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Native Pathways to Education
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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

Introduction to the Kuskokwim Delta
By Delena Norris-Tull
University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska
Copyright 1999

(Editor's note: I am relatively new to Alaska, having moved to Dillingham in December 1993. Since that time I have traveled to approximately 30 villages in western and southwestern Alaska. I had the great honor of residing in Bethel, Alaska from August 1997 to January 1999 while teaching at the Kuskokwim Campus (a branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks). I traveled to several villages in the Lower Kuskokwim School District during that time, advising college students and working with student teachers. The following narrative is based on my personal experience in this region of the state. Any errors in my representation of the region are my own. I referred to 1990 US Census data to back up my information.)

The Lower Kuskokwim School District is located in the lower drainage of the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska. The district serves a region of the state that is about 44,000 square miles (roughly the size of the state of Ohio). The district headquarters are located in Bethel, a town of about 5000 people, and one of the largest towns in rural Alaska. Bethel is 400 air miles due west of Anchorage, and is about 350 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Jets fly several times a day between Anchorage and Bethel. Neither Bethel nor any of the villages in western Alaska is connected to the rest of the state by roads. The lower Kuskokwim region is relatively flat tundra, and has very few trees. A number of villages are so close to sea level that the houses are literally standing in water. The fog settles, the wind blows, and the dust accumulates. And the people are the most kind and loving people I have ever met in my life.

Travel from Bethel to the outlying villages is by various sizes and types of bush plane, boat, snowmobile, dog sled, and even by hovercraft. The Lower Kuskokwim School District has 27 schools, five in Bethel and the rest distributed in 21 villages. Those villages range in size from about 60 to 600 people. Of the approximately 3600 students in the school district, 91 percent are Alaska Native. The population of Bethel is about 60% Alaska Native. The population of each of the 21 villages in the region is greater than 90% Alaska Native. Yup'ik is the predominant Alaska Native language in the region, with Cup'ig (a Yup'ik dialect) in Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island.

School district language proficiency testing reveals that a significant number of children in the district come to school speaking Yup'ik. Of the 21 villages served by the district, the majority of the children in 13 villages come to school with greater proficiency in Yup'ik than in English. In five other villages, the level of Yup'ik proficiency is variable but significant. In only three of the villages (Goodnews, Mekoryuk, and Platinum) do children have no proficiency or extremely limited proficiency in Yup'ik/Cup'ig. In Bethel, it is common to hear Yup'ik being spoken in shops and homes by adults although few children are fluent in Yup'ik.

Bethel is unique in the region in having an astounding diversity of cultures, including a large contingent of Koreans. The Camai dance festival, an annual event in Bethel in the spring, hosts Alaska Native dancers from all over the state as well as Korean and Japanese dancers, and dancers from other regions of the world and the nation.

When I first visited Bethel, I was amazed to find that it has a large number of taxicabs. Few people own automobiles and many rely on the cab service for local transportation. The most common response I received whenever I asked my cab driver where he or she most recently came from (regardless of ethnicity) was Los Angeles. In the two years I lived and traveled in the region, I was served by cab drivers from Russia, Korea, China, Japan, Iran, Albania, and Macedonia, as well as a number of American cabbies from various of the lower 48 states.

In contrast to it's cosmopolitan population, Bethel and the Lower Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region has the highest poverty level in the state (12 percent of people in Bethel live below poverty level, but that percentage increases to 25-75 percent in the villages), and the region has the greatest health problems. In the year 2000, other than Bethel, these villages lack adequate sewage disposal facilities. The Alaskan honey bucket (literally a small bucket in a corner of a room, used as a toilet) is still the common means of waste disposal, with one central disposal site in each village (individuals carry their honey buckets to the central disposal site daily). It was not until the summer of 1998 that a law went into effect banning honey buckets in buildings in Bethel. In Bethel, most homes and businesses rely on water being trucked to their homes and sewage being trucked out. In 2000, none of the villages served by the Lower Kuskokwim School District has suitable drinking water. Each village has one central water source, and villagers rely on surface water that is often not clean. Many people boil or distill their drinking water. Rates of contagious diseases are extremely high in the region. Children and teachers miss many days of school due to illness each year. Outbreaks of tuberculosis and hepatitis still occur. Children and adults die young and in high numbers annually.

The Yup'ik/Cup'ig people of western Alaska have a great wealth of knowledge and skills that many outsiders lack. Although, as have people in the cities, rural residents have become dependent on manufactured goods and imported gasoline and fuel oil (which come to rural Alaska at a very high price), the people of western Alaska maintain a reliance on a subsistence lifestyle that provides them with a great deal of independence and self-sufficiency. Seasonal harvest of a wide range of animals and plants, from the sea and from the land, remains the most important source of food and many personal items. On my first visit to Chefornak, I was allowed to watch the butchering of a seal. On my last visit to Chevak, I was invited to taste the seal oil.


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


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Last modified August 18, 2006