This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner Home Page About ANKN Publications Academic Programs Curriculum Resources Calendar of Events Announcements Site Index This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner This is part of the ANKN Banner
Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Yup'ik RavenOur Language Our Souls:

The Yup'ik bilingual curriculum of the
Lower Kuskokwim School District: A continuing success story.

Edited by Delena Norris-Tull, University of Alaska Fairbanks,
School of Education, Fairbanks, Alaska
copyright 1999

Chapter 7
K-3 Thematic Units and the Alaska Cultural Standards
by Nita Yurrliq Rearden
Bethel, Alaska
Copyright 1998
Yupiit calituut ilalluten. Yup'ik people work together.

Currently, I work for the Lower Kuskokwim School District as an Education Specialist for the Yup'ik language program. My office is in the Bilingual Curriculum department, headed by Coordinator Beverly Williams. My knowledgeable coworkers are all content-area Curriculum Specialists for science, language arts, social studies, health, physical education, and mathematics. Everyone works together toward meeting the LKSD mission statement: "The mission of the Lower Kuskokwim School District is to ensure bilingual, culturally appropriate and effective education for all students, thereby providing them with the opportunity to be responsible, productive citizens." (p. 5, LKSD Annual Report Card)

I was raised in the village of Kotlik, a small village of less than ten families at the mouth of the Yukon River. I value the unique experience of growing up having roots with the Yup'ik culture and language. A one-room school was operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs at Chaneliak, about six miles northeast of Kotlik. There were thirty to sixty residents in Chaneliak, a Catholic Church and an Alaska Commercial Company store. The Alaska Commercial Company supplied simple foods, such as flour, sugar, salt, tea, coffee, and canned goods. In addition to food, we had kerosene, gas, and motor oil for boats. The subsistence lifestyle we led was simple but strenuous.

When I was six, I entered school. I only spoke Yup'ik. English words, to me, sounded like a sparrow singing in a high pitched tone. It was only the second year of school that the sounds began to make sense and I understood words and sentences. Priests spoke English, but Latin was used during mass. Some interested priests helped translate prayers into Yup'ik with the assistance of local people. In fact, Margaret Andrews and Father Lennox translated prayers and songbooks into Yup'ik, using the old Yup'ik orthography. These Yup'ik prayers were practiced at home while I was growing up. My mother read Yup'ik prayers, but she never went to school.

Some people thought that the lifestyle in the villages was "poor". We lived in a one-room log cabin with no running water, no electricity, and we ate simple foods. I never knew a cookbook existed with written recipes until I was in high school when I took a home economics class.

When I really think about my growing up years, as compared to the children today, in a sense I was raised in a richer environment than a lot of other people. There is richness in the environment in which we live that allows us to experience, understand, and acquire the basics of Yup'ik life. I was exposed to many cultural activities, and I learned from my grandparents' and parents' conversations spoken only in Yup'ik. I could name the local birds in Yup'ik and I had to learn them again in English when I took a science class. I remembered them much better in Yup'ik than I do in English. My tests were all in English. I remember struggling to remember the English names because I had to memorize them with no application. Teachers that came to the villages and mission schools did not understand the value of bilingualism and insisted that students speak

English only. In fact, it was a common practice to punish students when they spoke in Yup'ik.

Many people of my age and older had similar cultural experiences, which help them to be strong Native people today. Values and beliefs under the Alerquutet, Inerquutet, or Yuuyarat (common sense rules, laws, and how to live) are deep in the roots of our culture. (Refer to the article by Theresa Arevgaq John, Chapter 9, for details on the alerquutet and inerquutet).

The Lower Kuskokwim School District administrators recognize the need to keep the culture and language of the Yup'ik families alive. They understand that students benefit from learning two languages. Research shows that people with the ability to speak two or more languages learn to solve problems, reason, acquire critical and analytical thinking skills, and demonstrate a higher order of thinking skills. LKSD would like to produce students with all of these skills by encouraging bilingualism and teaching traditional culture and values in the community schools.

School sites have goals that they have established through the Alaska Onward To Excellence (AOTE) process. AOTE has brought the communities together and involved them in their children's education. Communities involved in AOTE have developed goals for students, one of which includes fluency in Yup'ik and English.

