Napaskiak: What’s in a School?

Schools are vital in all societies. But even more so in those that have little. The importance of Alaska’s village schools was once emphasized by a stern matron sitting next to me on a small plane: “our school is everything. It is for the children, but everyone benefits.”

I witnessed these truths in Bethel and Napaskiak, where I experienced what schools mean to these communities. The first time I flew into Bethel, Alaska, a red blaze created a false sunrise on the horizon. One of Alaska’s oldest and most culturally vibrant schools burned.

Bethel is a major hub in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, or the “YK” as it’s called, an area connected by winding rivers, alive with boat traffic in the summer and snow mobiles (or “snow machines” as most Alaskans call them) in the winter. It’s about the size of Louisiana and is basically a vast subarctic bayou. Marshy. Damp tundra. And lots of life.

The airport terminals are also bustling transit points and great spots to people watch. The array is beautiful: weary workers, heroic pilots, students, researchers, rich, sick, poor, politicos, angsty teens, quiet elders, kids in hysterics running top speed into obstacles or one another. Hilarious humanity.

My colleague and I took an absurdly early flight out of Anchorage in November. We’d just touched down and deplaned when I realized how people were freaking out. “Kilbuck is burning,” an old man kept repeating in a mournfully deep voice as passengers peered across the landscape to the blaze.

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The Kilbuck, a school founded in 1962, kept the traditions of the Yup’ik culture alive by teaching language, ceremonies, and traditions to its students. It housed 300 children from all across the YK and officially acted as two institutions: the Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Yup’ik immersion school and the Kuskokwim Learning Academy. The fire’s total toll was initially estimated to be between $15 and $20 million…though I wager this to be an underestimation after witnessing the damage. (1/7/17 edit: the estimation has now risen to ~$40 million, though the insurance carriers dispute this.)

Surprisingly, the situation could have been a whole lot worse and it unfolded rather comically thanks to an especially-observant inebriate. His heroism is basically happenstance, but I’m still glad for how this tale unfolded.

At 3:31 a.m. that morning, a drunken reveler called 911 to report that the school’s outside pipes were smoking. This fellow’s luck is amazing. His partying path probably saved property (including priceless artifacts housed at the school) and lives. Mercifully, every soul was evacuated without injury.

Investigators aren’t sure how long the Kilbuck burned before anyone noticed. Asbestos-laden building materials all but halted their immediate detective work. Unfortunately, the smoke damage looked irreparable and some vital teaching materials were lost to the flames.

Later, as we got on our connecting flight to Napaskiak (a short ride south of Bethel), we watched the orange sunrise distort the fire’s colors. We were bearing witness to a tragedy.

It followed us to Napaskiak, where a local man told us how he had three children attending the Kilbuck. “They’re ok and the kids are all ok, but it was a good school, really special.”

In a twist of fate, our trip was part of an effort to build Napaskiak a brand new school. It looked to be a super nice facility, though construction setbacks were frustrating. Without major transportation infrastructure (i.e., roads or a deep-water port), getting supplies to villages can be a logistical feat. Any mishaps result in massive, expensive delays. But it’s worth it. For the kids. Because the families of Napaskiak, a boardwalk community with extremely disadvantaged economic situations and increasing issues with alcohol, have truly fantastic children.

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The new school is located across from the old school, so most of our downtime was spent there. Getting warm, drinking coffee, sitting at tables that came halfway up our shins, and getting ogled at by whispering, sometimes giggling tiny humans.

It was astounding to go from the depths of a lush swamp into a happy bubble of laughter, curiosity, and innocence. The children had a vibrancy that stood starkly against the lush dismal swamp, lending light to every moment with song, recitations, and chaotic chatter. The teachers seemed patient and all the staff were kind to us. It put smiles on our faces and made work that much easier.

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The school kept evolving for us in myriad ways throughout the visit. After classes concluded, young to middle-aged men showed up for pickup basketball in the gym. Grandmotherly ladies gathered in another room, talking and doing crafty things. Kids stuck around the library long beyond school hours. Someone hosted a little birthday party one evening. It was marvelous. The community clearly valued and utilized this sacred space.

Alaskan villages like Bethel and Napaskiak don’t have much funding for public facilities, or private ones either, really. But educational structures and programs fill vital roles. They are gathering places, cultural havens, emergency shelters, gyms, libraries, and bedrocks of hope. The children have futures stretching out ahead of them, they have the potential to escape or help these impoverished places. Amidst their number stand the catalysts for change.

Another aspect to consider is that lackluster education might be the systemic cause of so many tragic rural Alaskan symptoms. Arguably, drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, rape, and so many other social issues are all ameliorated by access to high-quality educational options.

That is why Alaska’s loss of the Kilbuck school is such a lamentable tragedy. Yet, despite that, the communities and cultures supporting recovery are strong. As the school’s relocation efforts continue, setbacks such as this display the true strength and resiliency that no fire can touch.

I am grateful that these traditions will continue.

© Chasen Cunitz and, 2016

Use or duplication of this material without express and written permission is prohibited.

Alaska: Village to Village


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