Introducing Faculty to Alaska Native Ways of Teaching and Learning & Difficult Dialogues

By Libby Roderick, Associate Director, CAFE; Project Director, UAA/APU Difficult Dialogues

  • Title Page
  • Context
  • Focus
  • Course Design and Implementation
  • Findings
  • Reflections
  • Contact

Libby Roderick Poster

Context of the Inquiry

University professors in Alaska work to educate students in a context unlike any other in the U.S.  Alaska has seven major indigenous groups organized in 229 tribes, with 20 languages and highly developed cultures based on 10,000 years of unbroken occupancy on ancestral lands.  These cultures, which revolve around the harvesting of wild foods, have sophisticated educational practices and ways of knowing that differ markedly from those of western universities.  Both the University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University are committed to building a more solid foundation for educational partnerships between academic and Alaska Native communities; this project represented a major step towards that goal.

The UAA/APU Ford Foundation Difficult Dialogues grant introduced 16 faculty to traditional Alaska Native ways of teaching and learning and key difficult dialogues between Alaska Native communities and western universities.  Faculty then applied the new skills, perspectives, approaches, and knowledge to their courses; their results are displayed in these portfolios.


Course Artifacts

Focus of the Inquiry

Faculty were invited to transform their courses and teaching styles to encompass traditional Alaska Native ways of teaching and learning, including:

* Storytelling/dance

*  Visual/non-verbal learning

*  Place- and community-based learning

*  Organic, earth-based pace

*  Silence/pausing

*  Student reflection: who they are, what they believe

*  Listening, observing and imitating; few direct questions

*  All senses/experiential/applied learning

*  Relational/contextualized learning

*  Learning from Elders/lands.

 Faculty also grappled with key difficult dialogues between Alaska Native communities and the academy, including:

*  The purpose of education: sustainability of life systems

*  The role of spirituality in education

*  The relationship between Western science and research and Alaska Native communities

*  Cultural and biological appropriation

*  The need for place- and community-based learning

*  Institutional racism

*  Lack of Alaska Native faculty & ways of teaching in the academy.

Course Design and Implementation

The workshop was based on interviews with Alaska Native faculty, and leaders. They identified:

  • learning outcomes;
  • how they would conduct the intensive in the absence of institutional or Western cultural constraints; and
  • key difficult dialogues.

The week’s activities were guided by Alaska Native educators Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley (Yup’ik) and Ilarion “Larry” Merculieff (Aleut).

The schedule included extensive opportunities for:

  • both experiencing and practicing Alaska Native ways of teaching and learning;
  • debriefing, reflection and silence;
  • exposure to a wide range of Alaska Native scholars, activists, artists and Elders;
  • time on tribal lands;
  • a deeper introduction to the effects of institutional racism; and
  • assisting each other in wrestling with how to transform current teaching practices and curricula to reflect the new learning.

Course Artifacts


The impact of the workshop on faculty participants was assessed throughout the week as well as by means of both qualitative and quantitative evaluations before and after the workshop.  Data indicated significant changes in attitudes (see powerpoint under Artifacts in this section).  Some of the faculty attitudes that showed the most significant change included:

I think incorporating Alaska Native ways of teaching in to my classroom will benefit all of my students. 

I encourage (will encourage) my students to connect with nature and their environment.

I believe many of my students would benefit if I were to slow down my teaching.

I use (plan to use) stories and storytelling as a teaching tool in my class.

I believe institutional racism is an important explanation for why some Alaska Native students have a hard time completing college.

I encourage (will encourage) my student to explore and examine how the way we learn and function at the university contributes to a healthy or unhealthy planet.  

I strive (will strive) to give students time to reflect on the material I present.




Comments on faculty evaluations testified to a profound impact not only on issues related to Alaska Native cultures and students, but also on teaching practices:


…This was a perspective-shifting, life-altering experience and I know that it will enable me to do my part in helping all students, and particularly Alaska Native students…


I have learned a tremendous amount, including just how much I have left to learn… This has changed everything I thought I knew about Alaska Natives. 


Hearing the words of the Alaska Native speakers opened my eyes to realities I had not been able to understand or imagine.


This has been a life-changing intensive…the experience will affect not only my teaching, but also my parenting and my citizenship.


Participating Alaska Native faculty, staff, Elders, and community presenters were also positively and powerfully affected.  The initiative represented a major step towards healing historical rifts and building stronger partnerships between Alaska Native communities and Alaska’s universities.



Course Artifacts

Faculty Contact

Libby Roderick
Associate Director, Center for Advancing Faculty Excellence
University of Alaska Anchorage
Project Director, Ford Foundation Difficult Dialogues grants  907/786-4605