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New documentary profiles Ayaprun Loddie Jones. ‘We all need heroes and we need to know their stories’

Ayaprun Loddie Jones shown in a new documentary that premieres in Bethel on Nov. 17, 2022.
Ayaprun Loddie Jones shown in a new documentary that premieres in Bethel on Nov. 17, 2022.

A documentary about Ayaprun Loddie Jones premiers today at the Yup’ik immersion elementary school named after her. The film follows her final few months of teaching full-time at the school.

In one of the documentary’s opening shots, a table of kindergarteners giggle. They have their bare feet up on the table during a math lesson.

“I try to get learning to be fun and engaging because you cannot sit there and lecture all day long,” Ayaprun said.

Even in math class, Ayaprun teaches in Yup’ik. That’s because Ayaprun Elitnaurvik is an immersion school. It’s named after her because she was instrumental in starting it.

Back when Ayaprun went to school, everything was in English, even though she and her classmates only spoke Yup’ik at home.

“I think there was a lot of miscommunication then because everything that we learned was not culturally relevant,” she said. “So we had a hard time with all those books. We just didn't know what we're reading about. So a lot of the answers on tests were guesswork.”

Cultural relevance, along with language learning, is now part of the mission at Ayaprun Elitnaurvik.

“I mean, if you go on a hunting trip, that’s science. If you go on a hunting trip, that’s something to use in literature and writing. If you go on a hunting trip, you can use math: how many, you know, fish that you catch in your net,” Ayaprun said. “So there's always a way to incorporate culture into the curriculum.”

In the documentary, students from Ayaprun’s last class learn to cut up a moose laid out on the school floor.

Filmmaker Katie Basile said that’s something teachers would not have done in the past but learned to do: a legacy of Ayaprun.

“I grew up here and I went to school here, K through 12. And I've never been in a school that had a moose on the floor being butchered by the kids,” she said. “They can actually bring their own personalities, their own culture, their own language, their own food into the classroom. And so I think what maybe was, like, a goal 50 years ago is now a reality in a lot of classrooms. And that is thanks to Loddie.”

But that decades-long journey wasn’t always easy. The documentary shows just how hard Ayaprun had to fight to start the immersion program.

“We'd have sometimes, like, weekly meetings, and then all our dreams would dwindle. And we'd start all over again,” she said.

The program opened in 1995, after nearly a decade of advocacy from Ayaprun and others. Basile said that they wanted to highlight that hard work in the documentary.

“I think it's important to see what someone from this region in this community can, is capable of, and can do. I think that's so important to highlight. We all need heroes and we need to know their stories. And I think that's kind of what this project was about,” she said.

The documentary is showing at the movie theater in Bethel at 7 p.m. on Nov. 17. Basile, Ayaprun, and editor Gabby Salgado will do a question and answer session after the showing.

Nina was a temporary news reporter at KYUK. She comes to Bethel from NPR, where she's a producer at Morning Edition.