Beluga Whale At Kitty Hawk: An Arts Education Moment in Rural Alaska – Ryan Conarro


Editor’s Note:  this article evolved from a shorter piece that Ryan Conarro wrote for the ALT/space section in issue 9(2).  One of the exciting things about the ALT/space section is the way it functions as an incubator for longer articles and offers the authors and TAJ readers the chance to revisit a subject or question in greater depth and perhaps with different insights.   We will be publishing more such “evolutions” both in the pages of the print Journal and as web-only features on In this way we hope that the ALT/space idea mirrors a similar dynamic that many of us find so appealing and educative in our work as teaching artists.  I’m grateful to Laura Reeder for conceiving of,  and editing the ALT/space section in this way, and to Ryan for giving us such a interesting model of how a short, powerful essay can be developed into a deeply reflective and engaging article; together the pieces form a compelling example of a new way of writing about our work and field. –Nick Jaffe


Early autumn sunshine is spilling into the classroom of this school in an Inupiaq village on Alaska’s northwest coast. I’m a Juneau-based drama teaching artist, working for the Department of Education as an “arts content coach,” visiting some of the state’s struggling rural schools. Today, I’m modeling a drama integration activity for a jaded high school history teacher who seems to lock horns regularly with her students. I’m guiding the youths in analyzing the visual elements of stage pictures so that later in the week they can create their own tableaux of important historical inventions.  But at the moment, the sun is calling them; and the glinting waters of the Chukchi Sea, which will freeze soon enough; and the open door of the classroom, through which I’ve seen a few students wander today, ejected by their exasperated teacher.
Daniel is one of the more engaged students in the group, and he readily volunteers to help me make a model tableau.  I’m relieved, grateful for his enthusiasm.  He sits again at his desk. Moments later, he sneaks a forbidden glance at his cell phone and then slides it back into his jeans. The teacher stands and pounces.  Daniel shouts, “No!” But the teacher won’t back down and hauls Daniel from the room.  My drama lesson is disrupted and deflated. Daniel, it turns out, will be suspended tomorrow.


“Dyou hear? They got beluga!”

The student pushes past me and dashes out the school door. Her announcement—that someone in the village has shot and harpooned the first beluga whale of the season—explains the suddenly empty halls and the flurry of four-wheeler traffic I’ve been hearing outside the building. By the time I make my way down the beach to the crowd gathered beyond the village airstrip, much of the whale has already been divided and shared, in Ziplocs and plastic grocery bags, everyone in the community getting some, a woman with a clipboard ticking off the names of villagers as they take their slabs of blubber.

The head of the whale sits on the rack of a parked four-wheeler. The hunters will keep it—the head is a delicacy. Turns out, two teenage boys are the providers today.  One of them is Daniel.  His mother walks right up to the school principal: “Thank you for suspending my son.” He’s being hailed by everyone as a hero: a successful hunter providing for his community. It’s the best thing that could have happened for him.


I’m thinking and puzzling, lying in a sleeping bag on the classroom floor—my usual accommodations during visits to what seems to me to be the confused, confusing territory of rural Alaska’s schools.

Alaska Native communities are straining under cultural change, which began with the first Russian trappers and traders. The changes continued when missionaries of various stripes met in the late 1800s and divvied out Western Alaska’s villages for their cooperative effort of Christianization and civilization.  The missionaries established schools, and by the early 1900s, many Native teenagers were bound for regional—or even out-of-state—boarding high schools, their only option for earning secondary degrees. The changes accelerated when Alaska became a state in 1959 and oil was discovered in 1968. The state’s eagerness to build an oil pipeline—which would flow oil south to Valdez and would flow cash further south into Juneau’s state coffers—motivated officials to settle long-standing land claims disputes. The solution was the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971.

During this school visit, I’ve been reading some of the essays of Seth Kantner, a non-Native man (who calls himself a “white boy”) who was raised by back-to-the-land midwestern parents in a sod house they built not far from this village. Kantner writes and produces wilderness photography from his home in Kotzebue or his camp on the Kobuk River.  He explains how ANCSA initiated a quick shift from a subsistence lifestyle to a cash economy in the Alaska Native world:

With ANCSA, the federal government granted Alaska Natives a portion of the land (which was already theirs), plus half a billion dollars and property-tax-free status. It required that they conduct themselves as corporations, each Native person a shareholder. Overnight, the trail from hunting and gathering to capitalism was widened and paved. And every last person—some running, some dragging their feet, even some misplaced barefoot white boys—ended up on that trail.

