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Annual ONC Science And Culture Camp Combines Traditional Yup'ik Knowledge With Western Science

Kaylee King

ONC hosted a camp in July called the ONC Science and Culture Camp. The annual camp is held in Bethel with students from the Lower Kuskokwim School District. KYUK Intern Kaylee King attended and brings us this reflection on her experience. 



Everything about camp is my favorite. This whole experience was new to me.


My name is Kaylee King and before I started interning at KYUK this summer, I graduated from Nuniwarmiut School in Mekoryuk. Even though camp lasted less than two weeks, I learned more than I did in my four years of high school. 


I am going to the University of Alaska Anchorage this fall. I applied for the camp because I saw that it offered college credit. Students had to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend, and classes were a mixture of lectures and hands-on activities. 


“It was probably the best science camp I've ever gone to,” said my roommate at camp, Claire Schneidler. She’s from Kasigluk. 


“We did so many interesting activities that you're not going to do at any other science camp, like going to fish camp and going drift netting, catching fish, cutting fish,” said Claire. 


Then we hung the fish to dry, and some we jarred.


We did so many activities and classes at camp. It was a blend of traditional Yup’ik knowledge and Western science. We talked about Ellam Yua. We learned fish and game management. We went bird watching. We also dissected an otter, which smelled really bad. But most of the students' favorite class, including mine and Claire’s, was Ethnobotany. 


“I think it was my favorite, because I'm always kind of obsessed with figuring out what plants can do,” said Claire. 


Ethnobotany is the study of traditional knowledge of plants and how they are used.


Credit Courtesy Kaylee King
Ethnobotanist Lisa shows students the poisonous plant, water hemlock.

Anything about traditional culture makes me feel excited. Ethnobotany was something that got my attention because the ethnobotanists were telling us about the medicinal properties of the plants. And the Elders were telling us about how they used to use the plants as medicine.

Did you know that fireweed can help with acne or anything that has to do with skin, and stink weed or caiggluk can help with congestion? I didn’t. Even the Elders at the camp learned new things with us. Julia Kanuk is one of those Elders.


“I learned a lot from them. I'm so glad they included me with them. I felt like a young, silly, mischievous kid all over again,” said Julia. 


Julia was almost always at the camp with us. She’d be taking pictures of us, or she’d be telling us stories and making us laugh. For sure she was all of the campers' favorite Elder. At 68 years old, she said she is still learning every day. A few years ago, after the Bethel pool opened, she learned how to swim.


One day we went swimming at the pool. When we got there, Julia was already waiting for us.


“We were so happy when you came to go swim with us. And you beat Anson,” I said to Julia, who laughed.  


She had raced against one of the campers, and she won.


“Well I was telling myself, ‘Well, I know there's a way to beat these young people. They probably know how to swim. I’ll just walk and pretend that I’m swimming,’ It was fun,” she said. 


One of the rules at camp was that we shouldn’t have our phones on us during classes, or activities, or after lights out at the dorm. I think this allowed us to interact with each other more when we had breaks or when we had discussions. And that was the point.


Katie Russell is one of the biologists with ONC’s Fishery’s Program. She helped plan the camp.


“Our main goal was just for students to learn and grow and, and also hopefully that they made some connections and made some new friends while attending the camp,” said Russell. 


Credit Courtesy Kaylee King
ONC Science and Culture camp students go out on the boardwalk to go birdwatching.

My favorite memory of connection was the night of the earthquake. It was a few hours after bedtime. I was in the kitchen of our dorm suite and I felt the building sway. The dorm parent, Orrie Reich, knocked on our door. She wanted to show us how strong the earthquake was near the Aleutian Islands because we didn’t have our phones. The next moment, me, two other students, and Orrie were singing the song “Lava” from the Disney movie "Moana". It’s my favorite song to play on the ukulele.

At the camp’s ending ceremony, while we were going up to get our certificates, our favorite Elder, Julia, asked us to pose and smile while she took a picture. 


“I'm so proud of ONC. I'm so proud of you to be able to do this so you could carry on this traditions,” said Julia. 


I learned so much about our culture and science from this camp. I hope to come back as a youth mentor.