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Back to Yupiit!

Boyoboy I haves some blanks to fill in! 

I’m sitting outside my District-provided apartment that I share with a 2nd grade teacher in the breezy sun. Whenever it isn’t raining in Akiachak, there is the constant growl of 4-wheelers here. It is REALLY muddy this far down the Kuskokwim river. The silt of the hundreds of miles of Alaska the river passes through for the thousands of years means this village rests on a fine layer of silt. The roads are very challenging to walk on – at the busiest sections its three inches of slick mud surrounding deep potholes.

I’m sitting on one of those chairs as I type this! See what I mean by the mud?

I took a job with the Yupiit School District – job title ANE Grant Director – and started work 4 days ago. The ANE Grant is a Federal grant that is providing a little over $800,000 per year to the District. I wish I could tell you in a few sentences just what it does, but I can’t. It was written three superintendents ago, and is a hodge-podge of different ideas and individual programs – many not thought through very well – for kids aged 0-19.  This is the second year of the grant, and pretty much nothing happened the prior year, other than spending a good hunk of money on a fly-by-night contractor for Project Based Learning that had pretty low impact, but did afford the District the opportunity to buy drones. I wrote about this grant at length in my final report for my work in Tuluksak last semester. I was actually offered the job to direct this grant by the current superintendent last year, but declined it.

So, over this summer, as I was closing up my Community Schools business, I was searching for my next direction, and thought I’d check to see if anyone had been hired to direct the grant. One thing led to another, and…

It was super tough to leave Kayla, and Sitka, and a life and community that I love so dearly to come up here. Especially when I think that I can probably measure our time remaining in Sitka in months now (Maybe this is news to some: Kayla and I are thinking of leaving AK for new adventures sometime in the summer of 2021. This isn’t set in stone, but that’s the direction we’re facing these days).  My time in Tuluksak prepared me for this round for sure. I know what I’m getting in to. 

My plans with the grant are to focus on one component of the grant that is all about finding ways to empower students to make a positive impact on their village through project-based learning (hereforth abbreviated PBL). There’s a bunch of other goofy stuff I have to deal with in this grant, but let’s talk about the fun stuff. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • to work with the Akiachak Tribe to contract the senior class to clean up the trash around the main river access. I’ll work with a science teacher and Language Arts teacher to
    • have kids write a proposal for what they want to do, and to use the tribe’s trash-wagon (which can mount to the back of a 4-wheeler) in Language Arts.
    • Science teacher will do some small prep on river health.
    • Collect the trash for a few hours. Sort trash and catalogue it for science class. Maybe during this time have a talking circle about the Yupik value of “respect for land, respect for nature”
    • Language Arts writes up an article to submit to the Delta Discovery, the newspaper of record for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region.
  • I want to do a similar thing working with the shop class to rebuild a section of boardwalk.
    • I’ve even connected with the crew that has been working in the village for the past three years installing a water/sewer line, and they are going to loan me their chief carpenter to come to shop to help them work up a good design for the boardwalk.
    • Once we have one 8 ft section of boardwalk rebuilt (right by the tribal gov’t offices, btw), then work with Language Arts to help youth submit an estimate to the Tribe for repair or building of other needed sections of boardwalk.

That’s the kind of stuff I’m going to try to get going in all three villages. The only way I see to get this done is to be there in the mix with the teachers and kids. So, once I’ve gotten a project or two done here, my plan is to settle into another village for a week or two to get things going there. That will be one fun perk of my job: experiencing each of the three villages in the District, which are very much have their own personalities.

Some pictures for today

You know, I haven’t really shown you much of the school! This is a school that was built 15 years ago, and the other two schools in the district are pretty much identical. Today Steve, who was an assistant principal in Akiak just down the river, was telling me stories about when the Kuskokwim flooded. The village was flooded, but the school (and the airport runway, also) was built high. He was tying his boat off at the front steps of the school and at a telephone pole by the runway. The village slept in the gym until the water went down.

