Winter comes with Blogger’s Block

I don’t understand what’s been blocking me from writing updates. I think the colder weather has been a factor in kind of turning inward. It certainly hasn’t been for lack of things happening in my life. I think that, having put in almost four months here now, the crazy now seems normal, and so I don’t think about how these stories need to be told. 

Probably the one that sticks with me the most happened at the October School Board meeting. The school board (most of whom have been serving on the board for over 10 years, and a few have been on since the district was formed in 1985) gave themselves a raise. This came a few weeks before the statewide Association of Alaska School Boards conference held in Anchorage. The Board was already paying themselves $250 per day for attending conferences (this is in addition to the $85 per diem, plus car rental and hotel room). The also pay themselves $500 per day for school board meetings. But, some board members found that they could overspend their per-diem, and so they decided to increase their daily stipend to $500 per day. This is for seven board members. In addition top the weeklong state school board conference, they attend the national school board conference, two annual legislative fly-ins, the week long Minnesota Indian Education Association conference, and, curiously, an annual conference intended for superintendents. There was no question to the business manager as to how this change would effect the school budget. It passed 6-1.

a frozen day on the Kuskokwim

The river has frozen – it happened so quickly! And, though there still are some spots of open water, folks are already snow-machining and four-wheeling over it. I put my studded tires on my bike and even crossed a little stretch of it one night. Let me just say it again – that bike is so much dang fun! My riding so far has been in the dark (remember, we aren’t getting much daylight round here these days) but I’ll try to get good photo posted soon.

I had a really special time away in October when Kayla and I traveled to New Orleans in and met my parents there! It was pretty much a perfect trip. We had an AirBnB in Treme, and my folks had some sort of time share next to the casino. We’d meet my folks for lunch, and carry through to dinner. They would head back to their place, and we’d carry on a bit more into the evening. We saw some great music. I especially love a rainy afternoon that we spent at the Spotted Cat. It was neat to see the ebb and flow of working NOLA musicians passing through, sitting in for a song, then heading out to whatever bar for their next gig. 

I just recently returned from chaperoning 14 Yupiit middle schoolers through the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP). I said 14 YSD students, but the ANSEP Middle School Academy had a total of 50 students for four school districts. We stayed at the University of Alaska dormitories for two weeks, and worked those kids HARD! Each chaperone was assigned a group of six kids – my team had a full range of aptitudes and attitudes, so it wasn’t a free ride by any means. Each kid built their own computer (which they get to keep) designed a building using Kinnex ® (kind of like space-age tinker toys) that was then put on an earthquake simulator to see which could survive a 60 second quake (two did), and they designed and built balsa wood bridges which we then load tested until they broke. ANSEP has a lot going for it, but it just doesn’t have much soul. I guess I shouldn’t expect that from a program sponsored by 3 oil companies, though. 

The students had to carry their earthquake buildings across campus to the lab for testing, making for a fun parade!

Now here I am  in November sitting in an airport waiting for my plane to Anchorage, then to Seattle to see Kayla and spend Thanksgiving with some dear friends and young Jonathan Butler, our youngest nephew who is attending Cornish College for the Arts in the Emerald City (and having his first holiday away from his immediate family)! I had a pretty good flight schedule to get to Seattle, but that all crashed like a domino tower when I couldn’t get out of Akiachak in time to catch my original flight out of Bethel. This is typical for traveling in bush Alaska in the winter, so there’s not much I can do about that. I’ll get to Anchorage at 9:00 pm, and then I’m on jet, in the middle seat, at 2:00 a.m. for a four and a half hour flight to Seattle. That’s gonna hurt!

From on high

Getting back on this blog has been weighing on me. I think one of the problems I have is that the “real” story is so big, I don’t feel like I can tell it, right? “But that’s the point of a blog, Matthew, to tell little bits of the story at a time.

Ok, OK.

One thing I’ve been working on is figuring out them drones. I’ve got a plan to work with science teachers in Akiachak and Akiak to do some sort of unit on the Kuskokwim river freezing. This is a big deal – when the river freezes it becomes a highway that makes moving between villages and getting to Bethel much easier. Freeze-up and Break-up (when the river melts – we’ll have fun witnessing that together this spring!) are really the two events that divide the year probably since people first walked this land.

Anyway, my idea is to get the drones to periodically go to three or four different points on the river and take a picture straight down. This way students can observe the freezing progress over time. Then we can explore why different parts of the river freeze before others, etc.
To do that, I have to figure out how to program these drones to go to the same points and take the same pictures. Ugh.

