"Only catch enough
fish to last you through the winter. Use and/or preserve every part
of the fish that is edible. Fish are easy to spoil, especially the
whitefish, so take care of the fish as soon as they are caught.
If we are lazy and idle, food won't come to us."
Henry Frank, elder, in Thematic Unit on FishGrade One
Alaska, and PUYALLUP, WashingtonFlying into Kasigluk in a
"puddle jumper," miles of red and yellow-flecked tundra
unfold below you. A spidery network of lakes glistens in the autumn
sun and the Johnson River cuts a wide swath, slicing the village
into "old" and "new" sectors.
barren Southwest Alaska landscape, where temperatures dip to minus
40 degrees and permafrost dwarfs the growth of trees, water is a
life-giver. Making up 10 percent of the village's 12-square-mile
area, water is a primary source of food, an income generator, and
a way to travel from one place to another. It's no wonder then that
waterand the fish that live in itmake their way deep
into the curriculum of Akula Elitnauvrik or "Tundra School."
with its own warehouse stocked with a year's worth of cafeteria
lunches barged in when the weather is good, has just under 100 pupils.
All but one, a teacher's child, are Alaska Native. From kindergarten
through 12th grade (or "phase" in this ungraded school),
students study things that prepare them for life in a harsh environment
and connect them to the subsistence culture. Uses of fish parts,
where edible plants grow, traditional ways to prepare for winter,
how animals move: They're all part of thematic units that blend
modern state standards with Yup'ik traditions that stretch back
thousands of years.
asked our elders what they wanted us to teach our students,"
says Levi Ap'alluk Hoover, who grew up in the village and has taught
here for 25 years. "They came up with the topics and then we
(teachers) came up with the units." Kasigluk was the first
school to implement the Yup'ik cultural curriculum that's now found
throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
our students to only learn about skyscrapers and cows would be dumb,"
admits Principal Felecia Griffith-Kleven. "This curriculum
validates the traditional lifestyle, helps them appreciate it, and
teaches them the skills they need to be successful in the community."
who grew up in Illinois but was inspired to move to Bush Alaska
by her second-grade teacher's stories, says her school's goal is
to produce students who can succeed in the local culture, as well
as outside it. "They should be able to choose, and if our graduates
leave to learn a trade or profession, we hope they will bring that
knowledge back to the Delta and have the best of both worlds."
a 2003 statewide study of Native perspectives concluded that "subsistence
is overwhelmingly important to Alaska Natives in both rural and
urban areas, and they believe it will continue to be important in
the future." Of those surveyed by the Alaska Humanities Forum
and the McDowell Group, 85 percent rated subsistence as important
or very important to their households.
Angayuqaq Kawagley, a leading Native educator at the University
of Alaska Fairbanks, believes "it is essential for Native students
to receive an education that is clearly tied to their cultural worldview."
He observes, "Although non-Native people tend to view the subsistence
way of life (as) being very simple, the Native practitioner sees
it as highly complex. A subsistence-oriented worldview treats knowledge
of the environment and each part's interdependence with all other
parts as a matter of survival."
Akakiik to Manignaq
In Levi Hoover's classroomwith its view of the riverphase
9/10 students sprawl on the carpeted floor, practicing how to attach
mesh to the rim of the fish net. A chart on the wall, hanging just
under a 10-foot-long dip net, advises that whitefish liver is an
excellent source of vitamin A while herring and dried salmon contain
hall, which is lined with photographs of elders, Caroline Ataugg'aq
HooverLevi's wifetests kindergartners on the parts of
fish. They enthusiastically shout out the Yup'ik names, as she waves
laminated flash cards in the air. The children then move on to the
next activity, picking up strips of construction paper and weaving
them into a "lake" where cut-out pictures of lush (manignaq)
and pike ('luqruuyak) can swim.
in phase 5/6 create illustrated books on boating safety and study
the life cycle of whitefish (akakiik), one of four indigenous species.
Levi comes in to lead a Yup'ik studies lesson, and plastic needles
and skeins of mesh start tumbling out of kids' desks and backpacks.
Soon everyone is industriously turning out chains of three-and-a-half-inch
squares that grow into fish nets. Nicholson proudly holds up the
results of three hours' work. What's the secret to his net-making
prowess? "Being a boy," he shyly confides.
there's a stark contrast between the cultural lessons he shares
with pupils and his own formal education. Attending a Bureau of
Indian Affairs boarding school, he painfully recalls that students
were "severely punished" for speaking Yup'ik. "They
washed our mouths out with soap, slapped our hands with a ruler,
and made us stand in the corner." He vowed, if he became a
teacher, to never treat his students that way. Not only did he earn
a teaching certificateafter 13 summers of attending universitybut
he and Caroline have seen four of their six children go on to college
so far. "We have to keep kids interested and motivated,"
he knows, "any way we can."
