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Faith, hope, and love: teaching values.

Presently I live closer to Russia than I do Anchorage. Russian influence is just around the Alaskan corner.

A few years ago I had reason to travel to what was then my first Eskimo village other than the one I was living in at the time. The settlement was located along the Yukon River and called Russian Mission.

Russian Mission is home to about 350 Yup'ik Eskimos with a smattering of eye colors other than brown. Names like Vaska, Kozevnikoff, Alexie, Nickoli, and Stafphanoff are proudly displayed on the school sports banner hanging in the gym. Promyshlenniki -Russian fur traders--established a trading post there along the banks of the Yukon in 1830. The Russian Orthodox Church soon followed and started a mission, thus the name. Of course there was already a thriving Eskimo village that had been on the same spot for around 10,000 years but such minor technicalities have never stopped a Russian or European pioneer from naming anything.


The first thing that struck me as we pulled up to the school was a strange-looking animal hanging from a drying rack. I later found out it was an otter. The critter had been caught and skinned by the students to feed a gathering of district wide native school officials that were holding a meeting of some kind. It was not ready for cooking though and the guests had to dine on Caribou, dried salmon, and moose instead. I doubt if many were disappointed.

In the Russian Mission School along with the reading, writing, and math a strong emphasis in teaching the traditional subsistence way of life was present. When I was there the boys in the school had just returned from a two week hunting and camping trip and the girls were getting ready to do the same.

I was impressed. Here was a school I thought that really was doing what all the other schools were talking about doing. I filed that little bit of information away.

Now a few years later while teaching above and below the Arctic Circle I have come across it again. In Noatak and Buckland the three R's are given a lot of time and effort. The communities realize that for their children to survive in the world they will have to be knowledgeable in the ways of modern society. However the parents still demand that traditional values be taught, respected by the teachers, and honored by the students.

There are several days set aside each school year at both schools called Inupiaq Days. Classes are dismissed and the parents and other leaders of the community, along with a teacher or two, participate in hunting, fishing, winter survival, or arts and crafts that range from carving (bone, ivory, or stone) to beading and braiding. The Noatak High School takes their students on a river float trip at least twice a year and Buckland does something similar (both schools are along a river) and travel to a hot springs area not far from the village.

Not only are those type of cultural endeavors kept high on the list or priorities by the community leaders, each school has signs hung in strategic areas listing the Inupiaq values: faith, hope, and love. The same ones I leaned when I attended Sunday School.

I asked one of the village elders if they ever had a problem separating "Church and State." As far as I could tell no one seemed to be afraid of praying openly and Christmas programs are real Christmas programs along with an Easter celebration not disguised as a springtime festival. The elder told me, "That is your problem down there." The Friends Church has a large presence in both villages and in a large part are responsible for self-imposed curfews and the lack of mischief that goes on in a lot of villages without the aid of village police. One gentleman is so designated in Buckland but unless you are a native you would not know who he was.

Many a night I am sure a group of elders sit around a stove, drinking coffee lamenting the fact that the traditional way of life is dwindling. But the efforts I have seen while living with the Yup'iks and Inupiaqs is that the old ways will not "go gently into that good night."

Yukon Life & Culture by Conley Stone McAnally
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Title Annotation:YukonCircle
Author:McAnally, Conley Stone
Publication:Whispering Wind
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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