful people, especially when we are engaged in personal self examination in relationship to them.

The main purpose of the course is explored in some depth. How can we, as helping professionals, move towards greater cultural competence in our service to people whose backgrounds are diverse? We must examine the tricky questions—how to understand something about specific cultures, without resorting to stereotyping assumptions about individuals. We must be aware of such things as historical oppression and generational grief. We must see ourselves as moving along a path towards increased cultural competence, rather than having completed a simple one time "choice" to be prejudiced or not. We examine the meaning of being a cultural ally, and explore the discomforts of engaging in efforts to pick our ways through processes and questions which often seem to have no "right" answer.


Course Artifacts

Focus of the Inquiry

Alaska is the homeland of many different rich First Nations peoples. By continuing certain practices in the course and adding new elements to the course environment and assignments, I hoped that all students would increase their appreciation of diversity and similarities in human beings. I wanted them to gain opportunities to engage in healthy “difficult dialogues” concerning racism, oppression and generational grief, especially in relationship to the Alaska Native context. I hope that the students would feel respected, encouraged and connected in the class itself. Ultimately, our goal in the course was to increase cultural competence in service provision.

Because Alaska Native peoples will be both clients and colleagues in any Alaska human services setting, it was appropriate to place emphasis on Alaska Native ways of knowing in this course. It is also essential that Alaska Native students in the Human Services program at Alaska Pacific University find a learning environment compatible with their own learning styles. In the Diversity, Self Awareness and Change class offered in the Fall 2009 semester, I wanted to make sure that Native students would have an opportunity to engage in discussion of issues of importance to them. Because of their own backgrounds, I believed these students would be able to contribute to increased understanding of Alaska Native ways of knowing for the rest of us. In addition, I hoped that Native students would feel more “at home” rather than alienated in the academic setting as a result of the modifications made in the course.

For those students who were non-Native,  my goals in the modified course included increased understanding of Alaska Native ways of knowing and acting as well as more awareness of their own ways of knowing and behaving. I believed that the changes in the course would result in these students also finding a learning environment of value to themselves.

Course Artifacts

Course Design and Implementation

The Diversity, Self Awareness and Change course was modified for this project, with several new assignments and course methods. Data was collected through student writings: discussion forums, reflection journals and writing assignments.

            Many existing elements of the course were retained, as compatible with the goals of the current project. These included the use of a “modified talking circle” format for many of our discussions. This format is described in greater detail in the PowerPoint presentation “Welcome to HS 310.”  The students adopted the classroom agreements: Confidentiality, Listening, Encouragement, Acceptance and Respect (CLEAR).  As in most of the courses I teach, students wrote weekly written reflections on their learning. For the online course, we had weekly text-based discussion forums as well as weekly chat sessions on Elluminate Live. This class was similar to earlier sessions of the same course in that it included the examination of “culture”— one’s own and others. Students engaged in discussions of White privilege and racism with Peggy McIntosh’s article White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (1990) as a starting point.


            For the Difficult Dialogues project, I incorporated a number of new elements. These included using a slower pace, insofar as this is possible in an online course. One way of doing this was to have open due dates for several assignments, so that students could select the “right” time to do them. In this way, I hoped to eliminate some of the anxiety associated with deadlines and allow students to determine their own rhythm for at least part of the course. The emphasis on Alaska Native ways of knowing was also new for this session, as in previous terms we did not emphasize particular cultures throughout the course.

            In several previous terms, I had asked students to write two papers. The first was to be an examination of a culture the student felt formed part of his or her identity. In recent years, students wrote on such “cultures” as Hip Hop, Recovery Groups, Minnesota, Native Dance and Healthy Eating. The second assignment was to find out about and report on a culture that was unfamiliar to her or him. Students presented, for example, on local Buddhist practitioners, Icelandic Natives, Filipinos and India Business.

            In the Fall of 2009, I chose to drop these two assignments in favor of three others. The first was a “Reflection on Nature.” Each student was asked to go outdoors and to spend some time being aware of his or her natural surroundings, then to write about the experience in detail. The second of these writing assignments was “Learning from an Elder.” The student was to find a person he or she considered older and wiser than him- or herself, and to learn from that person. I deliberately kept the directions for these assignments somewhat undefined, so that the student would need to develop a personally meaningful method of “learning” or “observing.” My intent was that each person would use his or her own learning style. The third of these assignments was to find and retell a story that originated in the student’s own culture. Storytelling is an essential learning tool in all Alaska Native cultures and in many other world cultures as well. This assignment required each student to decide on a culture to which he or she felt connected, and then to find a meaningful story to share in his or her own words. There are examples of these student assignments included in this portfolio.

