Outside of Alaska’s few urban pockets, a constellation of tiny communities, scattered across a rugged landscape, is home to more than half of the state’s residents. Alaska is among the nation’s most rural states—99 percent of its land mass is considered so. Resource extraction, transportation, food insecurity, and climate change have strained and complicated relationships between the state’s first inhabitants—members of 229 Alaska Native Villages—and non-Natives who, for the last three centuries, have come from all over the world to seek opportunity on one of the continent’s last frontiers.
Many familiar with that history see education as a powerful means for defusing tensions among the geographic and cultural groups. That’s what programs like Alaska’s Sister School Exchange aim to do, enlisting middle and high school students to build bridges, by offering them the chance to visit one another’s communities. Founded in 2001 by the Alaska Humanities Forum, the program was initially funded through Congress and a private foundation. Since 2007, the U.S. Department of Education Alaska Native Education program has fully funded the exchange. As of this year, more than 2,000 students have traveled to 88 communities across the state to participate in the free, weeklong exchanges.
Seven years ago, I was one of those students who left her comfortable, urban home in Anchorage to fly 300 miles to New Stuyahok to participate in the exchange. I was a shy high school junior and fourth-generation Alaskan with my own set of misconceptions about my rural neighbors.
The exchange gave me the chance to understand the challenges of life in rural Alaska—like the feeling of being completely isolated and the pressures of subsistence living in an ever-changing natural environment—while also showing me what it’s like to be part of a tight-knit, culturally rich community where I made friends for life.
This April, I made the trip again, this time with an Education Week photographer and four Anchorage students and their teacher to get a sense of the kinds of academic and cultural lessons the program might offer to communities across the country with different needs and lifestyles.
Prepping for the Adventure
The program begins each year long before the travel takes place. To participate, teachers must apply and then spend several months with their students, preparing for the visit. The exchange program provides a cross-cultural learning curriculum designed by educators, both Native and non-Native, where students study their own community and family histories as a step toward understanding their exchange-program peers. The curriculum becomes primarily experiential once the students and their teacher arrive at their sister schools in early spring when students shadow their peers from class to class.
Our two-hour trip this year covered more than 500 miles. Two planes and several snowmobiles were required to reach the destination: Scammon Bay—an isolated Native Village of 500 people, nestled on a mountain a mile or so from the Bering Sea Coast in the southwestern part of the state.
The East Anchorage High School students—Genavieve Beans, Starlyn Phillips, Jonathan Gates, and Nuulau Alaelua—and their math teacher, Ellen Piekarski, each had their own reasons for wanting to make the trip. Genavieve and Starlyn, who are both sophomores, are Alaska Native and wanted to see what life would’ve been like if they had grown up in a Native Village.
Jonathan, also a sophomore, was looking to escape the bustle of Anchorage and connect with his foster and adoptive brothers at home who are of Native heritage. Twelfth grader Nuulau, whose parents are from a rural part of the Independent State of Samoa, sought a way to connect to her own background.
“My parents, they came [to Alaska] and kind of really did struggle, and it’s like they had to fit into society. So I really didn’t learn much about my own culture,” she said. “This program gives me an opportunity to learn about my roots and other people’s roots, too.”
Their teacher, Piekarski, grew up in a military family before settling in Texas and eventually moving to Alaska. She wanted the opportunity not only to visit rural Alaska, but to see what teaching in a rural classroom would be like.
World of White
On the gravel strip that is Scammon Bay Airport, we climbed out of the nine-passenger airplane. Outside, everything was white, except a handful of colorful buildings and the navy-blue squiggle of the nearby Kun River. A thick, white fog hovered overhead, making it nearly impossible to tell where the snowy tundra dissolved into bleached sky. The whoosh of the wind and the buzz of the snowmobiles—the local mode of transportation—replaced the familiar sounds of Anchorage’s busy streets.
