History of Alaska Education Policy series: Collins Helped Create the School District He Served for 43 Years

An interview with Ray Collins of Iditarod Area School District by Steve Nelson

Ray Collins’ stories are about more than his own journey. They are also oral documentation of the transition of a region and its people.

The events, circumstances, and opportunities placed in Ray’s path during his life focused his commitment to the people and communities he deeply appreciates and has worked hard to protect and improve.

Many of the issues being debated today as new ideas in education were initiated decades ago by Ray and his board in response to the critical needs they felt compelled to address: integrating Native language and culture into instruction, orienting new teachers to the local culture, training local people to become teachers, and making the education system more responsive to the needs of local students.

Ray graciously granted an interview while attending AASB’s 66th Annual Conference and we spoke for nearly an hour. This transcript of our conversation has been only lightly edited for continuity in order to preserve Ray’s voice. About halfway through, the context switches from a narrative to a question and answer format. It’s a lengthy read but explains the evolution of Ray’s 43 years of service and dedication to his school district and the people it serves.

Coming to Alaska

Ray is originally from Shelton, Washington. He joined the army and came to Alaska with Alaska Communications Systems, rising through the ranks to become a Tech 5 Sargent. While in Anchorage he attended a crusade and accepted Christ. When his three years of military service ended, he attended bible school and while there, met a translator for the Wycliffe Bible Society. He had always been intrigued by languages and saw bible translation as a way to provide Christian service through the study of languages. He began formal linguistics training at the University of Washington and the University of Oklahoma, and at a six-week immersion in a Mexican jungle camp.

Ray met his wife in bible school and they got married. They both decided to go to work for Wycliffe, and when their training was completed they had to decide where they wanted to be assigned. At that time, the company was working around the world in different languages. Since Ray had already spent three years stationed in Alaska in the Army, he and his wife decided to return to the state. They first spent time at Arctic Village, then went to Nicolai. Ray talked to the local people about studying their language, and they were receptive. Ray and his wife moved to Nikolai and spent eight years there, raising their three children.

Embracing Local Language and Culture

In the late 1960s, Ray realized that the process he was using took about 20 years to do a bible translation, but the elders were dying off pretty rapidly and the younger people had stopped speaking the local language. The parents were trying to help their kids by speaking English, so some of the kids grew up understanding their language, but not speaking it. Ray eventually recognized that by the time he had finished the translation, it would be of very little benefit because of the diminishing number of speakers. He estimated there were only about 125 speakers of the Upper Kuskokwim language left.

So Ray and his wife resigned from Wycliffe, moved from Nikolai to McGrath, and continued to work with the language. There, Ray trained people to read and write and produced a dictionary and other reading materials in the Upper Kuskokwim language. To meet educational requirements for those who still understood or spoke a local language, as some of the older students still did, Ray trained three bilingual instructors.

Dedicating a Life of Service to Rural Residents

During his years at bible school, each class was required to choose a class motto. His class chose the motto, “May it be said in the years ahead that we were saved to serve.” That motto has always been in Ray’s mind as a reminder of how he could serve. He continued to work on transcribing into English the stories that were being told in the Native language, but the elders had started disappearing.

Becoming Involved in Subsistence Resource Management

At the same time, he was taking notes about Nikolai. The village had gotten a grant from the National Park Service because they had formally hunted up in the fringe of Denali National Park. Ray began working with the state Fish and Game committee in McGrath and used the information he had learned during his time in the village to make the laws fit more appropriately to the people he had grown up with there.

The federal government was giving rural residents a preference, and the Alaska Natives had chosen that route because they realized a lot of people in rural Alaska lived the same lifestyle they did and still depended on the game. The state couldn’t meet that requirement, so the feds had to step in and set up a Federal system that developed laws for the parks and refuges. Ray eventually ended up on the Western Interior Regional Advisory Committee for the Fish and Wildlife Service, and on the Denali Park Advisory Committee, regarding additions to the park. In more recent years Ray has been the chair of the Denali Park Subsistence Resource Council, and just retired from the Western Interior Resource Council, on which he served since it was formed in the 1970s.

