Sustaining Place, Language, and Culture Together


Our initiative involves a community engagement partnership guided by an understanding of decolonizing methodologies and an overarching goal to sustain the place, language, and culture of the Alaska Native village, Chevak. Furthermore, the Indigenous sovereignty and ownership of ancestral ways of knowing guided the design and implementation of this initiative. The Will of the Ancestors is an ongoing effort that involves a rural, community-based partnership of Elders, Indigenous inservice and preservice teachers, parents, and elementary students from a rural community located near the Arctic Circle and an education faculty from a major state university in Alaska. This synergistic approach includes the following components: teacher education, a collaborative Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) curriculum project, the creation of a local atlas of plants and animals important to subsistence, and language revitalization through a children’s book project and writing workshop.


The Native American Languages Act, Title I of Public Law 101-477 proclaims: “The status of the cultures and languages of Native Americans is unique and the United States has the responsibility to act together with Native Americans to ensure the survival of these unique cultures and languages.” Additionally, Congress made it the policy of the United States to “preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American languages.” Adding to the discourse, in April of 2014, the President of the National Alliance to Save Native Languages provided testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives on the need to support programs that help meet the linguistically unique educational needs of Native students while also preserving, revitalizing, and using these students’ native languages (Testimony of Ryan Wilson 2014).

While the charge is clear, so are the reasons behind it. In their work, Angelina Castagno and Brian Brayboy (2008) point out that the rhetoric that recognizes the shortfalls of the K–12 educational system offered to Indigenous students in this country dates back almost fifty years. At 13.2 percent, the dropout rate for Indigenous students is among the highest of any ethnic group in the United States (Aud et al. 2011). The statistics regarding the academic achievement of Native populations, particularly Alaska Native students enrolled in K–12 classrooms, indicate a persistent gap in achievement (also referred to as the “opportunity gap”). Often these system inadequacies are aggravated by the high teacher turnover rate. According to the University of Alaska Center for Educational Policy and Research, the teacher turnover rate in rural areas has been reported to average 20 percent, with some rural districts reporting a teacher attrition rate as high as 54 percent. One of the factors contributing to this rate is the teachers’ lack of knowledge about the local culture and traditions (Hill and Hirshberg, 2013). Additionally, the amount of material available to these students in their native languages is abysmal. This is important given that the number of books in the child’s home and the frequency with which the child reads for fun are also related to higher test scores, as reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) (National Center for Educational Statistics 2013).

While there is no denying the discourse centered on the failures and inequities of the past, this project was initiated to provide a more thoughtful, action-driven, and synergistic approach. Our approach seeks to address the needs of K–20 students and their teachers, while preserving the Alaska Native cultures, languages, and subsistence ways of life. To do that, we have embarked on several projects, including the following components: a teacher education plan, a collaborative Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) curriculum project, the creation of a local atlas of plants and animals important to subsistence, and language revitalization through a children’s book project and writing workshop.

Theoretical Understandings of Our Work

The community engagement projects have their foundation in the possibility and hope that through authentic engagement, students and faculty can establish meaningful relationships and a genuine appreciation of the importance of language, culture, and place with members of an Alaska Native community. Thus, this project was approached and implemented using two theoretical lenses: (1) Sociocultural Theory applied to science education (Tobin 2013) as a means of improving practice through research that benefits the participants; and (2) Demmert and Towner’s (2003) “culturally based education” (CBE), which emphasizes the following elements: recognition and use of Native languages; pedagogy using traditional cultural characteristics; teaching strategies and curriculum congruent with traditional culture and traditional ways of knowing; strong Native community participation in education; and knowledge and use of the political mores of the community.

Setting the Context: Life in the Arctic Circle

For thousands of years the Arctic tundra and the nearby Bering Sea and its tributaries have provided shelter and endowed the inhabitants of this remote village with an environment that has supported rich cultural traditions rooted in ecologically responsive knowledge and subsistence living in rural Alaska. Ancestral knowledge dating back thousands of years has been shared through oral traditions of storytelling, songs, and dances. Subsistence gathering and hunting are carried out using principles of harmonious coexistence in one of the harshest environments on Earth. The careful gathering of eggs and berries, ice fishing in the winter, spring seal hunting, and summer fish camps have ensured the survival of the Cup’ik people for thousands of years.

