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Plucking fun

After taking the five minute plane ride from Akiachak to Akiak we headed to the school to drop-off our gear and see if we could find the three Lutes – Megan Aarsvold’13 , Kelli Peterson ’13 and Suzy Olsen ’13 – who are teaching in the summer program here.

Even though class had been let out hours before the teachers were in their classrooms preparing for the next day. We should have guessed that. It was the same in Akiachak.

The three young women invited us to go to the house of one of the paraeducators – Faith Owen. The day before they had been to one her family’s fish camps to hang and dry smelt. (A fish camp is a base of operations to prepare and process fish during the fishing season)

This time, they’d try their hands – literally – at plucking birds. Walking to the house some of the differences between the villages become apparent. The dirt is made up of more silt and the river doesn’t run parallel to the town, but rather bends around one side of it. The banks and the dirt, in particularly, remind me of river banks in Washington.

We get to Owen’s home and sure enough there are five birds lined-up ready for plucking. The Lutes dive right-in. Listening how they need to put the feathers from between their thumb and forefinger to best pluck. Success happens in varying degrees, but they keep plucking until the birds are clean.

“It’s so real,” Suzy Olsen says, when she first puts fingers to feather.

“It is real,” Megan Aarsvold replies.

“It’s kind of nerve-wracking,” Olsen continues.

All three spend the next hour or so, plucking their birds.

The game collected here are duck and black bird (swan is also typically hunted, but there’s none to pluck on this day). Birds are the generally hunted in the Spring and then in the Fall, following migration, said Elena Owen — Faith’s mother and and expert guide on plucking for the Lutes.

The villages then go for fish, which has just started with a few days of smelt runs. Someone caught a King salmon in Akiachak though, Elena Owen tells us.

In the summer, salmonberries, blueberries, blackberries and cranberries are picked. One way to eat the berries is as akutaq (a-goo-duck), which is a mixture of berries, lard (or shorting), mashed potato and sugar. After plucking, the Lutes are offered blueberry akutaq and gobble it up.

After berries, comes moose season, said Elena Owen. The village, like Akiachak and Tuluksak, rely on subsistence living. They hunt and gather their food to survive. There’s much sharing that is involved among families in the village. Whatever is caught or gathered is shared among elders, widows, and families without hunters.

After leaving Faith Owen’s home the three Lutes show us where they strung smelt the day before. While walking to the fish camp, the group suddenly becomes larger, as students from the summer program tag along.

“They are so welcoming here and willing to show you,” Aasrvold says.

– By Chris Albert


The journey in and class time

The first day of class

A few first photos of Alaska

A History…

PLU professor Jan Weiss provides a history of how this “summer opportunity” came about.

Two years ago in May 2011, the Department of Education received a request for summer school teachers in the Yupiit School district in rural Alaska. I posted the request on the Sakai site for student teachers as a “Summer Opportunity.” No one responded that year.

In April 2012, I received an e-mail from Diane George, Assistant Superintendent of the Yupiit School District.  She described the opportunity:

The Yupiit School District is a remote district in western Alaska on the Kuskokwim River. We are accessible by plane (and boat in the summer). We do not have a road system. Our student population is 99% Alaska Native (Yup’ik).  We are considered a high poverty school district.

We will be running our summer school program from June 11 – June 29. The summer school program is open to students in grades K-8 and high school students interested in credit recovery. It is not mandatory. Students receive instruction in reading, writing and math each day. We strive to incorporate local cultural and elder knowledge into the summer school learning experience as much as possible. With community support we provide opportunities to tie western educational systems into summer subsistence activities.  

We will pay transportation for the summer school teachers from their point of hire to the village they will be residing in. We do have housing available (vacant teacher housing). Staff will need to bring food, bedding, etc.

For some reason, the information struck a chord with me and I responded to it saying although I coordinate the teacher education program at PLU, I would be interested in teaching.  She asked for my resume, and a day or two later I received a call from Paul Berg, ’71, who coordinated the summer school program. He told me after looking at my resume he “wondered if I were for real.” After an hour phone conversation, he wanted me to come up and provide support for summer school and new teacher training. I then posted the opportunity on the Sakai site for student teachers.  Diane George who was in Washington for recruitment spoke one evening at PLU to eight interested students about teaching in rural Alaska. A week later two undergraduates were offered summer positions. That summer two students, a junior anthropology major (Sara Stiehl ’13) who was completing a summer internship with Paul Berg  ‘71 helping with the summer school and new teacher programs, my daughter, a junior at Santa Clara, along with myself flew up to Alaska. Sara did a phenomenal job supporting the district’s programs. The two teachers, my daughter Lindsey, a seasoned village teacher and my support created a vibrant summer school program. (Day 1 enrollment for the K-12 program: 21; final enrollment: 78)  The district was pleased with the commitment of the teachers and the program outcomes.

This year in early May I received a phone call from Diane. She informed me that Linnea Olson along with her cousin Kari Olson would be teaching in Tuluksak. Then she said she would need 4 more teachers to support the summer school programs. Teaching in the villages seemed to be a good match for our candidates who began their student teaching in Namibia. Ultimately she ended up hiring 6 recent grads who had began their student teaching in Namibia. My role became providing a day-long training for the teachers and an additional one-day support at each school. She also mentioned that ALL references were glowing and she was lucky to have them as part of the program. She has expressed excitement about the developing PLU-Yupiit School District partnership.

An introduction

This June, PLU Web Content Manager Chris Albert and PLU Photographer John Froschauer will venture to Alaska to show and tell the story of Lutes who are teaching in remote villages in the state. Of the nine educators teaching in the summer program, eight are Lutes Kari Olson ’11, Linnea Olson ’12, Megan Aarsvold ’13, McKenzie Allen ’13, Alyssa Johnson ’13, Nataly Meyer ’13, Suzy Olsen ’13 and Kelli Peterson ’13.

The team starts in Akiachak starting Friday. The Lutes are already up there with their professor Jan Weiss.