Traditional Fishing Methods

Ray had the privilege of being appointed by the state to serve on the Western Interior Fish and Game board. While he was representing the Western Interior Regional Advisory Committee on fisheries management, the advisory group that manages salmon on the Kuskokwim River, he watched escapement and made recommendations on when there might be a season for selling some. Unfortunately, they opened it for King Salmon and that really hit the kings and they started dropping off, and they made them stop using the traditional fish fence up at Nikolai at that time. Ray was there in 1963-64 to see the last traditional weir that the people themselves had put in. They used to catch what they needed and pull it, but the number of fish had started dropping, so they couldn’t continue using it. The state made them stop using their own weir.

In recent years there have been closures on the early salmon runs. Ray has collected stories from Nikolai about which salmon came first. He found that the fish going the furthest were the first ones in the river because they had the farthest to go. Before that, it was thought that they were spread out over the season, but Ray’s records from showed the fish up furthest above Nikolai arrived there before they arrived at Salmon River, which is off the big river down below. A lot of those salmon they didn’t even catch in McGrath, they just went right up the river. They can’t drift there because of the snags and other obstacles, so unless they pulled into the mouth of the Takotna River to rest and go on up that system, those Kings were just trucking up the river.

Salmon and the Changing Village Economy

Ray learned a lot about fish from the local people because they knew how to cut and dry the fish, and take care of them using traditional methods. They built smoke sheds where they could hang the fish out of the weather, and kept smoke fires going underneath to keep the flies off. When Ray arrived in the area, everybody had dog teams but switched to snow machines in the early 1960s. They started buying snow machines in the summer because they were going to work firefighting. When the men went firefighting, the women had to put up the fish themselves, check the weir, cut the fish and put them up, and so on. A lot of folks began getting rid of their dogs then, and they didn’t need as much chum salmon as they did before. At the headwaters, the Chums are pretty worn down, but the Kings are still in pretty good shape, but not like they are down by the mouth.

Throughout his involvement in all of this, Ray collected notes. The village got a grant from the National Park Service because they were one of the villages mentioned in the legislation as having a traditional use of the extension of Denali. Ray has served on the Denali Park Advisory Committee since it was formed but expects to resign from it soon due to health reasons.

Starting a School District

Ray wanted to see districts created that had common cultural backgrounds, instead of mixed villages. That was easier to do down on the coast where you had Yup’ik and Inupiat, and some of those other languages, but the Athabascans were smaller groups. There were Athabascans both in the Upper Kuskokwim and on the Lower Yukon at Holy Cross and Shageluk. Ray had been on an advisory school board, serving locally under the state government, that he had started with just Nikolai. when they started thinking about dividing them up, Ray was on a committee that worked with the state to establish some of those boundaries because of the knowledge he had of the local communities. This was before the Rural Education Attendance Areas (REAA) were created, but were in process. There were a lot of people from the Yukon, like Angvik and Shageluk, that came over to McGrath because there a high school there, and they didn’t have one in their local village. They boarded with local families. After Ray and his wife moved to McGrath, they had a number of high school kids from Nikolai that boarded with them while attending high school. He already knew all the Nikolai kids of course.

Over the years there were different committees set up, and Ray ended up being appointed to some of them, including a school construction committee. The state used to build all the schools, but when the REAAs were created, they allowed for local districts to take over the construction of schools themselves. What happened before that was the contractor would finish their work, but there were still things left unfinished. Rather than hold the contractor accountable, the state would appropriate the money and finish the job for them. So we drew up rules that contractors had to be bonded and insured, and we held the contractors in our district to that standard.

How many school districts were there when you started the Iditarod Area School District?

That was when the initial breakup was, and some village schools ended up being “one village schools” in the Yup’ik area. But then there was a big district down there that united all of those villages. Nome was another district, and up at Barrow, there was another district. So they started grouping villages with similar cultural backgrounds into districts. Once the districts were created they had elections for the board members, and that’s when I was voted in as one of the first members to represent our area. It was all done by the initial committee work of deciding where the boundaries would be.

