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In Focus

Alaska’s Ira Perman

Bridging City and Native Cultures

By Laura Wolff Scanlan | HUMANITIES, March/April 2003 | Volume 24, Number 2

The day after graduating from Boston University with a theater degree in 1975, Ira Perman hopped in his 1965 VW Microbus, with twenty-eight windows and no heater, and set forth across the continent on a “personal journey.” Born in Brooklyn and raised in Connecticut, Perman was drawn to the boomtown excitement of Alaska. “The trans-Alaska pipeline was being built and the state was booming. The place was just exploding with energy and new things were going on and people were moving in from all over the place--it was very exciting.”

For the next twenty years, Perman was at the center of bringing the performing arts to the state, which wasn’t always easy. “Alaska is a great big state with very few roads. If you have a string trio--a violin, cello, and piano, and you want to take them to the little town of Port Alexander, you have to get them in a boat--including the piano. Villages didn’t always have a piano.”

Now in his second year as executive director of the Alaska Humanities Forum, Perman is working on bringing the humanities to his state. “The challenges are, frankly, hard to comprehend unless you are here. Alaska is so big and so remote and so culturally diverse and so rapidly changing,” Perman says. “The needs and realities of living in rural Alaska are completely different from living in a nonnative community. There has developed a kind of lack of comfort and trust between the two . . . if you are living in Anchorage, you have no real reason to go out to the villages. There are no relatives there, no place to stay, no hotels. So getting out to a village and learning about it is not that simple.”

One program making cultural and geographical connections is the Rose Urban Rural Exchange, run by the Alaska Humanities Forum. The program builds cross-cultural relationships through exchanges of urban and rural high school students. Before living with the host family, students learn about the different cultural traditions of their host village or city. They also learn methods of observation; part of their obligation is to make a presentation to the community upon their return. Urban students engage in activities such as hunting seal and learning the art of hide and meat preservation. Rural students become acquainted with the activities of a high school with two thousand students, compared with their own school, which may have only seventy students from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

Perman seeks to leverage the program by incorporating it into the public high school curriculum. “One of the pieces that is missing is a sense of who we are as Alaskans--what is our common history, what is our history? It is not taught in schools. At the high school level, it is offered as an elective, but students don’t usually take it because it doesn’t help them on college scores. That’s the urban reason. The rural reason is because they have very limited resources.”

Working with the state board of education and the legislature, Perman has gotten a course on Alaskan history and culture made mandatory for high school graduation in the Anchorage school district, a district that educates 40 percent of all of Alaska’s students. In conjunction with the new requirement, a dozen teachers, part of a cadre that will be teaching the new Alaska Studies curriculum, were sent to a village for a weeklong stay in a culture camp. Beginning this summer, college students can participate.

Perman says, “All humanities councils have a very small budget and a huge mandate—the humanities. You have to find an area to serve and then find a way to leverage it. To engage the teaching profession . . . to affect what kids learn is one way. That is how to make some long-term, longstanding, big changes in the community.

“Our mission statement says pretty well what we try to do, ‘Use the wisdom and methods of the humanities to enrich the civic, intellectual, and cultural life of all Alaskans.’ The Alaska Humanities Forum is well plugged into the changing demographics of Alaska. We are always looking ahead.”

About the Author

Laura Wolff Scanlan is a writer in New Berlin, Wisconsin.