            For the textbook in the course, I used Diller’s Cultural diversity: A primer for the Human Services (2007). This is a book I have used before, with good results. Students were asked to read a number of supplemental materials, includingWhite Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh (1990), which is a great lead-in to a discussion of the existence of subtle oppression in today’s world.  We read Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being by Harold Napoleon. This excellent essay affords an opportunity to consider generational grief as well as to learn about Yupiaq ways of being. We also read The Heart of the Halibut: A Rite of Passage of an Aleut Boy by Larry Merculieff(2004). An especially wonderful thing happened which was not planned in advance, when the author of this article agreed to be an “online guest speaker.” Larry Merculieff participated in the text-based discussion forum with the students on his article. Excerpts from that discussion forum are included under “Findings.”


            Each week, students participated in an online synchronous chat session using Elluminate Live. This technology allows us to hear one another in real time. I have discovered that the use of the “modified talking circle” is very effective if we visualize ourselves as sitting in a circle. There is a list of participants in the top left corner of the web page to help us remember the order of speaking. There is a large “white board” space on the Elluminate site. I often create a PowerPoint presentation for online classes. This gives us a visual focus and engages more of the senses than the use of audio discussion alone. Students read aloud the PowerPoint slides, and then we discuss the concepts introduced. Several of these presentations are included here. In reviewing them, please keep in mind that they are intended as vehicles for discussion, rather than stand-alone presentations.

Students participated also in an asynchronous discussion forum through the Moodle course site. I posted two or three questions each week, relating to the topics under consideration. Students responded to those questions and then to one another. Several edited discussion forums are included here (under “Findings”) as well, particularly the one in which Larry Merculieff participated. Identifying or very personal information has been deleted.

Reflection essays were written each week. Students had an opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings in greater depth about the readings and chat discussions. There are a number of reflection papers included in the finding sections.



The goals I had for the course were accomplished to a very great extent. Below are some excerpts of student comments. Greater detail can be found in the accompanying course materials.

Students said:

Class environment

"… I felt that every idea was important and brought something to the table, no one was ever 'wrong' in here and I really valued that mutual respect between everyone."

Slower Pace

"…in Alaska Native culture … People go by their own pace and if there is a topic that is important to discuss, people will take the time to do it and it doesn't really matter how much time it takes."

Modified Talking Circle

"…the talking circle…gives everyone an equal chance to be heard. I also am not one to 'jump in there."  … in some classes extroverts are the only ones that get their ideas across. A talking circle is a wonderful way to have a discussion."

Reflection on Nature

"It confirms the belief that my traditional ways must be preserved; that I must listen [observe] to nature [the creek] and reflect not only on its impact to me but also in preserving a traditional healing way: a way common to many different cultures."

Learning from an Elder

I hope that I can build new relationships with other elders in my life because I now realize what I have missed. 


…no matter how insignificant the topic may seem at the time, it is important to listen to every single detail that an Elder shares. As time goes on, details may point to possible applications that the story may have…



… I feel…Mr. Napoleon is right about people coming out and talking about their pain. Openness should be a way for people to feel better about themselves. Also it can hopefully stop violent acts from happening to people to stop the cycle of pain and violence."

Heart of the Halibut

"Let me first say, (Mr. Merculieff) that it is an honor and a privilege to have you read and respond to my writing and to have this communication with you. Thank you."


More than once, the discussions in this course almost moved me to tears. The quality of interaction among the students was so honest and insightful, even while grappling with areas of personal pain or disagreement. As we explored Alaska Native ways of knowing together,  each heart was touched, each mind opened a little wider.

Course Artifacts

Faculty Contact

Dorothy Shepard Dunne

Associate Professor of Human Services

Director, Human Services degree program

Counseling Psychology and Human Services

Alaska Pacific University

Carr Gottstein Building  Rm 216

4101 University Drive

Anchorage, AK  99508

(907) 564-8622