What were the greatest challenges you and others faced in starting a district? Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

No. Right away we started encouraging the teaching of the local language and local culture classes in the school, and we did that in various ways. For graduation initially, we required students to have some knowledge of Native land claims. In high school, I taught about ANILCA and ANCSA for all the students. They all need to know that in rural Alaska because we created this dual system which a lot of people don’t understand.

What inspired you to dedicate over four decades of your life and career to educating Alaska’s young people?

Education was an area I could serve in. They opened these regional centers and I got the first job as the coordinator of a center in McGrath. It was part of the university system. We were pioneers in having audio conferences for the whole state under the university system. The students could call a toll free bridge in Anchorage and they would be connected together. If I had a course on local history or cultural anthropology, I could have students around the state taking the course. It was fun to do that.

Teachers had to have Alaska Studies for recertification when they came from outside, so I had a hand in teaching those courses to help new teachers be more effective in their own areas. I got good reviews on all courses I offered during that time. There were also Alaska Natives who were aides in the schools that were working on their university degrees, so I was providing courses for them so they could start teaching in the villages.

Right now, educators are talking about all of the things you just mentioned as though they are new ideas: teacher certification for in-state people, language and culture being taught in schools, and cultural orientation for new teachers teaching in villages. What happened between when you were doing these things decades ago, and now? What has been the disconnect?

There were always some of these things going on, but there wasn’t always the support to keep them going. Some schools went to second language instruction. If kids started coming to school that spoke more English than they did their local language, then the emphasis was on English as a second language. That kind of shifted over and the state was happier with that because they could find teachers prepared for that.

Our district had to continually orient new teachers coming into the local language and customs. When they came to do their in-service, we sent them to fish camp in August and had them stay up there with the local people, learning traditional ways as they had learned them. Its a whole different type of training because it is hands-on. The locals would be catching and cutting fish, and the teachers would come to the fish camp and want a schedule of what they would be doing in the morning and afternoon. The local people advised the teachers where they might want to set up camps. There was that effort, and Ray Barnhardt did a lot to promote those courses on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.

Then an elders conference was formed, to bring the elders together to talk about education and other things. They included some students in that conference too, and they still have that going on. It seems to be an unending process because you get a new group of teachers and you’ve got to orient them all over again. Some of the earlier teachers coming in were interested in living in the village. The pay was higher than it was outside, but they also wanted that rural experience. They ended up getting dog teams and fitting into the village more. In more recent years that hasn’t happened. Often teachers have a family in town, so they’ll teach for the school year, then go back to Anchorage or wherever they’re from during the summer. So they don’t become as familiar with the culture. Who gets recruited as teachers has changed too. The state does not produce enough teachers to fill all the spots that are available.

It seems that you folks in Iditarod Area School District were way ahead of your time back then in terms of new teacher orientation.

We were initially, in having Spring camps and Fall camps. During Fall camps teachers could learn how to hunt, butcher a moose, and camp out. Spring camp was about the ducks and birds coming back, and some of the first fish coming back up the river, so there were different things to learn then. I found out that in many ways, we had to orient the teachers to this hands-on method of teaching the kids because they’re used to having kids regurgitate knowledge back.

In traditional Athabascan culture, the most knowledgable person speaks about something, and once an elder speaks you don’t contradict them. You don’t have debates back and forth with elders. I observed in the village, what they do sometimes is, let’s say they were going to get a grant from the state for a local project, such as building a community hall. The chief would bring them together, and it was mostly men making decisions at the village level, and they would encourage the young people to throw ideas out to build consensus. After some discussion the chief would say, I think we ought to do this, and that would end the consensus building. So it was a whole different process than Robert’s Rules.