We were greeted by a handful of students from Scammon Bay School. The only school in the village, it serves about 200 K-12 students, all of whom are Alaska Natives. The temperature was about 20 degrees, and our student hosts wore their school sweatshirts, sweatpants, and sneakers—puffy weather gear and heavy boots covered us.
Jeremy Brink, a charismatic high school senior who plans to pursue a career in teaching, led the tour through his village. Despite his ease and connection with the community, Jeremy hasn’t lived in Scammon Bay long. He left his hometown of Bethel, a nearby hub, last year to seek a change of scenery and a deeper connection to his Yup’ik culture.
As we trudged through the snow, Jeremy took us inside the health clinic where he explained, to the surprise of the Anchorage students, how the village doesn’t have doctors or nurses. Health aides, whose only medical training is a 12-to-16-week program, are the community’s only source of health care. He explained how a storm last winter prevented planes from landing for a week, endangering patients in need of advanced medical attention—a stark contrast to Anchorage, where the big hospitals serve patients from across the state. Scammon Bay also has no police force. The community’s sole crime deterrents are village public safety officers—who receive 18 weeks of training and are hired by a consortium of tribal leaders from 56 Native Villages with oversight from Alaska State Troopers.
At the only general store, the students were shocked by high prices. They oohed and aahed at a small bottle of ranch dressing, no more than 12 ounces, which cost nearly $6. This, despite having learned about the high cost of rural living in their pre-visit prep—perhaps further proof that there is no substitute for first-hand experience. (In 2012, I felt the same shock when we spent $80 on ingredients for chocolate chip cookies on my exchange trip to New Stuyahok.)
Jeremy’s 45-minute tour ended in the center of the village, at the local stream or carvaq, as it is called in the locals’ native Yup’ik. He invited us to pack our water there, just as the community does. (For residents of the Lower 48, that means to haul water for home use.) That’s something none of us would dare try at Ship Creek, the stream that cuts through downtown Anchorage.
Jonathan stayed with Scammon Bay Principal Melissa Rivers and her family in district-owned housing adjacent to the school. The rest of us, including Genavieve and Starlyn, Nuulau, and Piekarski, occupied a district-owned apartment.
In science teacher Mary Cox’s class, the students got a hands-on lesson from two visiting scientists—Lauren Bien and Chris Iannazzone from the Prince William Sound Science Center in Cordova, about 650 miles southeast of Scammon Bay. The scientists used an inflatable pool, several mystery liquids, some animal furs and feathers, and a handful of cleaning supplies to show the students how oil leaks from tankers and pipelines affect marine ecosystems. Then they let students experiment with potential clean up methods.
“Things that educate that aren’t really book or paper — we try to do as much hands-on as we have available or invite people in,” said Cox, an Arkansas transplant who’s been teaching at Scammon Bay for five years. She said she incorporates hands-on lessons herself by incubating salmon eggs in the classroom to teach about the life cycles of salmon.
Over the next few days, the Anchorage students engaged in other activities reflective of life in the bush. They learned to comb a musk ox pelt for wool or qiviut, skin an otter, and clean, inflate, dry, and cut seal intestines into sheets to sew together into a traditional Yup’ik raincoat. For the final task, students held opposite ends of a pale, slimy strip of seal gut, while blowing into it to inflate the pink, rubbery tube for drying.
At a potluck organized by principal Rivers and members of the community, the students sampled local foods like beluga, seal, herring eggs, smelt fish, and smoked salmon. Moose snout, a local delicacy, was prepared by the school’s chemistry teacher, Kristian Nattinger, who was in his last semester with the school after two years. Together, the students held up their oily, cream-colored, pieces of moose snout cartilage. In unison, they each bit a piece of the meat off the thin layer of hairy snout skin.
“It tasted like chicken,” Starlyn reported.
The locals’ deep knowledge of subsistence food-gathering practices impressed the Anchorage students.
“When you think about people in the bush you think, ‘Oh, they just hunt, they might not know much,’ but in reality, they know a lot more than we do, and they can do a lot more than we can,” Nuulau said. “It made me realize how I need to value things more.”