The district is responsible for developing materials to meet the students' needs. In the 1996-97 LKSD annual report card student learning goals are described as:

  • Demonstrate Civic and Personal Responsibility
  • Demonstrate Effective Communication
  • Value Culture, Environment, Self, and Others
  • Be Problem Solvers in a Changing World

LKSD summer institutes helped us begin to develop materials for the Yup'ik curriculum. The development of materials has been a long process, starting during the time of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Schools. Bilingual programs have existed since then. We continue to develop materials for the program needs.

During the l995 summer institute, LKSD language teachers learned about thematic units and wrote integrated units with a cultural focus. The institute took place in Anchorage. During the summer of 1996 in Bethel, fourteen units were developed based on six Yup'ik seasons of the year. These were Self, Roles, and Identity; Gathering Food; Plants; Animals; Getting Materials Ready; Ceremonies; Celebrations with Masks; Weather; Family/Extended Family; Clothing; Survival; Traditional Toys; Preparation for Spring; and Fish Camp. Yup'ik language teachers, involved with curriculum specialist instructors, worked many hours on instructional ideas for each unit. Books written by local people to support materials for the bilingual programs were developed to support the thematic units. We began implementing the units at our schools. By the summer of 1997, the teachers realized the overwhelming task of the Yup'ik curriculum. There was too much to teach, not enough time during school days, and not enough materials.

At the summer institutes, discussions are held on how to fit state and national education standards into curriculum development. The content curricula are rewritten to meet these standards. The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development requires districts to meet student needs through the standards all through their education.

One obstacle staff faces with thematic units at some sites is that some Christian religions do not allow dancing, so students cannot learn Eskimo dancing. Some sites have developed Eskimo dancers for the first time, and these dancers have performed during the annual Camai Dance Festival in Bethel in March.

Teachers that implemented the thematic units saw the need to reorganize the units to fit a spiral scope and sequence type of learning so that all subject areas would be met in each grade level. In 1998, Tari Lindquist was hired to work with the bilingual teachers to help reorganize units to meet the state, national, and cultural standards. It is hard work to create lessons that meet the goals established by the district to teach in the first language of the students, and to make it all culturally appropriate.

I think Yup'ik curriculum is important because students build self esteem once they understand who they are, feel confident about doing the things they do, and are able to compare themselves to and link to the rest of the world. The Native ways of learning are very important from the cultural and language aspects, as well as academic.

The "Alaska Standards for Culturally Responsive Schools" were adopted by the assembly of Alaska Native educators in Anchorage prior to the statewide Bilingual Bicultural Education Equity Conference on February 3, l998. These cultural standards provide guidelines for examining the teaching of culture and language. The Assembly recognized that Native students need help to connect to the roots of their ancestors, through cultural practices. The standards define what cultural values students should know and be taught in the school programs. LKSD, through the AOTE process, has helped define what cultural traditions students should learn. The Alaska Onward To Excellence process has had positive effects on the people of the community and the students. For some Elders, it was the first time that they were allowed to express what they want their children to learn and that they had a sense of belonging in the schools.

Elders want the Yup'ik traditions and language taught to the students. They know how the changes of today's life have affected our children.

The "Alaska Standards for Culturally Responsive Schools" is divided into five sections. Under the "Cultural Standards for Students," the K-3 Yup'ik themes meet the cultural standards A, B, and D. In some instances, the theme units not only meet the cultural standards but go beyond what is recommended. Children in kindergarten through third grade can learn and attain values and beliefs practiced by the Yup'ik people and meet academic standards through the thematic units. Alerquutet, inerquutet, or yuuyarat can be taught from the start of school, along with the themes. Students can become well grounded in their cultural heritage, through the thematic units: Self, Roles, and Identity, Family, Extended Family, and Wellness. Some may agree that we can ground students in their cultural heritage in all of the themes.

Standard C introduces involvement in the various cultural environments that students can experience. I feel that students in the lower grades will meet this standard by the time they reach high school. The real test will be when the students live with their acquired "basics of life" on their own when they are outside of the school system.

"Cultural Standards for Educators" are guides to help teachers understand and recognize what they need to attain in order to teach culturally relevant activities. For Yup'ik educators these guides are reminders of what is embedded in the roots of the culture and language. Educators who are raised speaking Yup'ik, with alerquutet or yuuyarat practiced as part of the culture, should be able to assist them when teaching the thematic units. All the theme units should include values and beliefs of the Yup'ik people. An educator who has never experienced sewing should learn the skills of sewing fur clothing from an expert in order to teach effectively.

