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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 31, 2003 - Issue 88


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Village Celebrates

by Joel Gay Anchorage Daily News
credits: Erik Hill Anchorage Daily News

Damian Dennis (Class of '07) and Greg Tony ('15) on the dais, decked out in caps, gowns and boutonnieres.NIKOLAI -- Nearly half the residents of this Kuskokwim River village turned out for graduation night Wednesday, celebrating the academic milestones of the classes of 2007, 2015 and 2016.

With only 20 students, Top of the Kuskokwim School (named for its location on the river) has no class of 2003, principal Betty Straw-Amos said.

But in keeping with tradition, the school held commencement ceremonies for graduates of eighth grade, kindergarten and preschool. Which put Damian Dennis (Class of '07) and Greg Tony ('15) on the dais, decked out in caps, gowns and boutonnieres. Corbin Oskolkoff, the school's 5-year-old preschool graduate, couldn't be persuaded to join them, Straw-Amos said. "Corbin will come in when he feels like it," she said. He never did.

Nikolai took it in stride. The mostly Athabaskan crowd, ranging in age from infants to 84-year-old elder "Uncle" Junior Gregory, stood during the processional "Pomp and Circumstance" and clapped enthusiastically when the two grads reached their folding chairs in the school gymnasium.

As the oldest graduate of the night, eighth-grader Dennis got to choose the commencement speaker. He requested McGrath resident Mike Fleagle, the region's state airport manager as well as chairman of the Alaska Board of Game and first chief of the McGrath Native Village Council.

Fleagle congratulated Dennis for completing his primary education. But he challenged the young man to continue his studies, even if it means leaving Nikolai. Fleagle said an important part of his own education was leaving his own village, Manley Hot Springs, to attend high school in Fairbanks. Living in a bigger town is a valuable experience for a young person from the Bush, he said.

"Having a different perspective is really important to our education," he told Nikolai's class of 2007. "Keep that option open, just for the bigger perspective."

The speaker also had words of advice for the village.

"Damian is a child of Nikolai. Hold him up as your hope and your future. It's children like Damian," who grew up knowing the region's land, water, fish and game, who will return, Fleagle said. "A young guy like this has the opportunity to come back and be a future leader."

As if to underscore the close connections evident in the gym Wednesday night -- between generations, between neighboring villages, between relatives and old friends -- Fleagle finished his address by turning to Dennis and saying, "If you ever need anything, call."

Principal Straw-Amos handed out dozens of awards to the school's students, staff, parents and volunteers for everything from perfect attendance to providing bilingual education classes.

"It takes a whole community to make this school work," said advisory school board president John Runkle.

The evening concluded with a potlatch. The moose soup went fast, as did macaroni-salmon salad, fresh biscuits and a big bowl of mixed berries. Then parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and their children drifted off into the cool evening, a stiff breeze coming out of the west. With spring birds calling and the sweet smell of budding cottonwood trees, change was in the air.

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  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.  

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