Here’s the school through my front window.
You walk through a narrow hallway, then come to The Hall of Elders. There are pictures of past and present Tuluksak on the walls.
This is from the back of the school.

Here’s the music room, and the thing that keeps me sane. My intention was to learn how to do rockin’ solos, but instead I’m just learning lots of Beatles songs. That is a very nice and expensive drum kit in the background. After school sometimes I jam with some of the kids.
This was taken at 10:45 pm from the front of the school. Remember, back when AK had 4 time zones, this would’ve been 2 hours earlier than Juneau.

Your Questions: Answered

Here’s a question I received in the comments:

Speaking of kale, would you say more about the Food gathering and raising possibilities there, what folks rely on for food resources. Also what is considered a healthy diet, and how does that compare to what you know to be healthy?

OK, let’s take a look at this from past, future, and current reality.

The people of this land were gatherer-hunters for many thousands of years. Salmon are the big deal and run up the river in the summer, in other season there are different species of white fish available. Heading downriver also can provide a seal, which renders a vitamin rich oil, and the skins are very useful. Hunting can provide caribou and moose for meat, and a variety of critters are trapped for fur. In the late summer there are many kinds of berries that are collected, as well as other nutritional and medicinal plants.

This is a topic that there are many, many books about, so know that this is a very brief overview. It is worth diving into, though! Indigenous traditional hunting, fishing, gathering, and preserving technology is truly amazing.

Also, for a brief time in the 1890s – 1940s the US Government (via Sheldon Jackson) was encouraging the locals to raise reindeer. We imported Sami people from Scandinavia, and had a bit of a thing going, but, in the end, I guess people where like, “meh” to that lifestyle. But of course some of those Sami folks married into the local population, so there are still some echos from that time with us now.

For many families, some level of gathering and hunting is still important, to varying degrees. Having a good store of dried fish a a freezer full of moose is pretty common, though I don’t think there is anyone living here that isn’t supplementing that food with store-bought goods.

Up until the ice in the rivers was too dangerous to walk on, there were some people ice fishing. The traditional way to preserve these fish is to let them air dry. I saw only three houses with fish outside, though maybe some folks are just putting the fish in their freezers.

You can dry traditionally,
on the front of your porch,
or just outside of your window.

There has been some funding from the school district to explore growing local food. It is really difficult to do any kind of farming/gardening outside. The dirt would be really good except it is very wet, and very cold. Someone tried a high-tunnel box outside of teacher housing, but it doesn’t look like anything has happened on that front for a few years.

The school has some hydroponic equipment – some of which has been put to use. Of course, this kind of growing is very energy intensive, but since the school has a generator running full time, maybe not such a big deal. Still, the plants that are growing in the hydro units are pretty anemic. The english teacher, (who was a Kansas farm girl, and knows her grow) says that the water is still too cold. She would like to see a system that uses plain old dirt, but heats the soil using a wood-fired system.

These are hydroponic tables. Maybe enough here after growing for three months to make a salad.

There is some sort of objective in a current school district grant to “Initiate an Agriculture and Farm to Table Program” but I haven’t seen any activity on this front. My fear is that we’ll see another huge investment in equipment for another thing that nobody here asked for or wants.

The hydroponic lab is in what used to be the kindergarten. There’s a desk back here that I will hide at to get internet and relax to the sound of running water.

My two bits on local food production is that maybe that is a thing worth investing in sometime in the future, but for now we need to focus on the more immediate needs of health, welfare, and education.

And of course, there is the village store. It is mostly filled with pre-packaged foods. There are 6 big freezers, all loaded with stuff, but even then, I can’t get just frozen chicken parts. I can get P.F.Changs General Tso’s Chicken that just needs microwaved. So, you get the point.

This is called, The Store. That is because it is The Store.
The largest isle in the store is for candy, soda, and chips.

