Getting the drift of Napakiak

Floyd Dryden students swap cultural life with Yupik children

Posted: Monday, March 21, 2005

If you ever go to Napakiak, a Yup'ik Eskimo village on the Kuskokwim River, don't fall for the "tradition" about biting the head of the first fish you catch.

The village sense of humor is one lesson Floyd Dryden Middle School teacher Molly Box, who left her teethmarks on a pike, took home from a recent exchange program.

Five Dryden seventh-graders and two teachers visited the village from Feb. 27 to March 6. Five Napakiak middle-school-age students and a teacher were in Juneau last week.

The exchange is sponsored by the federally funded Rose Urban Rural Exchange of the Alaska Humanities Forum. The schools will be sister-schools for three years.

Middle-school students are at a stage of life in which they're focused on social relationships, said Dryden teacher Emma Brown.

"For them, it was mostly about making friends. And they immediately made friends," Box said.

Students from the two areas realized they are more alike than different, but they appreciated the differences, she said.

The Juneau students were surprised that Napakiak, with about 360 people, was larger than they thought it would be. They were surprised that folks have TV, video games and running water.

The villagers get most of their food from a store, Napakiak eighth-grader Pete Smart said. But most of the meat from hunting, Napakiak eighth-grader Byron Black said.

"I thought we were going to be eating disgusting food," said Dryden student E.J. Peters.

"But then it just turned out to be having fun and good food," he said, thinking of chicken patties, pizza and egg rolls.

For fun, the students tried ice fishing, mushing and snowmachining. They learned how to cut and dry fish.

Ice fishing "was long," Dryden student Karla Boyd said succinctly.

"You just hold the stick," classmate Kenny Donnelly said.

"And bob it up and down," Christopher Budbill said, completing the thought.

In middle school, a sentence gets passed around from person to person until it's done.

Norman Black, a competitive musher who is the father of Byron, gave the Juneau kids rides in the sled. From that vantage point, the students noted that sled dogs don't take potty breaks.

Kenny, though, stood on the runners with the musher holding on behind him, and ran the dogs.

"It was cool. It was pretty easy. Sometimes getting them to stop is kind of hard," Kenny said.

At a potluck, the blindfolded Juneau kids sampled among traditional foods such as walrus blubber, Eskimo ice cream, ptarmigan soup, caribou stew and pike dipped in seal oil.

"I got off easy," Karla said. "I had smoked salmon and Eskimo ice cream."

In Napakiak, Eskimo ice cream is made with lard, sugar, water, berries and sometimes fish, salmon eggs, ptarmigan or potatoes, the village students said.

"I was fed beaver, and that thing was strong," Kenny said.

Grace Billy, a Napakiak seventh-grader, volunteered for the exchange because she wanted to see what it's like to live in Juneau. Black said he wanted to see what it's like to live with a different family.

The Napakiak students stayed with host families here. The Juneau students stayed with teachers in the village.

While in Juneau, the Napakiak kids spent the mornings at Dryden. In the afternoons they visited government offices, the DIPAC hatchery and the police station, among other destinations.

Even urban Juneau had novel wildlife to show the villagers. One girl was excited by seeing bald eagles. At DIPAC's aquarium, the students saw crabs, anemones and fish species they weren't familiar with.

"We saw 700,000 baby salmon," Pete said.

"I asked that guy if we could take some, but he said no," Grace said.

The students also went ice skating, skiing and snowboarding, and ate at Bullwinkle's. There, Grace said, they learned to drive a car using one of the video games.

There are no roads to Napakiak. Villagers use boats and snowmachines to get around. But a few people drive cars on the frozen Kuskokwim.

"Hopefully, what they get out of it is the fact that they're not so different," said Napakiak teacher Pat Wauters. "Kids are the same everywhere. The way they view life is pretty much the same."

The exchange also serves as professional development for teachers of Alaska studies, said Brown, one of the two Dryden teachers who participated.

"It's one thing to read about it," she said. "I think we both had a better understanding of rural Alaska after going."

Using a curriculum from the Rose Urban Rural Exchange, the Dryden teachers extended the experience to all 45 of the students they teach as a team.

The Napakiak and Juneau students exchanged letters and photos about themselves, challenged each other to knowledge quizzes, described their homes and local means of transportation, prepared questions for interviews with adults, and wrote about their family heritage.

"A lot of (the Juneau students) didn't know answers about their grandparents. They had to ask family members," Brown said.

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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