I was one of the early chairmen of the school board, so we integrated some of this style of running a meeting. Instead of making a motion and having to debate the motion, we talked about it first to get some idea of where we were and what we wanted to do, then somebody would make a motion. So we tried to use some of those traditional methods on the school board itself. Other than that, moving, seconding and tabling was according to Robert’s Rules. Because I became familiar with that, I was able to introduce this process at the school board level, as a method that was more compatible. Not all school districts did that because new superintendents that came often were fairly new to the state and to that process, so they didn’t have that observation or those skills.

You created a hybrid between tribal governance and Robert’s Rules.

Right, and we tried to use that method as much as possible.

Did you have much trouble retaining teachers in those days? Were they receptive to the orientation methods you described?

In the early days, they were, because some teachers were looking for that rural experience. Some of the men were interested in hunting. Some were from rural areas outside of Alaska and had some of that orientation, not coming right from the city. In the first year, we had the luxury of being able to take new teachers around to the village, even before they were hired in some cases, so they would see what they were getting into. In more recent years that hasn’t been possible. There isn’t the money around that there was, because we got money before we got the schools in some cases. We had schools taking place in community buildings and houses in villages that have faded out and changed now.

What percentage of the teachers would stay or go after their orientation to village life?

Most of them stayed on for at least three years, and some of them ended up staying in the district for a long time. We ended up training a lot of teachers who would then go on to become superintendents somewhere else. Initially, because of the money that was available while the schools were being built, we were able to have principals in most of the schools.

There used to be more large families, but over time families got smaller, which changed the demographics and eventually there weren’t as many kids in the schools. If you had six kids, it took a long time to get them all through school. When families shrank to only two or three kids needing to get educated, the demographics changed. And then work became more important. Before, people used to go to the canneries, and they all were involved in trap lines, so a lot of them dropped out after they finished the eighth grade and learned the traditional skills. Women ended up staying a little longer in positions as cooks or aides in the schools, so there was a separation growing between what the women were doing and what the men were doing. All of these factors began changing the dynamics in the communities and in the schools.

What’s your perspective on the idea of shifting more responsibility for educating young people to tribes?

I think it’s a positive thing because most of those folks have been through the school system already and have now ended up in leadership positions. Some went out to boarding schools and still prefer to live in the village and have brought those skills back. So we’re dealing with a new generation that does have a lot to offer in that area, and they are in a better position to do what I described, of making the school fit more to the local community. Although, some of the requirements from the state and the feds on teaching and so on has led to a reduction of some of those.

We had a course on practical living skills that all students had to take. Kids went through a mock marriage where couples paired up and had to figure out a local household budget to determine what it would cost to buy what they needed in local stores, then share what they learned with others in the class.

We had some teachers who were top-notch, including one who became Teacher of the Year. After receiving that award she went outside the state briefly, but then returned to the school. When it was Spring beaver camp, she would set up a mock beaver lodge in her classroom and the kids would be learning everything about beavers. She developed units that fit more with the rural area, so you could teach biology using those thematic units. We hired some people to do that on a broader level at the district and encouraged teachers to use those themed teaching units.

So we’ve always been a little bit innovative that way, but it’s been harder to get the right people involved in recent years. A lot of our teachers are not there in the summers, and they don’t bring their families with them. They’re there for the school year and then go back to Anchorage or wherever they’re from. It’s a challenge. At the Job Fair now there are fewer people coming from the Lower 48 because of the higher wages outside now. There’s not as much incentive, so they feel more comfortable staying in their home areas.

These are some of the demographic changes our district has experienced. The smaller size of families. Once you get an education now, instead of getting into these traditional trades of fishing and trapping, you’re having to take jobs on the North Slope or coming to town to work construction or other jobs. Once people started doing that, instead of leaving their families in the village, it’s easier to have the family move to town.

AASB Executive Director Norm Wooten congratulates Ray Collins for his 43 years of service to the Iditarod Area School District, as Ray receives a standing ovation from Annual Conference attendees.

As you retire from the Iditarod Area School Board after 43 years, what advice would you give to a newly elected board member?

