ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Yup’ik children seemed to float in the air as they gracefully danced to ancient songs, weaving and swaying to a drum song known as Dawa-Dawa. Loddie Jones, a smiling elderly woman, watched from the side of the stage and soon climbed the stairs to join the young dancers. In a minute, she too glided elegantly to the Native music.
Once finished with their dancing, the students and their teachers – Yup’ik people from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta area in southwestern Alaska – approached the podium in the Anchorage Center for Performing Arts and received the prestigious Cultural Freedom Award from the National Indian Education Association. The children from Ayaprun Elitnaurviat Immersion School, the “place where people go to learn,” beamed proudly as they held tight to the award plaque.
The award is given annually to organizations that promote cultural understanding, influence education service at community and national levels, and demonstrate a strong commitment to improve the educational opportunities of Native children, according to NIEA President Ryan Wilson, who counted a lengthy list of achievements of the school district.
“The quality of people we have in our district is truly … we produce and publish our own culture curriculum materials,” said Beverly Williams, spokesman for the Lower Kuskokwim School District. Williams, who introduced a group of Yup’ik elders, all of whom were certified teachers and an administrator in the school district and key in developing the Yup’ik language immersion schools. She credited them for this remarkable conversion to schools that teach students in the Yup’ik language.
“Loddie Jones has done so much for so many years,” Williams noted, “that they named a school after her.” Jones, a Yup’ik treasure, is past retirement age, but still very active in the classroom.
Another educator, Carrie Dahl, was recently recognized as “teacher of the year.” She produces a community newsletter for Yup’ik parents called Inuqaaraam Nallinamittai, which is dedicated to rallying parents to the program. The newsletter is filled with messages of values (rules), spelling words, notes to parents and descriptions of positive qualities about students.
Panigkaq Agatha John-Shields, principal of the immersion school, received the Governor’s Humanity Educator Award in 2002. She’s been with the school since 1977, originally as a classroom teacher. Portrayed as a caring steward of Yupik immersion schooling, John-Shields argued that teaching Native children about academic subjects in their own language can actually enhance student achievement.
To prove it, the Ayaprun Elitnaurviat Immersion School met the rigorous No Child Left Behind Annual Yearly Progress requirements for 2006. And it appears that Yup’ik students enrolled in the other immersion schools and classes are as well.
The Lower Kuskokwim School District is comprised of 23 schools, most situated in deeply isolated villages. They are accessible only by plane or boat, nestled along the Kuskokwim River or Bering Sea in the treeless tundra region of the state. Yup’ik villages are located along the region’s waterways and much of their subsistence comes from the traditional harvesting of water resources. Recent interest in preserving cultural traditions has led to a focus on the historic Yup’ik way of life, resulting in support of scholarly study intended to explore and record Yup’ik life.
The educators spoke painfully of a time when the BIA punished them for speaking their own language. But their faces glowed as they recounted the steps taken to turn their schools into bilingual education centers. A Yup’ik language committee of parents was created in the mid-1980s with additional steps taken in the mid-’90s to initiate immersion one calculated step at a time, but always buoyed with promise.
Williams, director of Academic Programs for the district, is a forceful voice for the Yup’ik immersion program. Showing a video of elementary students demonstrating proficiency in oral and written Yup’ik, Williams described locally developed assessment approaches that are aligned with Alaska state standards. Community-based Yup’ik curriculum materials are also locally created and used to steer immersion instruction.
The district intends to demonstrate that the use of Native language instruction at the elementary level can produce students who meet high academic proficiency in Native reading, writing and math prior to accomplishing the same results in English. It is well on its way of doing so.
The Yup’ik elementary student dancers excitedly circled together following the award ceremony, beaming proudly as they carefully examined the NIEA plaque, showing it again to their teachers. The Cultural Freedom Award from the NIEA will be shared equally among the immersion schools that have put the Lower Kuskokwim district on the map. The children appear oblivious to the notion that their classrooms may be the spark that emboldens other schools to serve as institutions that preserve endangered Native languages and culture.
Rick St. Germaine can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.