July 25, 2008

Debunking Alaskan Native stereotypes

Universities launch effort to debunk Native stereotypesA university program that aims to get students talking about touchy subjects will spend the coming school year dispelling myths about Alaska Natives.

Many students and professors at the University of Alaska Anchorage are woefully misinformed about Alaska’s indigenous people, a situation that leads to stereotyping and can make Native students uncomfortable, said John Dede, special assistant to the vice provost.

It’s likely one factor in the group’s high dropout rates, he said.

“I think there’s a perception that Alaska Natives are white people under different skin,” Dede said. “And they are not. They come from different cultures with a different world view, and understanding that will be a realization for a lot of people.”

To overcome the problem, a group of academicians, with help from Native leaders and others, are publishing a 100-page handbook that debunks Native myths, Dede said.

The university and neighboring Alaska Pacific University will give the book to some 600 professors and provide 900 free copies to students.

The effort is part of a stepped-up Books of the Year program, a third-year partnership between the universities to juice up debate in lecture halls and classrooms.

Last year, the project distributed copies of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Swallows of Kabul,” works that tackle themes of religious extremism. Teachers added the books to lesson plans and panels discussed them, said Dede, the program’s coordinator.

This year, in addition to the handbook, the reading list consists of two other books.

Some 900 freshmen on both campuses will get free copies of “Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being” by Yup’ik author Harold Napoleon. The book explores the social devastation caused by Western-brought diseases that wracked Natives—sometimes leaving entire villages abandoned—from the late 18th to early 20th centuries.

The third book—“Growing up Native in Alaska” by historian A.J. McClanahan—features interviews with more than two dozen Alaska Natives about their search for self-identity.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Eskimos:  The Ultimate Aborigines.

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