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As the fresh salmon head was sliced off, a chorus of young voices erupted around the table.
â€œEww!â€ cried several boys and girls in unison while a few others exclaimed â€œCool!â€ One girl eagerly looked for an uluaq and asked, â€œCan I try?â€
This summer, the tables at Elena Owen’s fish camp were more crowded than usual with afternoon field trips of small groups from Akiak’s summer school. As a pilot program of the Yupiit School District in collaboration with the City of Akiak, students in this Yupik village on the Kuskokwim River learn about their own culture, both in the classroom and out in the community.
Each morning began with a welcome by community leaders and elders. “The four principles we teach at summer school are love, respect, help each other, and work together,” said Ivan Ivan, the president of the Akiak tribal council and one of the elders leading the project. Akiak elders joined students in the morning and encouraged students to apply these principles to be successful in school and in life.
As in past years, students attended academic classes for reading, writing, and math with Akiak school teachers in the morning. Afternoon cultural activities were organized and led by Akiak elders and community members.
Twelve-year old Agatha had fun learning new skills this summer. “I learned about pressure canning fish safely so you don’t get botulism,” she said. “We also heard a story about where we used to live, in the old village.” That afternoon, students of all ages gathered in the Hall of Elders where a beautiful mural of black and photos cover the four walls high above the cafeteria tables. From the photos, Akiak’s elders, many of them still living, smiled down at the students as Ivan Ivan pointed to them and talked about their traditional way of life. Later, the kids surrounded Akiak elder Mary Phillip and were soon mesmerized by her storytelling.
“The elders talked to us every day so that the kids will be nice and help each other,” said ten-year old Daniel. “I’ll remember what the elders taught this school year.”
One of the ongoing summer school projects involved elders and kids working together to hang a King Salmon net from scratch by attaching a lead line and floats. This activity was a favorite, especially for thirteen-year old Kyran. “I’ve gone fishing before with my family, but it was my first time to prepare it,” he said. “I learned that even a string can tear up a net by tangling it.”
The academic classes have also been culturally relevant with geometry lessons in the form of building model fish racks and journal writing involving elder interviews and reflections about their summer school experience. “I’ve really enjoyed teaching this summer because we’ve gotten to know the elders better,” said lead teacher Lara Ruark, who will be teaching her second year in Akiak this fall.
“We’ve had triple the number of kids enrolled this year as compared to last year’s summer school,” remarked Owen Miller, another teacher who will also be staying for a second year in Akiak. “I think that it’s because so many people want their kids to come and hear what the elders have to say.”
“This summer school is the first step in our Healing and Wellness Journey program adopted as policy by the City of Akiak to fight suicide, alcohol, and drug abuse in the community,” said Ivan Ivan. As part of this journey, the community and the school are working together to reinforce the Yupiaq culture and community values while still meeting state and federal requirements.
Moses Owen, another Akiak elder leading the program explained, “As part of the summer school, we also want to identify children with issues and have the elders counsel the parents and children for healing and wellness.”
“This journey is giving the elders confidence again to carry out their responsibility as elders,” said Ivan. Many of the cultural activities were made possible by elders and community members volunteering their time and resources. “This is what we believe in and we will continue the program regardless of funding,” stated Ivan. “However,” he added, “if there are funding sources from outside the community, we would appreciate any assistance.”
“The community has done a great job in organizing the summer school,” commented Dr. Sherry McKenzie, Akiak’s new school principal. “I would like to see this effort continue throughout the school year because these traditional activities are a valuable part of the students’ education,” she added. “The elders and community members are always welcome here at the school.”
In addition to the standard school lunch fare, the school’s summer cook Jeannie Carpenter and school secretary Elena Owen delighted the kids, staff, and elders with traditional Yupik side dishes showcasing summer’s bounty: fish egg salad, baked salmon, salmon spread with Pilot bread, smoked red salmon strips, saalunaq (salted fish heads), and fish head soup.
Back at the fish camp, the kids watched three elders remove the internal organs and skillfully cut the salmon for the drying rack. Throughout the process, many of the kids were heard asking, “Can I have the heart?” Roasted king salmon hearts are special treats for children who go to fish camp. They also represent a different kind of heart.
Marian Jackson, one of Akiak’s elders, reminded the children every day about the most important lesson taught at summer school. “Love is the most important. You have to love one another and listen!” With Akiak’s elders involved in the futures of the kids at school, there will always be plenty of heart to go around.
Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer based in Juneau, Alaska. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org