Juneau students on exchange get a taste of life in Western Alaska

Mackenzie Olver (left) and Sandra Bouvier point out Akiuk on a map of Alaska at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School on April 17, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)
Mackenzie Olver (left) and Sandra Bouvier point out Akiuk on a map of Alaska at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School on April 17, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

Juneau middle schoolers traveled to Western Alaska last month as part of a sister school exchange. The program aims to bridge the gap between urban and rural Alaska, showing students how different life can be around the state, but also how much they have in common.

Their visit also happened to coincide with the earliest spring breakup the region has ever seen — a bonus lesson for the students that made a big impression.

Before last month, Mackenzie Olver had never set foot in Western Alaska, let alone in a village of a couple hundred people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

That’s exactly why she went: Olver took part in a program funded by the Alaska Humanities Forum that sends Alaska students across the state on short-term exchanges to places very different from their hometowns.

Juneau’s Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School was matched with the school in Akiuk, part of the village of Kasigluk. It’s an all-in-one school, preschool to 12th grade — about a hundred students altogether.

Olver said her first impression of Akiuk was about what she expected.

“Very small, not many people, very flat. The geography did not include, like, any mountains or trees,” she said.

But she was quickly surprised by the warm welcome she and her classmates received. Especially from some of the village’s youngest residents.

“They like, came right up and were ready for piggyback rides,” Olver said.

Sandra Bouvier agrees. Like Olver, she’s in eighth grade at Dzantik’i Heeni. She said that even in their short time in the village, they got to feel like a part of things — at a community dance, or at someone’s sweet sixteen birthday party where it felt like everyone was there, eating beaver stew and celebrating together.

“You had to like, kind of shimmy through. It was crazy,” Bouvier said. “It’s all just connected. Like everybody knows everyone, and it’s not just asking your neighbor for like flour or something. You could go to anyone, pretty much.”

And the students got to see firsthand that community is not just about celebration — it’s also about survival. Like many rural Alaskans, most of Akiuk’s residents rely on subsistence activities like hunting and fishing to feed their families. That requires a lot of cooperation and sharing of skills and knowledge.

As it turns out, the Juneau students were in town for a momentous occasion: spring breakup, when the river ice cracks and melts away. The students watched as what had been a frozen solid highway for snowmachines and even cars quickly became open water.

The significance wasn’t lost on Olver.

“Many people in the village described it as the earliest breakup in 95 to 100 years,” she said. “So it’s really scary to see how climate change has really changed life.”

Breakup dashed some of the Juneau students’ plans. Crossing the river was suddenly a lot more difficult and dangerous, and the students said no one in the village was willing to take that risk with other people’s children.

Jay Lloyd in his classroom at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School on April 17, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)
Jay Lloyd in his classroom at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School on April 17, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

Jay Lloyd led the trip to Akiuk. He’s a language arts and history teacher at Dzantik’i Heeni.

“And you know, we ask people about, you know, is it easier when the river’s open or when it’s frozen? And they’re like, ‘Frozen, because we can take our snowmachines anywhere then.’ You can just shoot across everything. They’re like, ‘Winter’s better,'” Lloyd said.

Instead of snowmachining down the river to Bethel for the Cama-i Dance Festival, Lloyd and the students got to see the start of spring fishing and birding — much earlier than normal.

It’s a perspective Lloyd appreciates.

“I look at, you know, the changes that are going on all over the place, and it’s, you know, ‘Hey, everybody has to adapt to them, and we’ll adapt,’ but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s for the better,” he said.

Lloyd said the value of the program is more than showing students how different life can be in other parts of the state. Actually, he said, it teaches them how much they have in common.

“They dress the same, they look the same, they listen to the same stuff. They like to play basketball, they like to play volleyball. They’re all on their phones, they’re all Snapchatting and whatever else. So a 14-year-old’s a 14-year-old, no matter where you are,” said Lloyd.

A week after the Juneau students returned home, a few students from Akiuk traveled to the capital city, completing the exchange.

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