Rose Rural Urban Exchange

City students take cultural leap to remote village
JUNEAU-DOUGLAS: Program aims to bridge rural, urban divide.

The Juneau Empire

(Published: March 27, 2005)

JUNEAU -- Five Juneau-Douglas High School students recently got a taste of ice fishing, mushing, trapping, muktuk and beaver tail in Russian Mission, a Yup'ik Eskimo village on the Yukon River near the coast.

The weeklong experience in mid-February was federally funded through the Rose Urban Rural Exchange of the Alaska Humanities Forum. Since the program began five years ago, about 300 students from cities and villages in Alaska have visited each other, said program director Panu Lucier in Anchorage.

An exchange between students from Floyd Dryden Middle School and Napakiak also is taking place this year.

In mid-April, students from Russian Mission -- a village of 330 people 375 miles west of Anchorage -- will visit Juneau, where they will experience bowling, movies, malls and perhaps walk on the Mendenhall Glacier.

"The ultimate goal is to create a sustainable sister-school relationship between urban and rural classrooms," said Ali McKenna, a JDHS English teacher who accompanied the students to Russian Mission.

Juneau and Russian Mission are both isolated communities in their own ways, said Chris Jans, a Russian Mission teacher.

The humanities forum is willing to continue to fund exchanges between participating schools, Lucier said. The goal is for urban students to learn more about rural lifestyles and Native cultures, and for village students to see what it's like to live in a city, she said.

"It sounded like something really different that you wouldn't be able to do anywhere else -- live in a tiny Alaskan village where everything's so in touch with everything," JDHS sophomore Joey Bosworth said.

That and a week out of school was hard to resist, students said.

Students usually stay with host families, but Russian Mission was holding a winter festival when the Juneau students visited, so they lodged with teachers.

The Juneau students said they didn't spend time in the classrooms, but they did see the students at their school work because that included subsistence activities, which then became the basis for studies in the usual academic subjects.

The Juneau students mostly were outdoors, following children or teenagers along their beaver and lynx traplines, ice fishing, mushing and snowmachining or skiing to cabins and staying overnight.

The Juneau students said they expected a barren, flat landscape and were surprised to see hills and trees. But it was the people they remembered most.

"You walk down the streets -- well, they're not really streets -- and everyone says 'hi.' They know who you are," JDHS sophomore Jill Carlile said.

"And by the end of the trip, you know everyone in the village," JDHS sophomore Lindsey Kato said. "The little kids were precious."

The Juneau students chopped wood at remote cabins and cleared the snow off the roofs. They learned that driving a team of dogs is more fun than riding in the basket, where your face gets coated in icy snow churned up by the dogs.

They ate moose, beaver meat and beaver tail, eel, beluga muktuk, and Eskimo "ice cream," which is made of fish oil, berries, lard and sugar.

"It doesn't really taste like ice cream at all," Carlile observed.

"Like sweet, dried tuna fish," Kato suggested.

Beaver tail tastes like wood, the students said.

"Good wood. Really tasty wood," said Bosworth.

The exchange program began five years ago with students only. In the second year, it added teachers. And in the third year, it promoted sister-school relationships.

The King Career Center, a vocational school in Anchorage, made the exchange with Barrow as part of King's natural resources department. The city students learned about resource issues in the Bush, and the rural students learned about job opportunities in government agencies.

"It's basically getting agencies and groups together that don't communicate a lot," said Myroslava Ponomarchuk, the sister-school coordinator for the humanities forum.

"The proper approach to the solution of the gap (between rural and urban Alaska) is you've got to teach the kids how to deal with it because we're about done," said Jans, referring to his generation. "We're not the ones who are going to make a change."

Distributed by The Associated Press

Copyright © 2005 The Anchorage Daily News (www.adn.com)