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An Alaska school district set its year so kids could learn traditional ways of life

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Across the country, kids are heading back to school, and that looks different in different places. Last year a district in Alaska changed its whole calendar so kids could spend more time learning about the culture and traditions of living off the land. Evan Erickson of member station KYUK reports.

EVAN ERICKSON, BYLINE: It's an overcast day this summer in the village of Akiachak on the Kuskokwim River, about 70 miles inland from the Bering Sea. Five elementary school kids are drifting along on a skiff with a couple of adults. Everybody is focused on a series of red and white buoys attached to a net.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: That red one right there in front of us, it's keeps moving.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Right there.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Three moved.

ERICKSON: This is the school's summer culture camp, and the kids are learning about traditional Yup'ik Native ways, living in harmony with the land and the values of sharing food, friendship and knowledge. Today, in the boat with their principal, they're learning to fish for salmon. Populations of several species of salmon on this river have crashed, and this is a rare window when harvesting them with drift nets is allowed.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: That's a king salmon. I see one. I see one.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: Right there.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: What's that kind of fish?

ERICKSON: The Yupiit School District's summer culture camp is part of an effort to help kids master the subsistence lifestyle the Yup'ik people have practiced for centuries.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I want to fish again.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Want to fish again.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: This is actually a good spot to fish.

ERICKSON: On shore, a group of elders shows the students how to process fish at a large cutting table on a patch of grass just off the river. The school's literacy coach, Evelyn Esmailka, wields a large, curved traditional ulu knife and explains the differences between chum, chinook and sockeye salmon.

EVELYN ESMAILKA: Put the pinks in one and reds in another. This will be for the winter supply of fish - supplement the lunch program.

ERICKSON: 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. Riding in back, Woody Woodgate, who works for the school district, says people here favor Indigenous foods.

WOODY WOODGATE: And not really taking away anything from the USDA and the school lunch program, but, you know, most of that stuff that's on those menus are designed for, you know, people in big cities or lower 48.

ERICKSON: The new calendar the school district adopted to better teach local culture allows kids to participate in subsistence food gathering, like fishing and moose hunting.

WOODGATE: So if we can supplement using fish and moose - and especially fish and moose that the kids catch.

ERICKSON: The new calendar means the students begin the school year a week later, and they finish 10 days earlier. They make up the difference with an extra half hour of instruction each day. When Principal Barron Sample calls Woodgate from the fishing boat, it's clear that the day's salmon fishing activities were a success.

BARRON SAMPLE: Hey, Woody. Can you come to the gas station? We'll unload you with what we have and then let the kids go ahead back up.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: I want to fish again so bad.

ERICKSON: The Yupiit School District is working on other ways to integrate traditional knowledge into core subjects like math and language so kids can continue harvesting educational opportunities. For NPR News, I'm Evan Erickson in Akiachak, Alaska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Evan Erickson

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