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Jane Vallett Sutherland was born in Hollywood, Calif., and grew up in Glendale where she attended school. She returned to Hollywood to attend a small college there. After graduating from college in 1953, Niebergall married and she and her husband had two children, a girl and a boy. Niebergall’s husband was killed in 1960. By 1965 Niebergall had earned her Master’s in Educational Supervision at the University of California. She already had earned a principal’s certificate and was eligible to apply for a superintendent’s certificate. She still holds a permanent teaching certificate in the state of California.
After earning her master’s, Niebergall accepted a summer job in Alaska and came north to lead one of two teams of Head Start educators. Her team traveled across the state, from Ketchikan and Yakutat in Southeast to the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta region. She also traveled as far north as Nome and Shishmaref, interviewing parents of children in the first introductory summer of the Head Start program. Her team consisted of five: Niebergall, two young women college students, a doctor and a dentist. The doctor and dentist were under contract, and joined the group for parts of the trip. Nurses employed by the State of Alaska joined the group as they went into from one nurse’s area to another.
The summer Bureau of Indian Affairs contract to teach Head Start, in the beginning, was to prepare for hiring trained early childhood teachers to carry on the program for young children during the winter. The national Office of Economic Opportunity sponsored and paid for the program, and contracted with the State for its operation. While in Alaska that summer, Niebergall was interviewed for a position with the State.
Niebergall and her children returned to their home in California and resumed their life there. While the children were in school, Lisa in the 6th grade, and Scott in the 3rd, Niebergall received notification that she had been hired. She invited her mother south from Juneau to help pack. The family was on the new Alaska ferry on Dec. 23 from Canada to Alaska. Arrival date was Dec. 26, 1965.
Niebergall went to work the first week of January 1966. The OEO office was still part of the Governor’s office and her supervisor was the first RuralCap director, Al Fothergill. Later the OEO required that a new corporation be established and the office moved out of the Governor’s office into their own headquarters. Niebergall’s task was to negotiate with the Department of Education to place these new para-professional Native people, the early childhood teachers-to-be, into the Department of Education and to internalize the program. After a number of meetings, it became evident that the Department did not want that responsibility and they told Jane not to come back for any more meetings.
Because there were no other programs for early childhood education, Niebergall started the training of the Alaska Native women who would teach children herself despite naysayers. Her boss at RuralCap said “do it,” and she did.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks, the major campus at the time, had no early childhood education classes and did not plan to begin any. At that time there was no national certification for early childhood educators. There was no early childhood public education sponsored by the State of Alaska or the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In Alaska there were very few services for children in the Bush before they went to school. There were no health exams for well children before they went to the first grade. Most schools in the Bush were Bureau of Indian Affairs schools which began in the first grade. Children had to learn to speak and read English before they were passed out of the first grade. For some villages where the Native language, Yupik, was spoken and very little English, this was a challenge for most of the children. Most of those schools had a primary group, ungraded, until the student learned spoken and reading English. They were then passed into a regular cycle – at about the third grade, depending upon the school. This was the standard curriculum in most rural schools.
Much Bush education was prejudicial. When Head Start began the average educational level of achievement in the Yukon-Kuskokwim area, according to the census, was 2.5 years. The level was brought down because not all villages had schools and there was no education for those children who stayed in the village. This all changed when the election took place and Walter Hickel became governor. Hickel took office in December 1966.
After Governor Hickel was elected, the OEO office was moved out of the Governor’s office and became its own independent company. As a state worker, Niebergall was transferred to the Department of Education and then to the Department of Labor where she wrote grants and attended meetings. Then Niebergall was transferred to Fairbanks. “I was placed in the school district, and then went to work at the University — the Institute of Social and Economic Research,” Niebergall said. She moved her family to Fairbanks in 1967 just before the flood in which their newly purchased house was damaged.
After two years with the reorganization of ISER the family talked, took a vote and decided it might be an adventure to move to Oregon. Niebergall returned to Oregon to complete her Doctorate of Education Degree. The family moved, the children went to school, and were there for two years. When she was ready to write her dissertation, she decided it was time to return to Alaska. Lisa was just completing high school and did not want to leave. It was arranged for her to stay in an apartment with an Alaskan University of Oregon student. Scott was just completing Junior High and stayed with a family that had become friends.
Niebergall spent time working at Alaska Methodist University as the head of the Education Department and teacher then moved to Anchorage Community College as a grant writer. By this time, Niebergall and her mother had bought a home In Anchorage then built another on the hill with a separate apartment for mother. Niebergall was gathering material for her dissertation, and went to Oregon now and then to check in.
A position opened up as head of the Education Department at Kuskokwim Community College and Niebergall accepted the position. She was also continuing with her doctoral dissertation. When it was done and ready for editing, Niebergall brought it home to Bethel from one of her rural trips and the package was picked up off the baggage carousel by someone who mistook it for their own box. Shortly afterward, the box with the dissertation in it was dropped into the Kuskokwim River and irretrievably lost. That ended Niebergall’s plan to obtain her doctorate’s degree. She did, however, lend her prodigious talents to assisting the Jesuit high school in St. Mary’s with their educational program.
During one stay at the mission school, Niebergall met Hal Niebergall and was married to him a year later. Several years later, Niebergall accepted a job in Kotzebue to complete her requirements for retirement and her husband built their home in Aniak.
After retirement, Niebergall worked with Alaska Native artists to help sell their works and started her own publishing company Circumpolar Press.
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/7NaAS3uZOgc
Jane Vallett Sutherland Niebergall is a happy, positive, giving woman born in Hollywood and growing up in Glendale, Calif. After graduation in 1953 from a small college in Hollywood she married and started a family, having two children. Several years later her husband died in an accident. By 1965 she had a teaching certificate and earned a Master’s Degree in Educational Supervision. During that spring she received a call from Juneau and was invited to work on a team of people for Head Start, traveling the Bush. This began her lifelong love of Alaskans and the Alaska Bush.
It was through this introduction to rural life and education that Niebergall was able, early in Alaska’s statehood, to experience the needs of the people and pave the way for her later work in Juneau for the Department of Education with the new para-professional Native people training to become Early Childhood teachers. But the Department of Education had not experienced what Niebergall had in all her travels for Head Start and Native teacher training would not happen.
This was hard news but Niebergall’s Head Start boss gave her the go-ahead to start training without the Department of Education, and thus was born the institutionalized training of Native women who would be the first Head Start teachers. There were no other programs for early childhood education training of Alaska Natives. Niebergall saw the transition from Governor Egan to Governor Hickel, worked for ISEGR (now known as the Institute of Social and Economic Research) in Fairbanks, built a cabin in Aniak and even wrote her doctoral dissertation for a Doctorate Degree in Education. Sadly, this handwritten dissertation was accidentally dumped into the Kuskokwim and, being the only copy and with all of Niebergall’s other work still raging on, she quietly left the degree on the shelf and never submitted her dissertation. Niebergall has worked for Alaska Methodist University, Anchorage Community College, Kenai Community College and others. Her life of service to Alaskans and education is still going strong and Niebergall is now 83 years old!
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/7NaAS3uZOgc