The bicultural, bilingual community of Chevak, Alaska is faced with language retention issues and with the challenges associated with incorporating Western technology while still maintaining a strong cultural identity, culture, and language. The Elders, teachers, and preservice teachers who work in the Immersion program are fluent and literate in their native language and possess anecdotal and practical knowledge of subsistence activities and ways of knowing in science. On the other hand, many of the parents of school-age children do not participate in subsistence activities and/or struggle with the Cup’ik language.

Multiple Approaches to Language and Culture Revitalization

Our involvement with this community engagement project began in 2010 when the superintendent of the Alaska Native community of Chevak approached the College of Education faculty about the revolving door of teachers in his district. Every year, teachers from outside Alaska came to teach at the school and very few lasted more than a couple of years. In extreme cases they did not return after the winter break, leaving children without a certified classroom teacher for months at a time. The request the superintendent made was for our college to provide a quality preservice education program for the Alaska Native paraprofessionals at the school. These individuals have deep roots in the community. Many even have relatives who graduated from the school or children who are enrolled in the K–12 school. This request began a collaboration between the faculty at our college and community members from the village. The Alaska Native paraprofessional initiative inspired faculty members to continue and deepen their collaboration with Elders, teachers, parents, and students. Five years later, these community-engaged projects are all intricately connected and mutually informing. The design and implementation of each initiative emerged from thoughtful conversations between community members and faculty. The initiatives include: (1) Alaska Native teacher preparation project; (2) Traditional ways of knowing in the STEAM curriculum; (3) Local atlas of plants and animals; (4) Children’s book project; (5) Writers group. Although we describe them below as separate projects, they are, in fact, a part of an integrated approach that has emerged through our collaboration. The graphic representation below shows how each project is linked within the partnership, followed by a more detailed description.

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The Alaska Native Teacher Preparation Program

The Alaska Native teacher preparation initiative seeks to prepare teachers who are fluent speakers of Cup’ik and who can serve the cultural, academic, and linguistic needs of students in the K–6 Language Immersion Wing, as well as in the English Language Wing. As the president of the local school board stated,

The members of the cohort will teach in the immersion program. We want to produce homegrown teachers with the help of the university. We support this program and would like to see it expand in the years to come. The presence of the faculty in our village is really appreciated. The cohort is taking the Western-style approach and the cultural roots of our people and merging them side by side, in the way Elder Boyscout envisioned it. This program will benefit our people, our kids. It is a model that other villages can follow. (Jeff Acharian, School Board President, April 12, 2013)

This model is a cohort model, enrolling currently uncertified Alaska Native paraprofessionals, who are already working in the classroom, in the elementary education program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The cohort has ranged in number from twenty to seven, depending on the semester, starting in 2010. While the students take many of the classes via distance learning, which allows the students to continue to work at Chevak School, take care of their families, and practice subsistence, intensive courses have also been offered on site. These intensives are run over the course of one week and allow the cohort to experience an active learning environment while also cultivating relationships with a variety of university faculty, including those in the elementary education program, early childhood education program, and College of Arts and Sciences (for example science, philosophy, and anthropology faculty).

Although both faculty and cohort members generally prefer face-to-face classes, it is not economically feasible to fly instructors to the village for every class. In the beginning, more classes were offered on site, but as students have gained access to technology and the Internet, they have participated in more online courses. Intensive courses scheduled around subsistence are offered when possible (depending on faculty availability and funds).

During a session at the 2013 Alaska Native Studies Conference, a panel that featured members of the teacher preparation cohort, school board members, and university faculty shared their engagement with the project and its importance to the people in the community. The panel opened with the voice of cohort member Susie Friday-Tall, who shared the story of turning driftwood.