For non-Yup'ik educators these standards should help them in their content areas of teaching. For instance, in standard A., "The educator should be able to incorporate local knowledge to help the child link to the Western culture." Understanding the child's background knowledge is of importance while teaching. How to utilize Elders and their expertise is another important factor. I also think communication skills with Elders, other local educators, community members, and students are very important. When one learns to communicate with the Yup'ik people, you will learn what you need to know about culture.

"Cultural Standards for Curriculum" applies to all content areas of curriculum, whether it is language arts, Yup'ik, science, social studies, or health. The LKSD curriculum guides recognize the importance of culture in the curriculum. The objectives stated in the thematic units focus on all of the content standards applicable under a theme unit in a spiral type of learning in each grade level. It took a lot of time and thought to connect and write the standards for the theme units. The educators during the summer institute had to come to agreement about what best suited the themes. We found out that there is a lot to teach in a Yup'ik curriculum. Bev Williams and Tari Lindquist took part in developing the standards for the themes. Bev stated, "It took all of the Yup'ik staff and Elders and the Content Education Specialists to build the foundation for the themes and to meet the State and District Content Standards. The next step will be to develop the Benchmark Performance Standards."

"Cultural Standards for Schools" help identify what a school curriculum should contain. I think these school standards fit well in rural settings. We have Elders to interact with students, teachers, and administrators. As long as the theme units are taught in Yup'ik, it makes sense to Elders for the traditional ways of knowing to be taught in the schools. Elders assess students in their own way. It is not a paper and pencil type of assessment but is done by observation and trial and error- especially in the arts and crafts activities. Under the laws of Yup'ik alerqutet, inerquutet, and yuuyarat Elders assess the students when they are adults. As students they are constantly guided and reminded about the ways of discipline through stories, models, and talking.

In 1998 LKSD Summer Institute provided staff development for the K-3 Yup'ik teachers in the balanced Yup'ik literacy program. Books were translated into Yup'ik to meet the objectives of the reading program from the Wright Group company. Teachers have learned to level books in Yup'ik and have developed more reading books.

Students will enjoy reading in Yup'ik as well as developing skills to become fluent readers. Research indicates that learning to read in one language transfers easily in another language. Elders want their children to be fluent both in Yup'ik and English. This is a fantastic goal for the district.

The school district recognizes the importance of hiring Alaska Native teachers. Currently (1998) there are seventy Native teachers in the Lower Kuskokwim School District.

Standard D.3. states that we should "provide cultural orientation camps." I see this standard as an opportunity for LKSD to train non-Native new teachers in the ways of Native culture and language. Teachers receive professional development training during the summer institutes. We have cultural in-services for new teachers, but I also see the need for cultural camps for the district.

"Cultural Standards for Communities" are met in most village sites where Yup'ik is spoken. This standard reminds communities that language should be kept alive because our language helps us understand Yup'ik concepts of raising a child. Elders constantly express to the younger generation to know, learn, and practice alerquutet, inerquutet or yuuyarat. These rules have many examples of values, beliefs, and oral stories that help to produce a true Yup'ik.

I find the thematic units can meet the Cultural Standards for Communities as long as there is teaching and practice of the culture within the community. Parental involvement is important to help educate the child.

One of the obstacles that parents face in the communities is television. Children learn English very fast from television. But television wastes a lot of precious time when teaching the culture and language could occur. There are lots of creative activities supplied for children around the village that can be taught rather than watching TV. How often do we see children playing outside early in the morning and listening to birds sing during the summer? Another obstacle that keeps the parents apart from time with their children is evening bingo. Again, precious teaching time is wasted.

One of the obstacles teachers face when implementing the thematic units are finding raw materials such as furs to help teach the units. It is also hard to find enough theme books written in Yup'ik. Teachers may not find enough to support the message they want children to learn and not have enough books for children to read independently. There is no encyclopedia in Yup'ik nor many science books. In addition some parents cannot read in Yup'ik so have difficulty helping with homework. Teachers may not have skills in making masks, fur clothing, net mending, dancing, beach grass gathering, plant identification, food gathering and many other important aspects of Yup'ik culture. Sometimes it is hard to find local Elders who are skilled in all these areas and available to help the teachers and students to learn. Other obstacles that teachers may face are Christian religious beliefs that do not support Eskimo dancing and mask making. Some older people may still believe that it is wrong to perform these cultural activities. There may be other obstacles that appear as the units are taught.