Pull of Tradition
William Gilstrap also knows the value of doing whatever it takes
to keep youngsters on course. Even the most languid student in his
sixth-grade class at Chief Leschi Elementary in Puyallup, Washington,
snaps to attention when Gilstrap grabs a chunk of cedar and forcefully
splits it with an antler wedge in one hand and a stone maul in the
the First People fell mighty trees and build sturdy canoes without
chain saws or axes, he asks? Students venture guesses"fire,
sharp sticks, rocks"and then go on to pose their own
questions about canoes. "Why don't they sink?" wonders
Nicole. "How many people can they hold?" Paul adds. Dennis
pipes up, "How long do they last?" Soon, there's a list
of 15 guiding questions that will shape assignments for the weeks
will research and record the answers in their individual tribal
notebooks. They'll create miniature models of the river canoe found
throughout the Northwest and compare this to the many canoe types
that traveled along the inner and outer coastal waters. Using historical
sleuth work, the class will investigate the types of canoes in turn-of-the-century
photographs, increasing their perspective about their ancestors
and the ways they built and honored the canoe.
a strapping man with a ponytail and carefully waxed mustache, studying
canoes here in the Puget Sound is a "no-brainer." Although
this tribal school sits among berry fields in the shadow of Mt.
Rainier, the jagged coastline of the Sound is only about a dozen
miles away. And, even villages in the region's high mountain valleys
used canoes to transport goods to settlements on the Sound and the
point for Gilstrap's inquiry-based lessons is "Canoes on Puget
Sound: A Curriculum Model for Culture-Based Academic Studies,"
developed by educator/author Nan McNutt and Washington MESA (Math,
Engineering, Science Achievement) at the University of Washington.
The curriculum blends language arts, history, health, and most particularly,
math and science. It's designed to engage all learners but resonate
especially with Native students.
this curriculum does is to center the study on a cultural object,"
says McNutt. "This presents a platform for academic studies
from which students also examine their own questions about the canoe
to formulate a total understanding."
In preparation for teaching the canoe curriculum, Gilstrap attended
a weeklong summer institute on the Olympic Peninsula. But the second-year
educator and former law enforcement officer has put his own stamp
on the material. Although he is not Native, Gilstrap's knowledge
of American Indian lore is encyclopedic and he's able to tie his
lessons to the 11 different tribes represented in his classroom
of 21 students. He reminds Jonathan, fidgeting in the back row,
that his Haida ancestors depended on canoes, and they certainly
had to understand principles like symmetry and buoyancy to be successful.
While they may not have had rulers, they used another unit of measurementbody
partsto determine the circumference of a prospective cedar
log and the proportions of a well-made craft.
pride in such accomplishments is a theme that constantly resurfaces.
From canoes to the handmade drums that poke out of students' cubbyholes
and the "Salmon Society" regalia that Gilstrap uses to
reward good attendance and completed homework, Native culture is
embedded in the classroom and throughout the 643-student school.
times a week, the beat of the sacred drum reverberates through Chief
Leschi's hallways as boys and girls start their day with a traditional
circle. Kindergartners to sixth-graders all join in the songs and
chants and dances. "We have to give our kids back their identity,
because they've been stripped of it," says Principal Bill Lipe,
who identifies himself as "Tsalagi," the Native translation
of Cherokee. "For 150 years, Indians were told how to live
their lives. Call it assimilation or call it genocide. We're trying
to salvage what we can, which means going back and teaching the
old ways while living in a contemporary world."
had more families thank me for allowing their child to learn about
canoes, make a drum, tell a story," Gilstrap remarks. "It's
exciting when I can share these things and see a light come on."
more information about the "Canoes on Puget Sound" curriculum,
see NW Education Online, www.nwrel.org/nwedu/
Whether jigging for pike or casting a net from a skiff, the fisherman's
experience is steeped in Yup'ik beliefs in the tundra villages of
the Kuskokwim River Delta. Traditional practices hold that fishing
will be unsuccessful:
you waste fish
a relative passes away and you fish before the anniversary of
that person's death
a woman has a miscarriage and she fishes before one year has passed
a young girl fishes before the anniversary of her first menstrual
are woven into the thematic unit on fish, developed by the Lower
Kuskokwim School District. Nita Rearden, an LKSD education specialist,
worked with teams of teachers to develop units on a dozen themes:
Some are used, as is, by all the district's 27 schools while others
are adapted to reflect local traditions. The subjects cover everything
from family and community to celebrations, storytelling, plant and
animal life, land, geography, and weather.
Western and Yup'ik culture, the material uses the child's background
knowledge to explore social studies, science, literacy, and language
arts. "It serves as an anchor and helps the learner become
a powerful thinker in understanding other cultureswhether
through books, videos, television, or radio," says Rearden.
"If a child understands what a moose is, she can find out what
an elk is, and even compare it to an elephant, even if she's never
seen one." Rearden adds, "My hope is that we'll make children
feel good about themselves and feel curious enough so they'll want
unitsand an extensive line of bilingual and Yup'ik storybooks,
CD-ROMs, posters, and literacy materialsare available for
purchase from the Lower Kuskokwim School District. You can find
their catalog at www.lksd.org.