Current Issue / DU Alumni

Learning in Alaska

I spend much of my time in the lower 48 answering questions about Alaska, which is OK because, well, I like to talk. A lot of the questions are pretty much stock: queries about the weather, the waxing and waning light and what the locals like to be called. But the question I look forward to, the one that people invariably ask, the one that I spend the most time ruminating on is, “Are the people there much different from down here?”

I think about this question daily because the short answer is that yes, the people here are much different. “Here” is Scammon Bay, a village of about 500 Yup’ik Eskimos located on the coast of the Bering Sea in rural southwestern Alaska. As an elementary school teacher, it is my job to think about ways in which this population of people is different so that I can meet their needs. I think about the populations of people in each of the various places I have lived: well-to-do suburbs of Chicago and Denver, a low-rent area of Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, and two American Indian reservations. The folks here are just different from the folks in any of those places.

When I moved here to teach almost two years ago, I was overwhelmed by the differences. I thought the locals didn’t value education, that my students had no work ethic, that the school—and its teachers—had no community support.

But then I looked at what I was trying to teach my students, and the context in which I was teaching it.

The elders in this village remember the first contact that was made by “Gussuqs,” as the Yup’ik people call those of us who came from “downstates.” This community is only about 60 years into the process of westernization.

Many things here are as they have always been. Much of the diet of the local people comes from gathering berries on the tundra, or hunting whatever there is to hunt: moose, birds, fish, seals, the occasional Beluga. But these things are not done in the traditional way. Hunters may travel by snowmobile to the nearby mountain to hunt moose. It’s fascinating to watch a group of men standing in skiffs with outboard motors, shooting at a seal in the river, then using a hand-made harpoon to bring the dead animal aboard.

The sound of tradition and Western innovation of the crashing together can be deafening.

As I get to know more families and see the way the community dynamics unfold, I’ve begun to realize—with some embarrassment—how wrong my earlier observations were. In fact, the locals very much value education, but they value it differently. The community absolutely supports education, but many people want to see the schools do better by their children. The students have a tremendous work ethic but need to be shown how their education relates to their lives.

Although the cultural differences are striking and sometimes difficult to ignore, what comes back to me over and over are the similarities. To be a good teacher here, I need to figure out how to help families foster the education of their children. I need to help the students see the relevance of education, and I need to be a part of turning the local educational system around to help the community. Just like downstates.

Dave Rappe (BA English ’96) has finished his second year of teaching in Scammon Bay and plans to teach there again next year.

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