The government then began saturating rural Native communities with more money, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars per person, in an attempt to bring living conditions closer to national norms. (National norms apparently don’t include storing fermented walrus flipper in the ground or using a kerosene can for a crapper—in other words, living with what you have: subsisting.) The excess in money brought with it excesses in alcoholism, suicide, drug abuse, and corresponding off-the-chart statistics that made available even more grants and government funding. Hence, today, we are awash in dollars, those little green soldiers of capitalism. (Kantner 158)

Close on the heels of ANCSA and the first barrels of oil in 1972 from the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, rural Alaska Natives fought for local high schools. They wanted the option to keep their young people at schools at home through their teenage years, instead of a situation in which “the entire village turn[ed] out each fall on the gravel airstrip to see off teenagers bound for boarding school for the next nine months… Villages…were almost devoid of teenagers throughout the school year” (Cotton 30). The landmark Molly Hootch case (Tobeluk v. Lind) in 1976 demanded the construction of 126 new village school facilities to provide local secondary education: “As mandated by the consent decree, a massive wave of rural school construction to house the new high school programs [began]. In all, [this decision was] the largest settlement in the history of American education litigation” (30).

As new local schools sprang up, villagers began to meet larger annual crops of teachers from “Outside”—many of whom are fresh-faced young people looking for adventure or a sense of service, or elderly retirees from the Lower 48 who’ve decided to experience something new and make a bit more money. There is a slow, growing movement to train Native graduates to become teachers and return to their home villages.  But in some communities, the annual teacher turnover rate is regularly higher than 75%.

When I moved from the east coast to Alaska—to Nome, in 2001—all this changing was marching on in new ways. Several of the villages in the Nome-Bering Strait region were seeing their first satellite TV apparatuses installed. In my teaching artist travels in recent years, I’ve found myself on bush planes in southwest Alaska next to Lower 48 engineers charged with erecting cellular service towers, or Anchorage salesmen packing bags of cell phones to pass out in exchange for cash.

As mass-market technology and entertainment have grown in villages, some traditional cultural pastimes have inevitably faded—as has young people’s use of their Native languages.

I roll over in my sleeping bag.  Before I lay down, I cracked the window a bit, and now I can hear the Chukchi Sea surf breaking on the beach outside. There seems to be no solution to this cultural quandary. I wonder, as usual, if my presence isn’t part of the problem; I’m just another white guy who happens to have made his adult home in Alaska.

I keep coming back to Seth Kantner’s musings, and his incisive questioning of “national norms” for living conditions. I wonder whether the same question should be asked of “national norms” for education, for what’s important for young people to know in this village, in this state, and in this country. Students in the Alaskan bush often seem to find little relevance in curricula written to create “college- and career-ready” graduates. There’s no college here, and no careers really, not in any Western sense of the word. In the childhood days of the parents and grandparents of the students I’m working with, there was a clear, obvious connection between what they needed to learn and what they needed to do. They left their schoolhouses or their traditional community houses, and they put their knowledge to use directly. Now, the content of courses in the modern school buildings doesn’t always pass such a simple relevancy test. Certainly, educators today aim to give Alaskan young people the skills to make their own choices, to move into the outside world and create whatever sort of life they dream for themselves. But the underlying message of some high school curricula seems to me to be that “success” equals leaving the village.  “Success” is scoring high on tests written solely in English.  “Success” is coming to class and sitting in your desk on time, even when the sun is out and the food is swimming past the school door.

The waves outside the classroom window are crashing more heavily tonight; stormy weather is moving in from offshore.  The roaring water makes me think about the handful of rural villages up and down the coast that are fighting erosion caused by a combination of these waves and the absent sea ice, which comes later and later every year due to climate change.  I visited one such village during my time in Nome, after a fall storm took nearly 50 feet of the shoreline.  I conducted an impromptu poll of people I met during my stay: What can be done about the dangerous erosion? Some villagers wanted to relocate, to find new ground where they could keep their community together. Others resisted the idea of voluntary relocation, which would take them away from traditional hunting grounds and sacred sites. They said they preferred to stay, struggling to maintain stop-gap seawalls, even though that might mean an eventual exodus from the village site that could cause the community to disintegrate, extended families and friends separating as they move to Nome or to Anchorage or into other nearby villages. It seemed hard to know what the best answer was.

