IREACH Faculty to Study Links between Indigenous Education Systems and Community Wellbeing

people working in a filed

Jessica Saniguq Ullrich, PhD, Tribal citizen of Nome Eskimo Community and assistant professor in the Department of Medical Education and Clinical Sciences and Institute for Research and Education to Advance Community Health, was recently awarded a Spencer Foundation Vision Grant. The project is one of 18 across the country to re-envision a better education system for students within any grade level. Ullrich is collaborating with leaders from the Sitnasuak (Nome), Ukivok (King Island Native Community), Erok (Village of Solomon) and Bering Strait community in Alaska. 

The history of education has Involved significant trauma that American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities are still enduring and recovering from to this day. In military-style boarding schools,  AI/AN students were punished for speaking their language. John Tetpon, an 80-year-old Elder from Shaktoolik, 125 miles east of Nome, shared his experience:

“. . . It was my first day of school at the Bureau of Indian Affairs one room schoolhouse and I was excited. ‘We’re going to learn how to read and write,’ I said loudly in Inupiaq to my friends. I was smiling. We were smiling and happy. All of us. That was until [all] of a sudden, I felt the hand of the teacher grab me by the collar, lifting me up to his shoulder. I was terrified. I didn’t know what was happening and why. I was 6 years old. I felt and saw his hand near my mouth with a bar of Fels Naphtha soap. The bar of soap was tan, almost brown in color. He shoved it into my mouth and down my throat, making soap bubbles come out of me. ‘Don’t speak Inupiaq in my school!’ he yelled. I was in tears, choking. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t understand his words. Afraid. Terrorized. I have never forgotten that day. Why, I ask. Why? For years I never uttered a word of Inupiaq- and forgot most of it. Today I hunger to hear my language and my words, but they are elusive as butterflies in winter.”

Many Indigenous languages are endangered because of English-only policies within schools. Transformation of the education system is key to ending systemic harm and allowing intergenerational healing to occur. 

The Sitnasuak team plans to submit a research grant proposal that focuses on the development, implementation, and evaluation of a healing centered, multi-generational, and land-based pedagogy that incorporates language, culture, and traditional values into educational policy and practices. Ullrich and her collaborators plan to explore if this systematic transformation leads to an increase of child, family, and community wellbeing. 

This timely project aligns with Ukivok’s and Erok’s creation of a Tribal school through a compact agreement with the State of Alaska. If successful, this work could help advocate for the expansion of Tribal/State compact agreements and provide guidance to other communities on the ways these policies could be successfully implemented using their own unique local knowledge.  

To guide the transformative research process, the team’s approach utilizes an Indigenous Theory of Change in Liberatory Systems as depicted in the graphic. It is not enough to approach the research with a deficit mindset that looks to outside experts for solutions and assumes one size fits all. Instead, the work will be conducted in a strengths-based, collaborative, and relational way that is trusting of and responsive to community guidance. 

The Vision Grant team aspires to develop the best research action plan that supports wellbeing within Sitnasuak, the Bering Strait region, Alaska, and global community because of the belief that we are all connected to a collective. As Sitnasuak heals the wounds of the education system, this helps the collective heal.