Vegetables are tough to come by. I don’t think the store gets much, because I don’t think there are many people buying them. Though, I think the store also operates on the same system my mom had growing up, which is we don’t get anything new until the stuff in the freezer is used up. So, the ONLY frozen veggies I could find are cauliflower. Like, probably 20 pounds of it. And I don’t think that is ever going to get bought. Maybe I can get a coalition of people to buy it all up and petition the store for broccoli.

Can you find the vegetables in this picture? And, yes, that’s Kim Chee in there. Someone who stocks this store has a taste for asian food. You can also get May Ploy and 5lb bags of jasmne rice.

In the pictures above, the vegetables you see above are literally the only ones at the store as I type. It can fluctuate. The first three weeks I was here, there was no live food. The next three there were some potatoes, onions, garlic, and for whatever reason, 2 dozen kiwi fruit.

So, what do people consider a healthy diet? That depends on who you ask. I can tell you that the Yup’ik people, like most North American indigenous folk, are genetically wired to work best on traditional food. With bodies designed to make the most of the calories they collected, the introduction of high sugar, high empty fat foods, like most of what is offered at the store, has led to obesity and diabetes for too many people.

Me? I like green things. There is precious little of that available here. I am so fortunate that I can fly out and back once a month. Each time I do, I bring a plastic tote with exactly 50 lbs. of food. I just finished the last of my kale. I’ve got a half a cabbage, some beets, and some carrots left. Sturdy things that can fly all day and get banged about.

Keep those questions coming!

Kuskokwim Shortcut

I found the shortcut to the Kuskokwim river. There is a trail just the size of a snowmachine across the Tuluksak river right where it bends around the village.

Maybe it is a mile long, probably less. Along the way are the first signs of spring (besides all the melting snow):

And on the other side the mighty Kuskokwim!

I saw a few snowmachines hauling trees. There probably isn’t much time before the river gets too dangerous to travel on.

I could hear dogs barking from the village. When I got back, I ran into these two:

The conversation went like this:

“What are you doing?”

“I walked over to the Kuskokwim”

“Why?”

“I dunno, it is a nice day and I wanted to see it”

“Yeah, but why did you walk?”

Back in the Thick of It.

I guess it is time to write some Blog!

One of my challenges in keeping you all up to date on my going’s on here is that a lot of what I’m doing is learning about people and culture and systems and how they work (or don’t work) together. First, I’m still learning – so committing something to print is premature. I can’t say, “here’s what’s going on with the school” because I’m still learning – testing assumptions, getting context, etc. And I need to respect these people and this place. I’m a guest here, right? 

A game against a neighboring village. Note the child standing on the court

So, yes, I’ve had my head deep into Village Tribal Council and Yupiit School District goings on, trying to learn how things work, lending a hand where it seems warranted, staying out of the way when I think I should. If you want a deeper story of where I’m at with the job part of my job, give me a call. I get lonely in the evenings.

This is a week where I’ve left and come back again. It was spring break here in Tuluksak, though I think most of the school folks stuck around. Travel takes so long, and is so dicey (not dangerous, but you just never know if you’ll be in Bethel for a few days waiting for the snow or ice or wind to clear enough to get your flight to the village) that for many it just isn’t worth it. 

The principal went to Anchorage for a job fair to try and fill some of the empty teaching positions here, and met some good prospects, though she returned empty handed. Those folks were able to get better offers from other districts. Yupiit doesn’t pay for moving expenses, or for an initial visit to the place a teacher will be signing a contract to work.

I still brought in 100 lbs of stuff – this time mostly food, though I did bring some art for my barren walls, and some tools because I feel naked without tools. I definitely am eating better this visit – I have a big refrigerator full of delicious green kale. Mmmm.

There’s been an adult basketball tournament happening in the evenings. The gym is pretty much the size of a basketball court (not unusual out here) and it really makes watching a game exciting, since the crowd and the players are pretty much on top of each other. And, there seem to be maybe one million kids running around banging up and down the bleachers, which made me a bit crazy, so I had to give myself a personal time out.