Maybe the cultural change here could be compared to the literal erosion of the land. The shift is happening, and some people embrace it while others resist. Some young people here, like Daniel, hunt seals and whale and tend to rebel against the academics at the school. Other kids are drawn to the exotic worlds that pass by on televisions and computers, and they long to go there, or to bring those worlds home to the village. Most teenagers here probably feel like Daniel sometimes, and like the other kids at other times.  But I wonder whether the education system, originating as it does from a place very different than this one, can’t help but privilege a way of life outside the village over a path that includes staying right at home.

Perhaps paradoxically, village schools have become primary community gathering places: “To even a casual observer, the establishment of a new high school appears to affect markedly the fabric of village life. The high school gym usually dominates the village skyline as the only two-story building in most of the smaller communities” (Cotton 30). Native dancing happens here some evenings; people come here for hot showers in communities that otherwise have no plumbing. Some school administrators may also be caretakers of the village fuel tank supply, of the drinking water supply. The schools are also de facto hotels for outsiders: for the tower engineer, for the cell phone salesman, and for me. We’ve each found our own classroom to curl up in.

I fear that it’s grossly imperialistic of me to presume to question what’s best to teach and learn here. I’m no seasoned classroom teacher or administrator, and I’m not from this place. I’m coming from a position of privilege in the culture that’s imposed itself upon this land for so long. Yet I do ask the question, to myself, prone on the classroom floor, waiting for sleep.

Perhaps part of the answer is not what is taught and learned, but how it’s shared by teachers and how it’s applied by students.

Last summer, I read Maxine Greene’s Releasing the Imagination. I’m thinking now about her ruminations on the power of what she calls “aesthetic education”:
…participatory involvement in the many forms of art can enable us to see more in our experience, to hear more on normally unheard frequencies, to become conscious of what daily routines have obscured, what habit and convention have suppressed… When we see more and hear more, it is not only that we lurch…out of the familiar and the taken-for-granted but that new avenues for choosing and for action may open in our experience; we may gain a sudden sense of new  beginnings, that is, we may take initiative in the light of possibility. (Greene 123)

Now I’m thinking of Daniel’s classmates in their tableaux yesterday, active and engaged before the cell phone incident. Their performances were simply reproductions of their imagined images of historical events, but perhaps such drama activities can help encourage the kids here to grab on to what they know, to show it their own way, to shape it, and to look toward the future and envision and manifest the lives they want for themselves.


The sky is spitting rain and breakers are stacking up on the beach beyond the school. Daniel is back in class after his one-day suspension. It’s the final session of our drama integration project, creating tableaux of historical scientific inventions. After a period of small-group work, the student actors perform their images in front of the classroom. Several students have brought me down from last night’s cloud of idealism: they’re timid; I have to prod and cajole them to volunteer to share their performances with their peers; I feel as though I’m in a precarious dance to avoid the trap of imposing myself as a demanding authority, as their teacher regularly seems to do, rather than an inviting collaborator. Then again, as they work in their small groups, some students are grinning, even laughing; every single person participates; and when the students speak, I can hear each of their voices.  

Daniel’s group takes the stage: “The First Flight of the Wright Brothers.”  One boy spreads his arms like a plane. Another boy stands behind him—the pilot.  And then there’s Daniel with his hand on an imaginary trigger, one eye squinted as if sighting down a rifle barrel.  

“Daniel, who are you?”

“I’m hunting beluga.”
I’m fairly certain there was no one hunting beluga whales from that plane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.  But we leave the tableau just like it is.  We’re all smiling and laughing. Daniel is participating. And when he speaks, I can hear his voice.


Cotton, Stephen E.  “Alaska’s Molly Hootch Case: High Schools and the Village Voice.” Educational Research Quarterly 8.4 (1984): 30-43.

Greene, Maxine. Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 1995.

Kantner, Seth. Shopping for Porcupine: A Life in Arctic Alaska. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2009.


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