In early 2013, I was hired as a kindergarten teacher in Newhalen, Alaska. Upon my employment, I avidly researched all that I could about the Lake and Peninsula region. One of the first things I learned was that the native population of the area was predominately Yup’ik. I crossed my fingers in hopes that the Yup’ik culture was still alive in Newhalen, Alaska.
Newhalen, a village of roughly 200 people, rests on the north shore of Iliamna Lake in southwestern Alaska. Sport fishing and hunting drive the economy of this mountainous land once dominated exclusively by Yup’ik fishers and hunters.
Of the 21,000 individuals in Alaska who are of Yup’ik heritage, only about 10,000 speak the language. Furthermore, in many southern Alaskan villages, the Yup’ik language is no longer passed on to children. With the disappearance of the language also comes the elimination of Yup’ik arts.
Much to my delight, Newhalen School began a project this year called Culture Mondays. On Monday afternoons from 1:30-3:15, students get the opportunity to learn about Yup’ik cultural activities including dancing, carving, beading, kuspuk making, and skin sewing.
During this time of rapid Westernization, witnessing the reemergence of Yup’ik traditions at Newhalen School has been a joy. On Culture Mondays, classrooms are transformed from academic study halls into breathing time machines. Textbooks are replaced with marten skins, paper with fabric, and pencils with carving tools.
Culture Mondays have also succeeded in bringing the community together. Residents with relevant skill-sets sacrifice their Monday afternoons to act as teachers to small groups of students. Other community members who do not possess any Native expertise often attend to participate.
Overall, the first year of Culture Mondays have been fun, educational, and a joy to witness as a teacher. My hope is that these sessions will continue into the future and help to preserve the Yup’ik culture for younger generations in the village of Newhalen.
Read more from Natalie Britton on her blog, Live Teach Alaska.