Our 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
K-3 Thematic Units and the Alaska
by Nita Yurrliq Rearden
Yupiit calituut ilalluten. Yup'ik people work
Currently, I work for the Lower Kuskokwim School District
as an Education Specialist for the Yup'ik language program. My office is
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
For non-Yup'ik educators these standards should help them
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
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
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
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
In conclusion, the students who are in this program will
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
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
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
Posner, George J. (1995). Analyzing the Curriculum.
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 &
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Chapter 8: Yup'ik Language and Culture: A
Description of the 5th-12th
Yup'ik Curriculum and its Revision - Rosalie
- 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
editor, D. Norris-Tull