My mother shared the story of the driftwood with me; she heard it from my grandmother: The driftwood is alive and it deserves to be turned over. The pieces of driftwood talk. Each one says something different: I will be a harpoon, I will be a boat, I will be a walking stick. The driftwood will become something useful. We have to turn it, to make it useful. …My dream is to see our local people become teachers from kindergarten to 12. (Susie Friday-Tall, cohort member)

This story exemplifies the partnership that started five years ago, which seeks to provide a culturally sustaining teacher preparation program. The paraprofessionals who are part of the preservice teacher cohort have been working at the school for over a decade. One cohort member shared:

[With] the support I received from the teacher initiative I have been able to take college classes. This is a dream that I thought was so unattainable that it would die. Thanks to this initiative I will someday reach the goal to become a teacher for our Cup’ik children. (Cikigaq Joseph, cohort member, March 12, 2012)

Yet another young woman shared in a spirited voice what the program meant to her:

When we all reach our goals of becoming teachers it is going to be amazing. We know our students, we live among them; we eat the same food. I know that when we teach them they will soak up the information. Our children will excel. I am really thankful to this program. We are going to keep going and the students are going to fly; they are going to be good. (Julia Alberts, cohort member, April 12, 2013)

Finally, university faculty have also attested to the importance of this work and what they have received in return. As Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education Kathryn Ohle stated,

Going to Chevak to teach Family Community Partnerships was life changing. It forced me to really think about the contexts in which we work while also recognizing and embracing the values of the community of Chevak and not those necessarily characteristic of the university community. We talk about culturally responsive    pedagogies but I did not fully understand what that looked like until I was there, interacting with these paraprofessionals who will change what education looks like for the next generation. I am a better teacher and a better citizen because of my experience there. (Kathryn Ohle, university faculty, August 10, 2014)

With four students already receiving their associate’s degrees and many others closely following suit, this is an initiative that has provided and will continue to provide support to the community by helping them “grow their own.”

STEAM Curriculum

The STEAM Curriculum project began in 2013 when a UAA faculty member, Dr. Irasema Ortega, began discussions with community members, in particular inservice teachers, about the science curriculum within the Immersion Wing. Dr. Ortega saw the possibilities of connecting the existing curricula to the preservice teacher initiative through collaborative efforts to create curricula via methodology and other courses. Before that, the science curriculum implemented in the K–4 immersion school was not available in the form of written lessons. At best, it was written in an abridged format. Previous efforts had involved a project in which twelve paraprofessionals worked alongside inservice teachers to produce picture books about the animals and plants found in the village and the surrounding tundra. (See Figure 2.) This project extended the effort by integrating the books as well as oral stories, plays, photography, and other forms of artistic expression into the immersion curriculum.

In our cooperative effort, our team shared a common goal: to design a curriculum map and lessons that address the revitalization of the language, culture, and traditional ways of knowing in science in an integrative fashion. (See Figure 2.) We also sought to address two needs: (1) the need to cooperate with the educators and community members in the village, and; (2) the framing of a curricular approach that addresses the preservation of their language, culture, and ways of knowing in science. Thus, we adopted the model of Culturally Sustaining Schooling (CSS). Given the wealth of Indigenous knowledge and its role in preserving the cultural and linguistic traditions, this approach validated Cup’ik traditional knowledge of nature and technology and allowed for three intertwined elements: culture and tradition, personal stories, and the stories uncovered in knowledge construction and use.

During the initial phase of the curriculum project, we worked with K–3 teachers at Chevak School and a cultural advisor to create integrated STEAM curriculum that was culturally responsive. The curriculum units were developed in Cup’ik and English and included both Western and Cup’ik perspectives. The stakeholders spent the first three days in the teachers’ lounge listening to stories about traditions and local knowledge. For example,

Making a kayak takes a lot of time and skill. When I was a young man, I started making my own kayak. First, I had to measure four arm lengths to figure out how long the kayak had to be. I had to build it according to my height and weight and it could only be off by ten pounds; otherwise, it would sink in the cold water. I would go out and collect pieces of birch wood. That took a long time. We do not build kayaks like this one anymore. The other day I set the traditional tools for kayak-making right here, by my kayak, next to the modern tools. Then I brought my father and asked him which set of tools he would choose to build a kayak. He looked at me and replied: I would use the Western tools; that way it would take less time and I can have more time for seal hunting and fishing tools (James Ayuluk, summer of 2012).