Macy Rivers, a softspoken 11th grader from Scammon Bay, appreciated the chance to share her life with her urban peers.
“It is important for them to see how we live out here because they could know who we are and how we live and just to see how we grow up and see how different it is living in a village than a city,” she said. “There are no cars, no highways. You know everyone.”
The Anchorage and Scammon Bay students were already sharing Snapchat usernames and bonding over similar music tastes when they learned the rural students wouldn’t be visiting their homes in Anchorage this year. The reason: Conflicting activities prevented the Scammon Bay students from completing the required preparatory curriculum.
The news disappointed students from both communities. “They are frustrated now that they’ve met the students in the community. They’re like, ‘Can’t they just come?’” Piekarski said of her Anchorage students.
But she and other participating educators later said the curriculum is essential to a smooth experience for students, with its emphasis on first understanding one’s own culture, learning different communication styles and how to share cultural differences without offending, and developing an openness to new foods and experiences.
“I wasn’t worried about my students feeling comfortable in the community,” Piekarski said. “Now I see it helped them be prepared.”
“I would absolutely love it if every high school student could do these activities,” she said. “I think it would be an amazing way to improve relations with people from different communities.”
On her last day in the village, Genavieve said four days wasn’t enough. The Good Friday holiday cut their weeklong visit to four days. “I feel like I got cheated out of the experience.”
Nuulau said her time in Scammon Bay has motivated her to visit villages in her parents’ Samoan homeland.
“I learned to not judge and assume a lot of things because even I thought I knew everything before coming [to Scammon Bay],” she said. “When I heard about the trip, I thought, ‘Is it really worth coming here?’ Now, I wish we had more time because it’s just so great. I know why people are here and stay here.”
When I returned to my Anchorage high school in 2012 from my visit to New Stuyahok, I felt both more connected and knowledgeable about my home and neighbors, while also more aware that I had barely scratched the surface of what Alaska has to offer—which only propelled me to discover more of my state.
Leaving Old Perceptions Behind
And I shed some misconceptions about life in Alaska’s rural Native Villages. Like many of my peers, I had believed Alaska Natives were to blame for the state’s high rate of drug and alcohol abuse and violent crimes. Alcohol-induced mortality rates are more than double in Alaska than for the United States as a whole, with 23 people per 100,000 citizens in Alaska compared to a nationwide average of 9.5, according to 2016 data from the Centers for Disease Control. For Alaska Natives, that rate is more than seven times the national average, with 81.7 people dying per 100,000 residents. What I didn’t understand then was that resources for health care, mental-health services, and addiction treatment are scarce beyond Alaska’s urban areas.
These mindset changes are not uncommon. Program statistics show that 90 percent of participants showed a change in perception following their travels, said Kari Lovett, the SSE coordinator.
For Piekarski, the added benefit was that she got to try her hand at substitute teaching in a math class at Scammon Bay. She found that while the technology and instructional resources there were more limited than in Anchorage, “you can still teach and impart wisdom.”
East High, which draws students from a wide range of racial and ethnic groups, is already one of the nation’s most culturally diverse high schools. But Piekarski said her experience in Scammon Bay further honed her sensitivity to students’ different cultural backgrounds back in Anchorage.
“This experience is definitely going to change how I teach, particularly with my students that are Native Alaskan, and I’ll have some of them that, you know, grew up in a village and then came to Anchorage,” she said. “A lot of the things that students do that used to bug me, I realize, hey, that’s part of their culture.”
Learn ore about the project and Education Week.
This is the first in a series of articles from “Letters to Alaska,” a project exploring how cultural and geographic barriers, teacher shortages, history, the natural environment, and other factors have shaped schooling in Alaska. The project is funded by the Gregory M. Chronister Journalism Fellowship, which supports enterprising or investigative work each year in pre-K-12 education. The fellowship honors the now-retired Gregory M. Chronister, a longtime executive editor, managing editor, associate editor, and Commentary editor at Education Week.