They need to look to the senior members of the board who have been successful and allow themselves to be tutored to learn the process. It’s a little different in the urban areas because some people get on the school board and what they’re really looking for is state office or city office or something else. They want to get that political experience and are not necessarily interested in staying in education, except as a stepping stone to higher office. If you can get local people who are going to stay, you’re better off. Or if you get folks from outside who feel more comfortable in the village. We have a museum in McGrath where I can do lectures. If they do the teacher in-services there, I can bring them in and talk about local culture, history and so on. There are still ways where we can share that historical knowledge of what’s changed out there.

Is there one personal highlight from your long career on the board and your service to the district that stands out to you?

We had an architect design a school for Grayling. He was the low bidder and had put together a roof that had no air circulation and trapped moisture. He didn’t have the money to fix it, so the situation developed into a lawsuit and the district ended up getting a settlement of $1.5 million. We figured out a way to repair the roof at no cost and were able to keep the settlement money and put it in an interest-bearing account. When one of the schools needed to replace a furnace, the district would request funds from the state, but there wasn’t always enough funding in the Capital budget to get it done. So the district was able to use the settlement money to make the repairs right away, then get reimbursed from the state later.

We also used the settlement money to acquire a fourplex in the village for teacher housing, and a fourplex in Eagle River that was used as student housing for urban-rural exchanges, and later as a correspondence school. About one-third of our enrollment is by correspondence now. In order to keep teachers on staff, we added the responsibility of tutoring correspondence students in their areas of expertise. That allowed us to get people to come on board. In some cases, it was somebody who had retired from our teaching staff that ended up working with students at the correspondence school we started. Now with computer courses online, I had some high school students that were graduating with a full year of college behind them. Eventually, there was a lot of competition as Galena and Nenana and others began starting their own correspondence schools.

What do you think about the state of education in Alaska today?

I think overall, we’re making advances in education. One of the things I did was to orient the teachers to be more responsive to the needs of local students. But that’s worked against them recently with some of the federal requirements on what’s taught and when, like only teaching the fundamentals. You end up losing art and other things that might have provided a career for some of the local people. Art is an important thing for a lot of rural students. They can get into a lot of the handicrafts and things like that, instead of only the standard voc-ed courses.

We’ve brought students together and had some of those things taught, such as the cooking of traditional foods like fry bread, and picking berries. A lot of the students were especially into beading, making moccasins, and other things. There is a public interest in moccasins, but there are fewer and fewer people making them now. We’re losing the folks who know how to make the traditional crafts. So a class like that in high school is more practical at the village level because the students can get online and sell them. Computer skills are good too. Fortunately, we had a teacher who introduced computing courses early on. Some of our high school kids went through those courses and got a start in that field. We’ve got people who have IT jobs at the state level, and one person who is on the board of Microsoft in the Seattle area. He’s probably become a millionaire by now with the stock options. We’ve had local kids who have been very successful in moving into those skills.

What prompted you to retire now?

I resigned from the school board because I feel it’s time for younger people to move in because they have to get ready. The board is very mature, with many members who have stayed on for a long time, which has created good continuity.

Health issues have had an impact too. At age 83, it’s harder to travel due to various medical conditions, including hardening of the liver which will eventually cause my liver to fail, and Multiple Sclerosis that has caused numbness in my legs. The MS turned out to be episodal, but a Seattle specialist advised me that additional MS episodes can be triggered by heat or the flu. The MS diagnosis turned out to be both good news and bad news. The good news was that since all the symptoms had cleared up except for the numbness, it was episodal. The bad news was that the damage to my legs is permanent, requiring me to use a cane, walker, and wheelchair to get around, which has made it harder to travel in recent years.

I used to travel to the schools and sleep on the floors of the school when the board was meeting there. Audio conferences allowed me to take part in some of the meetings, but I can no longer participate like I used to.

I think the board is going to miss you, Ray.

Well, I’ll be around. I’ll probably be sitting in on board meetings. You know what re-tired means? It means “getting tired again.”

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More from the History of Education Policy series:

The History of Alaska Education Policy series seeks to provide historical context for Alaska’s current education policies from the perspectives of those who have helped to shape them.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines.