Apart of the World

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Teachers in the Alaskan Bush strive to offer their native students the appropriate curriculum mix of Eskimo culture and the American mainstream.

Akiachak, Alaska

Standing in calf-high slush as snow machines whiz by, Helen Eckelman recounts how she learned an important lesson about Yup'ik Eskimo culture more than a decade ago.

After she had taught for several months in this village of about 400, some families invited her to visit. But they were apparently reluctant to extend another invitation. "Finally, someone told me, 'You don't know when it's time to leave, and you talk so much!'" says Eckelman, the frozen Kuskokwim River visible behind her through a thin stand of alders. "Their idea of hospitality is that the visitors sit down and eat, and then they go home."

These days, Eckelman is clearly at ease in her adopted village, exchanging waves with everyone who passes on the town's only road. But her pale skin and curly brown hair will always mark her as an outsider here, where very few educators last as long as she has in the Bush, Alaskans' word for their remote rural areas.

These teachers are working against the familiar litany of social ills that accompany low incomes and welfare dependence, whether the setting is the slums of Detroit, the tenant farms of Alabama, or the banks of the Kuskokwim. But they also face an array of more unusual challenges, from water that stains everything orange to a subsistence culture where words are spoken sparingly and where the solutions to social problems are not as obvious. Moreover, Bush teachers, who frequently come from elsewhere, face philosophical and curricular questions that would not have arisen back home.

These questions, in fact, are not wholly resolved among the residents of the Yupiit school district's three villages. Located 390 miles west of Anchorage, they have a total of 396 K-12 students and a teaching staff of 40. For them, remaking schools in an Alaskan image is a vital part of the larger struggle to cope with the benefits, dangers, and demands of the ever-encroaching 21st century mainstream while preserving the gentle rewards of an ancient subsistence culture.

Alexandra Appel, who teaches 3rd and 4th graders in the village of Akiak, puts it this way: "How do you validate what someone is while giving them the tools to be whatever they want to be?"

That dual goal is embraced in the district's official mission statement. And though many of the educators here accept its desirability, they wonder if they can truly achieve either objective, and if the two ideals are at odds with each other.

Although the larger high schools and multiple smaller buildings that house elementary classrooms in Akiachak, Akiak, and Tuluksak are built on stilts to keep their heat from sinking them into the permafrost, they look like any other well-equipped American school on the inside--from the computers to the basketball court. The important differences aren't easily visible, as many an educator can document.

Eckelman, the principal of the Akiachak schools, says that students who perceive their future as a life of salmon fishing and caribou hunting often do not see much value in algebra and are not motivated to tackle advanced subjects.

"They say, 'I've got my snow machine; I know how to hunt and fish.' The boys in particular are quite satisfied with that," she says. "We just don't have anything to offer them."

Steve Dodson, a tall blond who may be the only man in America who teaches kindergarten and home economics and coaches a boys' basketball team, says his players in Akiak are often late to practice because they have to chop wood or pack water, which means carrying it home from a hole in the river ice.

And William Marley, Akiachak's assistant principal, recalls a student he had helped get a great tuition deal at a technical school in the Lower 48: $50 a semester. "He went hunting two days before he was supposed to leave for school," Marley says. "He just looked at me blankly when I asked him about it. That was subsistence. That was important."

Yet, some residents fear that children who spend their time in classrooms are not learning traditional skills. "They're in school during the time they would be learning to make fish traps, and the older people complain the kids don't respect traditions, don't respect their elders. Well, I can't teach them that. It's not my job," says another Akiachak teacher.

"I can't teach some of them much of anything else, either," the teacher continues. "I'm not sure we're preparing these kids for anything."

Most villagers are subsistence hunters and fishermen like their ancestors, heavily dependent on salmon. Their reliance on the modern cash economy for items such as snow machines is steadily growing, but the cash comes from seasonal work, supplementary commercial fishing, and, especially, government checks.

Located 390 miles west of Anchorage, the Yupiit school district has a total of 396 K-12 students and a teaching staff of 40.

Educators in Tuluksak, the farthest upriver of the three Yupiit villages, are running into that reality as they discuss how to respond to state initiatives encouraging school-to-work programs. "There are some carpenters, and there's some need for welders," says Gilbert Campbell, the town's school counselor and physical education teacher. "I hear Akiachak has got a restaurant now. But there's just not much. I don't know if either goal [vocational training or college] is a realistic one at this point."

While they do not deny the obstacles, the residents who are active in school affairs want nothing less than the best of both worlds.

Michael Williams is one such leader who has learned to maintain his balance while leaping between different worlds. As a member of both the Yupiit district's school board and the state school board, he talks education reform and finance equity in English laced with education policy argot. As a breeder and racer of competitive sled dogs, he is a member of Alaska's fraternity of serious mushers, which has become predominantly white. And as a substance-abuse counselor, he is employed by a government bureaucracy. But his first language--and his primary identity--is Yup'ik. He lives in a house that he built himself in Akiak, the village of about 350 where he was born.

"I could live anywhere," Williams says, "but I wanted to raise my children here so they know who they are and they keep their language and culture."

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