In this story, the narrator clearly illustrated the idea of the two rivers of knowledge and the desire to engage Alaska Native students in traditional knowledge using modern materials and technology. It was also clear that traditional knowledge included well-defined elements of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. These are some of the elements that helped define the curriculum project and illustrate why it is important that the local ways of knowing be documented and shared. The curriculum that is documented is subsequently integrated into coursework for the preservice teacher cohort as well as for science methods courses at UAA.

Below is the curriculum map that was generated during this project.

Local Atlas of Plants and Animals

The atlas project was another initiative that focused on the revitalization of language, culture, and place through Indigenous ways of knowing in science. An example of the synergy and connections this initiative has fostered started in 2013 and ended in 2014. During this project, an elementary preservice teacher and Irasema Ortega, who is a science education faculty member, collaborated with Alaska Native Elders, parents, teachers, and students to design and prepare an atlas of plants and animals based on traditional knowledge of subsistence practices, which the community members would then own and disseminate as they wished. During this project, members of the community provided valuable information and guidance used in the preparation of the atlas. Pictures were collected from a local photographer and cultural consultant and from the State of Alaska Fish and Wildlife website. It culminated in a tablet-based atlas for the community members to use as they wished.

This project also resulted in a meaningful experience for both the preservice teacher and UAA faculty member, as it reinforced the importance of learning from the community and understanding the characteristics of shared cognition of ancestral Indigenous knowledge of place, culture, and language. Thus, the atlas of plants and animals exemplified a mutually beneficial civic engagement project and also demonstrated an alternative approach to engagement with an Indigenous community. Further, it is representative of the connections the partnership has fostered toward the common goal of linguistic and cultural revitalization.

Language Revitalization Through Children’s Books

This is a project that reflects the wisdom of Elder Cecilia Pingayak-Andrews. When one of the UAA faculty visited with her during the Atlas project, she was asked: what would it take to retain the language and culture? Her answer was clear and definitive. ” Children learn our language on their mother’s lap. But how are we going to keep the language alive if the parents themselves do not speak it?” (Cecilia Andrews, informal interview, July 2014).

With that wisdom in mind, a project was initiated with Unite for Literacy, an organization working towards creating an abundance of books through a free, digital library with books that celebrate the languages and cultures of all children while also cultivating a lifelong love of reading. This project hinged on the amazing talents of the paraprofessionals from Chevak School (another indication of the ways in which the various facets of this collaboration work together), who helped translate the books into Cup’ik and narrated them. There are now thirteen books that can be heard in Cup’ik, and by the end of the project in 2015, an additional thirty-seven books will be added. Plans are also in the making to “localize” the books by using pictures from the Alaska context and then to print them as hardcopy books, which will be shared through interested Head Start organizations. This will not only make them available to families without access to the Internet but will also show the community that both their language and culture are recognized in print. Positive support from the On-site Coordinator of the Chevak Head Start has already been expressed, who commented,

We are very excited for our Head Start program to be considered to receive our Cup’ik culture’s tools such as the books you are offering. They are going to be used by our entire staff, Elder Mentors, and volunteers. And it is a bonus that the local Chevak School’s paraprofessionals are the ones who help create them. It will help our entire staff to work together to add 1 to 2 of these books per week into our lesson plans, so our students will hear and see our Cup’igtaq language. (e-mail correspondence, February 25, 2015)

While this project is still in process, the hope is that by providing materials in the native language, both early literacy and language preservation will occur “on the mother’s lap.”

Language Revitalization through Writers Workshop

The final project that is currently underway seeks to promote language revitalization while also documenting the preservation of language and ancestral knowledge of how to coexist in harmony with the environment. This will be done through a writers group, where manuscripts will be developed and featured as participant-authored chapters in a book for Emerald Publications (working title, Language Revitalization and Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies in Teacher Education Programs), which is due to the publisher in January 2016. This project was initiated as a result of a UAA faculty member’s experiences with the cohort as an instructor in a class in which participants shared stories from their lives. It is a project that connects the preservice teachers with their cultural identities through stories, while also providing experiences in methodologies that can be used in classroom teaching. In addition, research focusing on the viability of writers groups as tools for sustaining linguistic and cultural identity will be conducted.

The stories of the participants are powerful, because although contact is for the most part detrimental to their identity as Alaska Natives, they have persisted in their goals. Their stories are examples of self-determination and agency, and they inform our present and future work. They are collective, they can be healing, and they will become powerful publications in every genre.


