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Bethel’s Yuraq Bots bring Yup’ik songs to the international stage

The Yuraq Bots, Ayaprun Elitnaurvik's robotics team. Left to right: Kunuin Jared Charlie, Taassaq Constance Samuelson, Igvaq Paula Jung, Alqaq Mary Evon, Arnaucuaq Amelia Jones, and Makcuilnguaq Mikael Pleasant.
Madelene Reichard
The Yuraq Bots, Ayaprun Elitnaurvik's robotics team. Left to right: Kunuin Jared Charlie, Taassaq Constance Samuelson, Igvaq Paula Jung, Alqaq Mary Evon, Arnaucuaq Amelia Jones, and Makcuilnguaq Mikael Pleasant.

A middle school robotics team from Bethel will compete against more than 100 other teams in an international competition in Boston this weekend. But the competition isn’t just about programming robots. Teams also create community-based projects that blend technology and culture.

The Bethel team’s translation project connects people to the meaning of Yup’ik songs and dances, whether it’s their first time hearing the music or they grew up with yuraq.

While most people who yuraq know songs like Yugiama or Tarvaarnaramken and their corresponding dance movements and drum beats, it’s less common to know word for word what the songs mean.

“The translations are really hard to do,” said Arnaucuaq Amelia Jones, who just finished up seventh grade at Ayaprun Elitnaurvik, Bethel’s Yup’ik language immersion elementary and middle school. “Lots of the songs are made with old Yugtun, which isn't very known. Because now we only know modern Yugtun, and only the Elders know, and there's not very much of them.”

She’s a member of the Yuraq Bots, the school’s robotics team.

So is Taassaq Constance Samuelson, who just finished sixth grade.

“[Like] Old English, and then translated to modern English,” said Samuelson. “That's how hard it can be.” She likened the translation process for yuraq songs to translating the Canterbury Tales, a notoriously difficult collection of stories written in Old English.

“Our project is about trying to get people more connected with yuraq, because lots of people don't really know what they're dancing,” said Igvaq Paula Jung, another member of the team who just completed sixth grade. “We didn't really know what we were dancing up until we started translating. And we just want more people to understand and get connected with yuraq.”

Jung, Samuelson, and Jones are joined by Yuraq Bots teammates Alqaq Mary Evon, Makcuilnguaq Mikael Pleasant, and Kunuin Jared Charlie, who round out the six-person team.

Previous team projects include trying to charge the iPads widely used in the Lower Kuskokwim School District using solar power, or developing a system for using dogsleds to move freight in the region because of the lack of winter barge service. Projects are based around a yearly theme.

This year, the team is working with Elders in the community to translate and document yuraq songs on a website called “Yuraq Made Simple,” to fit this year’s "Masterpiece" theme of technology and the arts.

The website hosts dance videos and translations, as well as information about what certain dance moves mean and what Yup’ik regalia signifies. The team’s goal is to make yuraq more accessible and share it with people who want to feel more connected with their culture.

“A lot of people, when they think about robotics, all they think about is the coding,” said Madelene Reichard, a teacher at Ayaprun Elitnaurvik. “But actually, most of the competition and your points and everything that you earn is from the project. It's, like, a community based project and so they range from, like, silly to, like, actually, like, more effective ones. And this one kind of became, like, an actually very effective one. And they came up with it all on their own.

Reichard, along with community member Brian Lefferts, serves as one of the robotics team’s two coaches. She explained that three-quarters of the points at a competition come from the team's project, and the other quarter from a robot that the team programs to complete tasks.

The project, unlike coding, is a lot more open-ended. There are hundreds of possible yuraq songs to translate.

Jones said that the team has picked songs to translate based on what they love.

“We just think about the songs that we love to dance, and we learned it to dance, and we list them out so we could translate them,” Jones said. “So we could know what we love to dance and what the meanings are.”

Jung said that it’s been a work-intensive process. For generations, Yugtun, or the Yup’ik language, wasn’t written.

“We've only ever heard these songs, we haven't read them written down,” Jung said. “So we have to kind of iterate around and work our way through to write what we think how they're spelled.”

Evon just graduated eighth grade and is one of the senior members on the team. She said that once songs are written down, translating has also been difficult. She gave an example: “The word was ‘I'm giving my blessing to you.’ But what we got was ‘wild celery.’”

But the intensive process is worth it, Evon said.

“I'm really glad we translated songs because now we know what we're yuraqing,” Evon said. “And it feels like every time we do yuraq it feels rewarding because knowing that we have translated that whole song.”

Jung agreed. “When we finally get to understand its meaning, it's like a light has blossomed in my heart. And it's shone through and helped us along the way to get more songs translated,” she said.

The project has been useful in the Lower Kuskokwim School District outside of the robotics competition.

“We didn't realize how useful this is gonna be for teachers around the region, that it’s gonna help teachers teach more about yuraq to little kids,” Evon said. “It can make it more understandable for them as they grow up, and allow them to tell other people as they get older. So it can make the knowledge expand more.”

Beyond the utility within a robotics competition or in Yup’ik language classrooms, the project is also simply groundbreaking. There are very few existing full translations of yuraq songs. Reichard says that means it holds a significant amount of knowledge.

“They love to yuraq,” Reichard said. “It started out just as something we like to do together as a group, but it's become so much more than that. It's really fun to watch them. And it's really fun to get to see peoples' reactions when they say they're working on these translations, or when they do get together with a group of Elders and they're sitting there talking and understanding. It's really just a beautiful process that we're getting to document here.”

Reichard has been teaching most of the students since third grade.

“So seeing their growth as learners, and not only as learners, but with their respect for the culture, and the language, and the traditions. And taking both of those things and melding it with the technology is just probably, like, the coolest thing you could ask for,” Reichard said.

In late 2023, the Yuraq Bots competed at the district level and won awards for their robot design and performance. After qualifying for state, they won a Rising All-Star award and third place overall, qualifying for the WPI FLL (Waffle) U.S. Open robotics competition in Boston from June 7 to June 9.

The team plans to go to a Red Sox game, a NASA student event, and an art museum, in addition to attending the three-day competition.

For the competition, the Yuraq Bots have been working on their robot programming and additional song translations. They’re bringing Yup’ik regalia with them to Boston: qaspeqs, headdresses, necklaces, dance fans, and piluguqs.

“What I'm excited about is allowing for other people to learn about yuraq,” said Pleasant, who recently graduated from eighth grade at Ayaprun Elitnaurvik.

“At the very least,” Pleasant said, “I hope they learn how to dance.”

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.
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