- Associated Press - Saturday, October 22, 2016

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) - Evon Peter pushed his way through hostility and overt racism in Alaska public schools to succeed in academia. He now directs one of the Fairbanks institutions best equipped to expand opportunities in education.

Since 2014, Peter has been vice chancellor of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ College of Rural and Community Development. The college encompasses five rural Alaska campuses as well as the university’s Native Studies program.

He was scheduled Oct. 20 to moderate an education panel during the Alaska Federation of Natives’ annual conference at the Carlson Center, reported the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (https://bit.ly/2ekJbAw).

“I think that providing appropriate and adequate education that’s responsive to cultural and regional realities is really important,” he said.

“When I think about the future of our state, when I think about the future of Alaska Native peoples, there are a few things that are clearly important. Education is absolutely one of them. Health care I’d say is another major piece and a third piece is a sustainable economy.”

Peter, 40, is the son of a Gwich’in/Koyukon mother from northeast Alaska and a Jewish father from California.

Peter’s mother, Adeline Peter Raboff, grew up in the boarding school era of Alaska education that caused much of the loss of Native language and knowledge that the university’s Native studies program now tries to reverse.

Peter was born in Hollywood, California. His family moved back to Alaska when he was 5, and he attended schools in Anchorage, Fairbanks and his mother’s hometown of Vashraii K’oo (English name Arctic Village), a town of about 100 people on the southern edge of the Brooks Range.

Along with the Yup’ik area of southwest Alaska, the Gwich’in country in northwest Alaska and Canada’s Yukon is one of the areas where Alaska Native languages are most widely spoken. Gwich’in is a hard language to learn. Despite his childhood in Vashraii K’oo, where Gwich’in was the primary language, Peter doesn’t consider himself fluent in the language.

In Vashraii K’oo, school was mostly self-directed. Students between sixth and 12th grade all had one teacher. Peter learned subsistence skills from his maternal grandfather including berry picking, caribou hunting and ice fishing for whitefish.

Peter moved to Anchorage for part of his elementary school education. He describes his education at Anchorage and Fairbanks schools as a series of confrontations with teachers and administrators.

At Denali Elementary School in Anchorage, Peter immediately felt his fourth-grade teacher treated him and other Native students differently. She was quick to find the worst in them and assume they were doing something wrong.

“Me and the other boys in the classroom were acting like all the other kids in the classroom, but her treatment - it’s hard to explain - as a 10 year old, it was crystal clear,” he said. “We were definitely at the bottom rung in that classroom.”

One day the teacher reprimanded him for coming in from recess late and Peter told the teacher he’d had enough. He told her she was racist, cleaned out his cubby and walked out of the classroom and back home.

His mother helped him pick out a new school, Chugach Optional Elementary, where he had a better experience.

But he ran into more problems at Ryan Junior High School in Fairbanks, where he was told it was standard practice to put students from the villages in developmental classes.

“The practice was - I don’t know if it’s changed now - to just automatically stick Native kids, especially if they just came in from the villages, into the developmental track, which naturally lowers expectations of Native students and gives them a lower-quality education,” he said. “Hopefully all of these things are changing with more advocacy, like the Alaska Native Education program that now exists in the school district.”

Peter and his mother met with the principal and argued he should be in honors-tier classes. The school agreed to compromise and put him in regular-tier classes.

One day at Ryan, there was a special “Scared Straight” type presentation for Native boys in his class. The boys were taken out of class for the presentation, where a counselor told them that statistically, as Native men, they were more likely to end up in jail or dead by the time they reached the age of 25 than they were to graduate from high school. Peter found the message distressing - especially after seeing the negative prediction realized.

“It’s one of those things that you never forget. It took me a while to even get my mind around what he was saying to us,” he said. “I wish I could say that among the 13 of us that were in there that the statistic didn’t hold true, but it did.”

Peter was among the dropouts. He left Lathrop High School after one year. He thinks he could have done well academically but didn’t feel comfortable in the culture of the high school, he said. At the age of 16, he enrolled in the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where an accommodating admissions employee let him in under the condition that he beat the school average for ACT scores and complete a GED in his first semester. Peter graduated cum laude with a degree in Alaska Native studies and a minor in political science. At 24, he was elected tribal chief of Neetsaii Gwich’in, the tribal government for a region that spans parts of northeastern Alaska and Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories.

Peter is an activist for Native issues and action on climate change, including some recent high-profile appearances. In 2014, he appeared in a segment of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” about the then-pending restoration of the name Denali for North America’s tallest mountain. In September he was part of a White House summit of Arctic indigenous leaders, organized following President Barack Obama’s 2015 visit to Alaska. He recently helped produce a documentary titled “We Breathe Again” about suicide among Native Alaskans. It is scheduled to debut in early 2017.

At the education panel on Oct. 20, Peter planned to share some progress from Native Alaskans in higher education. In the last few years, the University of Alaska Fairbanks has seen a surge of Alaska Native students pursuing the university’s top degree. About 15 Alaska Native students received Ph.D’s in the first 98 years of the university’s history. Last year alone there were three additional Ph.D’s, and as many as seven Alaska Native students could graduate with Ph.D’s in May 2017, Peter said.

Many of these students have Native language skills. If the university can build up a critical mass of Yup’ik or Gwich’in speakers, it may one day be able to conduct Alaska Native study degree programs entirely in these languages, including writing dissertation papers and committee meetings.

“We’re going to be able to do things that we were challenged to do previously,” Peter said. “Those sorts of things are helping us open the doors to new opportunities.”

The panelists included Pearl Brower from Ilisagvik College in Barrow, April Counceller from the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak and Jana Harcharek from North Slope Borough School District.


Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, https://www.newsminer.com

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