In the meantime, here’s a nice shot that I made:

Here’s some other things that have happened on the past week:

  • Last week two brothers got drunk and one guy shot and killed the other, then tried to shoot himself but only wound up messing up his face really bad. The crime scene had to remain in the house for two days before State Troopers could arrive.
  • The District Office announced that there was barely any money in the budget for sports teams to travel, and that coaches would have to raise their own team travel money. This nearly created a walk-out.
  • The first morning frost firmed up the mud on Monday for my morning commute.
  • I got my electric guitar and an amp up to the village! It feels so good to be able to make a little noise now and then.

Bike Time!

One full work week in! Probably the biggest news of this week is that I finally got my new transportation in. 

This is maybe a mile (as the raven flies) from the village. About a two mile ride.

Yay for FAT BIKES! I got this delivered on Tuesday evening, and I’ve been on it pretty much ever since. Oh my gosh is it fun to ride. And it is perfect for this area – It hands mud and swampy tundra and potholey paths with ease. I had to test its limits with mud, so here’s what the bike looked like 30 minutes into my first ride:

I most certainly did hoot and holler.

It has been liberating to be able to cover a lot of territory in a short amount of time – there are lots of 4-wheeler paths around here. And also good to get a some exercise and adrenaline. 

The weather has been mostly crazy sunny and warm all week. But when there is no breeze, yes indeed there are bugs. No seeums really swarm up from the grass. But I’ve been able to find breezes either by the river or up on cemetery hill (which, sorry, I did not take picture of yet, but I will!).

Some other things that happened this week:

  • At a school board meeting the some folks from the Akiachak Tribal Corporation announced under “persons to be heard” that the only lease that they could find for the school district renting tribal land was over 30 years old, did not include many buildings that were build on tribal property, and were rented at a price “back when a can of Coke was a quarter”.
  • Also, at the school board meeting and at a tribal government meeting that I visited, the primary language spoken was Yupik.
  • My coworker’s old dog had an ear infection that apparently went to his brain, causing him to attack her. She took him out to the tundra and tearfully shot him.
  • I had my first poker night at my house! My roommate runs a regular poker night on Friday nights. Texas Hold’em, $5 buy in. The previous superintendent even bought him professional poker chips.
  • I started flying a fancy drone today, but that’s gonna be another post.

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.

End of Chapter One

This entry actually took me until September to write (I had a hard time coming to terms with how things ended) but I’ve moved it to the proper order in the story timeline.

The 2019 graduating class of Tuluksak High

First off, when I finished my work and left Tuluksak in May, the day after the end of school, I jumped straight from there in Juneau for what would be the last visit with my kiddo for who-knows-how-long, and then right into the craziness of living with the Executive Director of the Sitka Summer Music Festival. Also, I was trying to drink in as much of that Sitka summer as I possibly could, having a feeling I might be back up here sooner than I would want to be…

And I was closing out my business of four years: Sitka Community Schools. That brought a bit of sadness, and a lot of logistics, like finding a home for hundreds of roller skates, and basketballs, and on and on.

And, I’ll tell you, those last days of my contract were strange ones. I know that whatever final report I wrote would be read by very few people. I kind of know this going in, but it still kind of adds to the steady hum of futility that surrounded this project. For instance, after the end of school, the state was holding a multi-day meeting of school district employees to also answer the same questions – but this was not a thing I was invited to.

A little side note here – I’ll learn that the next school year nothing that came of that meeting was implemented in the District. Another big expenditure of money and time that led to a dead end.

I did show my report to the principal of the school, a day before I left. Though she (the principal) had stated that her intention was to live out her life in Tuluksak, by the end of the year she was extremely alienated from her staff, and starting to act a little erratic. In the end, she took a job in another District, so the last month of the school year was bizarre: many of the teachers just stopped teaching (very few were returning). There was a tacit agreement between students and staff that, as long as the students kept quiet and slept or watched their phones, then there would be no expectations for schooling. As I left the school on my last day for the airport, I went to say goodbye to the principal, but she had my report in her hand and was shaking it at me while crying that “it wasn’t fair that I was blaming her for everything that went wrong.” Huh? I wrote nothing in that report that had anything to do with her (you can see for yourself, the report is attached). I thanked her and gave her a hug anyway, and put Tuluksak in my rear-view mirror.

So, yeah, I had some hard feelings leaving that situation, and I had plenty of good things ahead of me, so I did just leave it behind.

And, we gotta close that chapter. So, let me share with you what I wrote as my final report. Keep in mind that I had something like 40 pages of notes, but I know that nobody would want to read the story that would come from that. So what I did was boil everything down to to five bullet points, and fit it into four pages. There’s a lot of things that I could have provided citations to, and plenty of background information that I could have added, but I wrote this for a small audience of folks that I figured were familiar enough with the school and the District that I could cut to the chase. So, with all that ado, here’s the report:

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”


“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.