Speaking of time out – it is a sunny 40 degrees outside, which with the snow on the ground makes it blinding. I’m going to get out there in it a bit, and remember to bring my camera!

As always, please feel free to comment on anything I’ve written, or anything you want me to write more about.

A walk to the Kuskokwim

Last weekend was calm and sunny, so as the sun was getting low I took a walk down the Tuluksak river to the Kuskokwim.

This compound is on the edge fo the village, with river access. You can see how slick everything is from the warm days and then refreezing at night. This area is set up for processing fish.

A sled dog and I look down the Tuluksak.

Waiting for breakup.

It was so quiet. I’ve seen some ravens flying overhead, but I don’t think any birds are residing in the village. All you can her when you walk is the crunch of snow and ice. Here are some tire tracks from a truck. Folks drive the river in the winter to get to neighboring villages, but also to get water from the Kuskokwim, which is a little less brown and a little more tasty than the Tuluksak water.

Here are some ice road markers to let you know it is time to turn off the river and cut across the land for a bit as a shortcut.

Just as I was nearing the Kuskokwim, I heard and then saw a smowmachine far of but heading my way. I waited until it got to me and the rider stopped and chatted. He wanted to be sure I was OK before heading into the village. Folks out here have a habit of checking in on people who are outside of the normal walking radius of the village, which is a good thing!

 

Honeybuckets!

First, thanks for reading. Please feel free to use the comments to ask questions, or even send me on missions. If you have curiosity inside of you about something I can tell or show you from here, let it out!

Second, holy cow I’ve been busy! Every day that passes would give me at least three blog posts worth of stuff to write about, and leaves me at the end of the day with my head spinning. Don’t forget I’m also supposed to be writing reports for work, too! But I’ve got to get these posts out – so here you go!

Today, let’s talk a little about honeybuckets. Honeybuckets are what you use when you don’t have a flushing toilet. They are always 5 gallon pails. At some point, the buckets are dumped into receptacles that are along the road or paths of the village. I’m guessing having to dump the honeybucket is the chore assigned to the child who is in the most trouble that day. At some point, the village comes by and empties the receptacles. The waste then gets dumped into a sewage lagoon, which is basically a shit pond some distance from the village.

This is my honeybucket, located in my arctic entry. Just in case the pipes freeze here and at the school (which they did over winter break!)

I was just speaking to a young Yupik man who remarked that when he was little, every village, it seemed, still used honeybuckets. Now Tuluksak is one of maybe five villages in Alaska that does not have a sewage system for the primary residents of the village. Note I say primary residents. Every village school in Alaska has its own power, water, and sewage facilities. Most of the time, these facilities also extend to teacher housing.

Here’s a honeybucket receptacle, plus bonus buckets. The big receptacles are full because the sewage is frozen and can’t be emptied. 

This creates kind of a caste system. I’ve got water, a shower, a washing machine, and a flushing toilet. My neighbor has to get water either from the river or pay for it at the washeteria (more coming on that). If my neighbors want a shower, they’ll have to also pay for that at the washeteria or maybe sneak in and use the school locker room’s showers during open gym. The other option here is to sweat it out in a maqi, or steam bath. This works very well, and many folks prefer it to a shower.

This young man is hauling water up from the Tuluksak river. That pole in his other hand is used to break new ice that has formed over the water hole.

One time during a cultural immersion camp we were working with about 20 youth from this area, staying for a couple weeks at the University of Alaska dorms. Some of the students opined that, though they were taking showers every day, they felt dirty without a maqi.

Oh boy, the wahseteria. It is in great disrepair. The expectation has been that it would be replaced, or become unnecessary, for almost the past 10 years. But, for one reason or another, the water and sewer here hasn’t been completed for village use, and the washeteria has never been replaced. It’s become a significant issue, not just for convenience, but for health reasons. 

The local water, whether from the river or wells that have been drilled here and there, is high in naturally occurring arsenic, iron, and manganese. It’s got a lot of particulate matter in it, and will discolor laundry. The treated water that you pay for at the washeteria is so discolored folks prefer the slightly less-brown river water! 