The next step for the thematic units is to develop an assessment process. Assessment tasks and tools would need to be identified, whether it is observation, rubric, scoring guide, or tests on paper. Teachers can come up with rubrics for the cultural arts and crafts as well as talk to Elders about how assessment should be done. I think knowledge gained from the students can be assessed in a variety of different ways.

Yup'ik curriculum should reflect the culture and language of the people. I think there should be continued summer institutes to help train teachers not only in orthography skills but also teaching of the yuuyaraq. Younger generations of teachers may need to reconnect to the history of teachings of Elders to support their way of teaching. I feel we can provide this training during the summer institutes as curriculum becomes stronger and meaningful meeting all standards of the culture, district, state, and national. One thing I like to recommend is that the Yup'ik educators develop Yup'ik standards.

In conclusion, the students who are in this program will benefit to the fullest of becoming a Yup'ik person if all units are taught well with meaningful experiences. I would like to see many of the values and beliefs written so that the Yup'ik practice can continue. For instance, how do you take care of animal bones? For the respect of the animal, they are disposed in the water if they come from the ocean, or buried if land animals. How do you talk to the animals when they are given to you? When you feed other people at your home, when do you take your turn to eat? How do you treat a stranger? Which stories help you to discipline your child? How do you act in another village that you do not live in? There are many beliefs not written which could help in teaching Yup'ik culture and language. Yup'ik students would understand how the Yup'ik ancestors respectfully practiced their culture and language. One of my children once said, "What you say is not true because it is not written." Some Elders experience the same type of answer when they correct their children or grandchildren's behavior.

Students need to practice values and beliefs to grow in their culture. Remember the saying, "Whatever you learn in kindergarten, you learn for the rest of your life."



Waite, Willard. (1996-97). Lower Kuskokwim School District Annual Report Card. LKSD.

Martz, Cecelia. (1997). Y/Cuuyaraq (Yup'ik/Cup'ik Educational Philosophy Statement). Alaska Native Knowledge Network.

Lindquist, Tari & Beverly Williams. (1997). Upinguarluta: Getting Ready for Life. Lower Kuskokwim School District.

Assembly of Alaska Native Educators. (1998). Alaska Standards for Culturally Responsive Schools. Alaska Native Knowledge Network.

Posner, George J. (1995). Analyzing the Curriculum. McGraw-Hill, Inc.


Table of Contents

  • Introduction to the Kuskokwim Delta - Delena Norris-Tull
  • Introduction to the Yup'ik Language and Culture Programs of the Lower Kuskokwim School District - Delena Norris-Tull & Beverly Williams
  • Chapter 1: The Yup'ik First Language Program: Lower Kuskokwim School District - Mary Lou Beaver & Evon Azean, Sr.
  • Chapter 2: The Balanced Literacy Program in Yup'ik - Pamela Yancey & Sophie Shield
  • Chapter 3: Creating Yup'ik Books, Translating, & Orthography - Pamela Yancey & Sophie Shield
  • Chapter 4: Ayaprun Immersion School - Loddie Ayaprun Jones
  • Chapter 5: Analysis of the Yup'ik Immersion Program In Bethel - Agatha Panigkaq John-Shields
  • Chapter 6: Yup'ik Language and Culture: A Description and Analytical View of the 4-6 Yup'ik Thematic Unit - Dora E. Strunk
  • Chapter 7: K-3 Thematic Units and the Alaska Cultural Standards - Nita Yurrliq Rearden
  • Chapter 8: Yup'ik Language and Culture: A Description of the 5th-12th Yup'ik Curriculum and its Revision - Rosalie Lincoln
  • Chapter 9: Yup'ik Discipline Practices Inerquutet and Alerquutet To Implement Into Yup'ik Schools - Theresa Arevgaq John
  • Chapter 10: Recommendations for Yup'ik Curriculum at Lower Kuskokwim School District - Sally Casey

email the editor, D. Norris-Tull


Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and educational institution and is a part of the University of Alaska system.


Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
Questions or comments?
Last modified August 18, 2006