Yupiit School District aligns itself with traditional knowledge during its first year on a subsistence calendar
It’s June 23 in Akiachak, and the school is in its first week of a summer culture camp.
Teachers and Elders meet students at a large cutting table near teacher housing. Originally the morning catch was supposed to be processed at a nearby community fish camp, but those plans were scrapped because a black bear was hanging around.
Literacy coach Evelyn Esmailka wields a large ulu as she explains the differences between chum, chinook, and sockeye salmon to the small group of children. After this lesson, the kids are going fishing for salmon on the nearby Kuskokwim River.
“They’re getting ready to go out. This will be for the winter supply of fish, [to] supplement the lunch program,” Esmailka said.
After the fish are cleaned, they are loaded into the back of a beat-up truck to be dropped off at the school’s walk-in freezer. Salmon blood, to be returned back to the river, sloshes around in plastic totes as the truck lurches along Akiachak’s heavily potholed main drag.
Woody Woodgate, the school district’s federal programs director, said that staff favor indigenous foods in the district’s cafeterias.
“Not really taking anything away from the [United States Department of Agriculture] and the school lunch program, but most of that stuff that’s on those menus is designed for people in big cities, the lower 48, and a lot of it just goes into the trash can because kids don’t wanna eat the food,” Woodgate said. “So if we can supplement with fish and moose, and especially fish and moose that the kids catch.”
In the mid-80s, three villages: Akiachak, Akiak, and Tuluksak, broke away from the Lower Kuskokwim School District and formed the Yupiit School District. The mission was a different vision of education, one that more fully embraced traditional Native knowledge. This year, they’ve successfully fought for a new calendar, one that gives students the freedom to participate in seasonal subsistence harvests.
In the nearly 40 years since the Yupiit School District was formed, nothing has come easy. The district has faced chronic issues with funding, teacher turnover, low attendance, and low test scores, often leading to friction with the state education department.
But they’re working to change that. This year was the district’s first under a new subsistence calendar, an academic calendar that takes into account seasonal subsistence harvests. School leaders spent much of 2022 working to get it approved by the state.
“Sometimes things take a little longer than maybe what we want, but in the end we are able to get what we wanted to apply to the district, rightfully so,” Woodgate said.
Now, students begin the school year a week later than other districts in the state and they finish 10 days earlier. They make up the difference with an extra half hour of instruction each day. This allows them to take part in the fall moose hunt and the spring migratory bird harvest. The strategy is to pass along traditional knowledge that cannot be gained in the classroom, but it is also aimed at addressing poor attendance issues during these seasonal harvests.
Taking Part in the Harvest
With the exception of sockeye, the salmon runs on the Kuskokwim River are crashing, and today is one of the limited opportunities to fish for them. Time is ticking away on the 12-hour salmon fishing opener, so the order of the day is making sure that kids who aren’t already on the river get a chance to take part in the harvest.
Barron Sample is overseeing the drift net fishing component of the summer culture camp. He is in his third year as principal at the Akiachak School. He takes a quick tally of the children coming out on the river to fish.
“The older kids are already out fishing with their families, so these are, let’s see, second grade, a third-grader, three fourth-graders, so getting ‘em out here,” Sample said. “For some of them, it’s the first time actually out here on the river doing this, and the first time they’re actually pulling a net.”
The 24-foot boat is one of three owned by the school district.
“There’s three schools in our school district: Akiak, Tuluksak, and us, Akiachak. So kind of in a little competition, like, 'how many did you catch today?'” Sample said.
After a 150-foot gillnet is unfurled, the boat drifts slowly down the river. The children intently watch a line of buoys for signs of life.
“Fifteen more minutes and then we’re gonna reel it in,” one fourth-grader informs the crew.
While the first drift only yields two fish, the second brings in around a dozen: a mixture of reds, kings, and chums. The students scream in delight as the squirming salmon are picked from the net, landing with a thud in a plastic tote.
“I wanna fish again. This is actually a good spot to fish,” the fourth-grader chimes in.
As the boat drifted down the river, Sample talked about the journey that led him to Alaska from Maryland in 2008 to accept a job as a teacher in a village with fewer than 500 residents.
“I think part of it was I grew up in the military; we moved around a lot,” Sample said. “My mother always told us that wherever you are, you make it home.”
Sample is an exception to the constant turnover that plagues the state.
“That’s actually one of my big reasons for moving into becoming an administrator here was over the years I’ve seen a principal do one year, two years, and they’re gone,” Sample said. “Having the stability, the institutional memory, really our kids deserve that, and that’s really the driving focus for me being here.”
After two drifts, there are plenty of fish to be processed and stored at the school for the coming winter. Sample calls up Woodgate to meet the boat at a muddy beach in front of the village’s fuel station. All the kids can talk about is going out again.
With only a matter of hours before the Kuskokwim River again closes to salmon fishing, the village of Akiachak feels like a ghost town. But along the river, the fish camps are buzzing with activity as families process the day’s harvest in a way that has changed little over the centuries.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the length of the school year.