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Alaska Natives seek degrees at Haskell University

Posted: January 5, 2014 - 1:07am

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Since he was old enough to carry a gun — in his remote Alaskan village, that’s about 8 — Daniel Andrew has helped his family hunt seal, caribou and moose to eat. Beaver-trapping, berry-picking and egg-hunting also are part of life in a place where groceries, at times, are a bush plane ride or an ice road drive away.

Outside Grace Denning’s home are views of deep green forests marching down mountainsides to the edge of the ocean. The air is always cool and fresh, the Lawrence Journal-World reports.

Moving to Lawrence? It’s been an adjustment.

For Andrew and Denning, it’s probably a temporary one. Two of about a dozen Alaska Natives enrolled at Haskell Indian Nations University, both hope to use the education they get here to help their villages back home.

Alaska is home to the farthest outpost of students eligible to attend Haskell, as Hawaiians are not federally recognized Indian tribes, Haskell spokesman Stephen Prue said. He said a faster-paced lifestyle, hot weather and high cost of travel are among the biggest challenges Haskell’s Alaskan students face.

Andrew and Denning can relate.

Andrew, a 23-year-old freshman, is a member of the Yupik tribe from the village of Kasigluk in southwestern Alaska.

Andrew’s first glimpse of Kansas was in mid-August, when he arrived at Haskell. He loathed leaving his dorm room, where even his roommate from the Dakotas found his preferred air conditioner settings too cold. More to his liking was a recent day when Lawrence’s high was just 18 degrees. That may be even nicer than back home, he said, where extreme wintertime lows have dipped to more than 40 degrees below.

The closest city to Kasigluk, population about 550, takes about 15 minutes to reach in a bush plane, Andrew said. A slower, wintertime-only option is maneuvering the bends and curves of the ice road, a frozen river with snow plowed to the side.

With groceries expensive and hard to get, a subsistence lifestyle is a necessity, not a fad. One of the things Andrew misses most is his tribe’s tradition of hunting and gathering — the camaraderie, the tundra and “taking that fresh air” he’s appreciated since he was a child with his first gun.

“My dad taught me how to hold it and how to shoot it,” he said. “But when we’re little we kind of follow along, and just watch and learn what we need to do.”

To get home for Christmas, Andrew’s flight itinerary was as follows: Kansas City, Mo., to Seattle. Seattle to Anchorage. 12-hour layover. Anchorage to Bethel. Bush plane to Kasigluk.

Denning, 21, a member of the Tlingit tribe, is from the islands around Juneau, Alaska, in the state’s southeastern panhandle.

“You have to take a plane or a ferry or some type of boat to get to them,” she said. “I’m not used to being able to drive to Walmart.”

Denning lived on the mainland as a child but attended middle and high school in Ketchikan, a city that booms with tourism in summer when northbound Alaska cruise ships make it one of their first stops. For the past three years she’s lived and worked in Metlakatla, home to the state’s only Indian reservation.

Moving to Lawrence was an environmental shock for Denning, who describes it as flat with few trees and summer weather that’s “almost unbearably hot and humid.” It’s also been a culture shock. She misses her way of life in Alaska, where native customs are worked into everyday things like traditional dance, artwork and school lessons.

Denning knows just two other Tlingit students at Haskell, she said, but one just graduated and the other was raised Navajo and didn’t learn Tlingit traditions.

“Outside of the Haskell campus, it is very American — just a mix of everything EXCEPT the natives,” Denning said.

In Metlakatla, Denning worked as a substitute teacher, janitor and office attendant in public schools, then as a child and adolescent behavioral health aid for the Metlakatla Indian government.

She’s trying to decide between specializing in business management to work in tribal offices or indigenous studies to do social work, noting both are needed in Metlakatla.

“Although we have a health department, we do not have a hospital,” Denning said. “We do not have larger facilities to take care of, especially, social work needs.”

Andrew worked for AmeriCorps’ Rural Alaska Village Environmental Network Program before applying to Haskell. After finishing his degree he wants to return to his or another rural school district to teach. He said native teachers are in demand back home, because they know the traditions and speak the language — Andrew’s first language is Yupik, not English, and school is taught in both.

Andrew said he’s adapting to Lawrence and is glad everyone has been friendly.

“It does feel big,” Andrew said. “But I mostly stay on campus, and that makes it feel a little bit at home.”

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