These projects, including a teacher education plan, a collaborative STEAM curriculum project, the creation of a local atlas of plants and animals important to subsistence, and a language revitalization initiative using a children’s book project and writing workshop, were initiated to address the needs of K–20 students and their teachers, while preserving the Alaska Native cultures, languages, and subsistence ways of life. As we continue to work collaboratively toward sustaining place, language, and culture, we find that the future of our partnership, and of future partnerships, resides in relationships, mutuality, and creativity. Together, we pursue projects that are transformative and sustaining. Such projects have no pre-existing frameworks. They are based on our strengths and on our relationships, and those will last a lifetime. The biggest threat to this and future partnerships is a lack of funding, but we remain hopeful (and we continue to seek funding).

While results of our ongoing efforts are forthcoming, our hope is that this synergistic approach might act as a framework for others working towards similar goals.

About the Authors

Flora Ayuluk is a teacher in the Cup’ik Immersion Wing at Chevak School in Chevak, Alaska. She is involved in many projects dedicated to language and culture revitalization, including the creation of a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM)-based science curriculum that emphasizes the subsistence lifestyle critical to the community.

James Ayuluk is the cultural specialist at Chevak School in Chevak, Alaska. He is involved in many projects at the school and in the community, including the creation of a tablet-based atlas that documents the plants and animals important to the subsistence lifestyle critical to the community.

Susie Friday-Tall is a preservice teacher and the administrative assistant at the Chevak School. She is a member of the Cup’ik Dreams cohort. She hopes to see a school where all the teachers are from Chevak and can teach children Cup’ik language and culture.

Cathy Coulter is an associate professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage who has been working with the Chevak community since 2010. She is the Co-Principal Investigator of the Language, Equity, and Academic Performance (LEAP) Project initiative and teaches courses in the elementary education program related to second-language acquisition and literacy. Dr. Coulter also possesses significant expertise in narrative methodologies.

Agatha John-Shields is an Indigenous assistant professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage who has worked with the Chevak cohort since 2011 as the Immersion program consultant and expert for the Chevak Project. She has co-taught LEAP Project courses with Irasema Ortega. She teaches and supervises intern principals and teaches multicultural courses for the preservice teacher program and for new teachers coming to Lower Kuskokwim School District in Western Alaska. Agatha also possesses significant expertise in Indigenous immersion education, culturally responsive pedagogy, language revitalization and maintenance efforts, and educational leadership.

Mary T. Matchian is a teacher at the Chevak Language Immersion School. She is also a member of the Cupi’k STEAM-based science curriculum that emphasizes the subsistence lifestyle critical to the community.

Kathryn Ohle is an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage who has been working with the Chevak community since 2014. She teaches courses in the early childhood program related to literacy, math, and science teaching methods. Dr. Ohle also has interests in education policy and the early childhood teacher preparation.

Lillian Olson is a Cup’ik language teacher at the Chevak school. She is currently working on the creation of a Cup’ik dictionary. Lillian is involved in multiple language revitalization initiatives such as the Cup’ik classes for the parents of the Cup’ik immersion Head Start students.

Irasema Ortega is an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage who has been working with the Chevak community since 2013 as the Principal Investigator for the Chevak Project. She is the Co-Principal Investigator of the LEAP Project initiative and teaches courses in the elementary education program related to science education. Dr. Ortega also possesses significant expertise in place-based educational initiative and decolonizing methodologies.

Phillip Tulim is a kindergarten teacher in the Cup’ik Immersion Wing at Chevak School in Chevak, Alaska. He is involved in many projects dedicated to language and culture revitalization, including the creation of a STEAM-based science curriculum that emphasizes the subsistence lifestyle critical to the community.

Lisa Unin is a first grade teacher in the Cup’ik Immersion Wing at Chevak School in Chevak, Alaska. She is involved in many projects dedicated to language and culture revitalization, including the creation of a STEAM-based science curriculum that emphasizes the subsistence lifestyle critical to the community. Lisa is an artist who specializes in traditional parkas.


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Author: seceij

Chuck Gahun is the content manager for the SECEIJ website and technical consultant for NCSCE

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