There are MANY agencies that are focused on helping this village get clean water, including two native health corporations, two tribal corporations, and several government agencies. The big steps for having a water and sewer system require the village – really the Tuluksak Native Community (the name for their tribal government) – to make some things happen. I’m going to try to help connect some dots and do some strategic pushing and pulling to help.

The Plans of Mice and Men…

I’ve been doing some research on the playground. I guess it was only partially built. The Principal mentioned how she wished it was finished on the first day I was here, and the Local Advisory School Board also brought it up. Maybe this is something we can get done with a little community/school collaboration. 

I found a pile of school plans that were really interesting to look through. They are from 2006 and are for the current school. The documents are huge, so here are two snippets that are hard to really see. 

This first picture is in front of the school. It shows plans for a soccer field, a baseball field, and a lighted hockey rink/basketball court. Note the “Accepted not built”. That means that the materials were bought, but nothing was built (except for the baseball backstop – I took a picture of that in an earlier post). 

And here’s another thing for the back of the school – a sand volleyball court:

And, OK, maybe if the sand volleyball court had been built, it would take off, and the tiny village of Tuluksak would be producing some of the finest beach volleyball players in Alaska. As at ease on the the ice rink as they are on the soccer field. I asked a few of my new young friends who gathered around me as I was poring over the maps what they thought of having  soccer, baseball, hockey, and outdoor volleyball fields, courts, and rinks, and they shook their heads.

So much money spent, with so little consideration to: Does anybody want this? or, What will we do when we’ve built it? I could give you more illustrations and stories of this throughout the school. It makes me puzzle over if there is some sort of series of questions that should be asked – of those pushing the stuff,  of those purchasing it, and of those left to deal with it – that get to the heart of creating and maintaining sustainable rural community. Will it last? Can it be made from things from here? By people from here? This is something still forming, but I think there’s something there. 

Drones and Playgrounds

I’ve been there and back again since my last dispatch. Of course it has been a whirlwind. Taking a week away is whittled down significantly with the travel part. It was great to have been in my Tuluksak home long enough to make a list of things that I needed to bring in. Now that I’m back here I’ve got some nice touches to make it feel more like home. Plus I have a bowl to eat things from. That is super helpful. 

I spent most of the day with Ron Fortunado who is up here on a contract working on some interesting science/community/kid stuff. Give me a raincheck on giving all the details – it will feel too much like a report, and I’m feeling some guilt for not writing a proper one of those yet for the Powers That Be. What I like about what Ron is doing is he starts with the kids and the community: “What is something that you are concerned about and want to fix?” Here, there’s been concern about lead in the water after a few kids came back from their Bethel dentist with concerning blood work. Also, concern about rapidly eroding riverbanks creating sandbars in places there haven’t been sandbars before, cause grounded boats, and in one case in the neighboring village, deaths from some kids going too fast on the river. And then I added what I’ve heard from folks and the principal about the playground – first getting finished, and second if it is in the right place or not. 

OK, so from this, here’s what he’s doing. He brought lead and pesticide testing kits for drinking water, and is working with the elementary teacher to teach the kids how to test water. Today we tested their classroom sink water (it was OK), but the hope is to work up to having them test their own household water. Data collected and presented to the community. With the eroding sandbars, he’s working with older kids to use a drone to do some measurements of the riverbank that will be geomapped. The students will keep track of the riverbank over time to measure the rate of erosion. They’ll also be able to use the drone to map current sandbars in the river for navigation this summer. And with the playground project, he worked with some students to program the drone to do an arial transect over the school area. The date is fed into a computer that will work overnight to create a three dimensional model of the school and the land around it. This can be used to start identifying where the high and low points of the property are, to help with locating and/or planning playground placement. Later we hope to look into what kind of design the kids would like to see, and also start to scope out some ways to help keeping the play area dry – all with the kids leading the charge.