Ecosystems of Teaching and Learning: An Ethnography of Two Iñupiaq Dance Groups
David Smith

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of Pittsburgh

Primary Discipline

There is a jarring dissonance between Alaskan educational policy and Alaska Native ways of teaching and learning, a divide especially visible in how cultures interact with nature. As policymakers reconcile the colonial history of education in Alaska, they should look to how education has always happened among Alaska Native people. One foundational Native educational practice is dance. My dissertation is an ethnography of two Iñupiaq Alaska Native dance and drumming groups, drawing from decolonial participatory action research and extensive interviews of Iñupiaq elders, educators, and youth. These groups are what Wenger (2002) describes as communities of practice; groups that learn situated within a shared interest. Exploring how teaching and learning happens in Indigenous arts-based communities of practice, I (1) reconceptualize Wenger?s community of practice to allow for Iñupiaq understandings of animals and the land as integral interlocutors in the learning process, creating what I term an ecosystem of practice; (2) outline what is taught and learned including moral, social, and skill-based critical cultural knowledge; and (3) investigate potential educational outcomes including youth empowerment, cultural transmission, and addressing pressing current issues. As an expansion into the growing field of arts-based culturally responsive pedagogy, this research has important implications for educational policy across cultures and borders, through better understanding the transmission of Indigenous knowledge and elucidating the relationship between education, humanity, and nature.
About David Smith
David E. K. Smith is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Educational Foundations, Organization, and Policy at the University of Pittsburgh. His research interests are broadly focused on how the arts can provide transformational educational tools that could be better integrated into both formal and informal schooling, especially among Indigenous populations. His dissertation is an extensive ethnography of two Iñupiaq dance and drumming groups exploring participation of other-than-human members and highlighting potential insights for building more culturally relevant learning experiences. David?s previous projects include an investigation of the use of flamenco music for community building among Muslim immigrants and refugees in southern Spain as a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellow, and the use of popular music for language revitalization in Germany, Mexico, and Australia. An avid musician, composer, and educator, David has taught, written, and performed in Nepal, Uganda, Spain, New Zealand, and Alaska. He holds a M.A. in International Education Management from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and a B.A. in Music Composition from Bates College.

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