Science and culture come together at Selawik camp
SELAWIK - From a distance, a stampede of 40 11-year-olds all clad in yellow or red life jackets scurrying down the bank to waiting river boats on the Selawik River might look a little chaotic. But for those involved, they know it's all part of the annual Selawik Science-Culture Camp.
Last week and the week prior, students from kindergarten to 12th grade each spent a couple of days at the camp, located about 15 minutes northeast of the village. Members of the community, including teachers, Elders and biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also made the brisk commute each morning. Between 40 and 70 kids, and up to 20 adults attended the camp each day for two weeks.
This year marked the 11th year for the camp. The kids took part in a variety of traditional activities from skinning and butchering big game, to checking nets and preparing fish, to berry picking, plant identification, checking permafrost levels, and scooping out plant and animal life from the river. And the only clock or schedule they went by while at camp was nature.
"When the kids are out here doing, they learn more than from either computer or textbooks because they're learning hands-on," said Norma Ballot, the bilingual teacher at the Davis-Ramoth Selawik School. "They become aware that our environment is changing quicker than we actually think it is."
While volunteers worked away inside one of the tents preparing meals of moose stew and fresh whitefish, students were outside taking photos, scaling fish or listening to Elders.
Ballot headed up the berry-picking crew. After recruiting a dozen or so young folk and a few adults, the group divided in half and jumped into two boats. A few minutes later the group was climbing up the banks a mile or so up river to find berries. The students and their chaperones would pick for a minute before heading back to the boat to find a better spot. Ballot explained to the eager pickers that it was important to scout out the area first, and then check the tundra close to the bank to see if the area was pick-worthy. After a few tries, the group found the sweet spot and filled their bright blue buckets with cranberries and black berries.
"Cranberry sauce and cranberry pancakes," said 11-year-old Julie Henry when asked what she was going to do with all her berries.
This was Henry's sixth year at culture camp.
"I like being outside and getting to work on fishes and caribou," she said.
Henry is one of the few kids who gets to experience remote camp life at other times of the year as well. She spends time helping at her aunt's camp, she said.
For most of the students, this annual autumn adventure is their only taste of living off the land.
"Probably 80 percent of the kids don't get to experience these (activities)," said Village Tribal President Clyde Ramoth Sr. "It's kind of sad, but it's good that we have this camp."
Ramoth has coordinated several culture camps in past years and said the culture camp experience lasts long after the two-day stint.
"They can see that there are many good things to do out here; that there's no such thing as 'I'm bored,'" he said.
The focus of the camp centers around Inupiaq values, which include respect for nature, respect for Elders, responsibility for the tribe, humility, among several others. And those values are listed and discussed when the students first arrive at camp. Scientists from Fish and Wildlife were also on hand to provide assistance to the kids in identification of plants and animals, and to offer information on the nuts and bolts of flora and fauna.
"The concern is that some kids have almost no connection to the outside world and they're not going to care about parks, and refuges, and endangered species," said Fish and Wildlife's Susan Georgette. "There is no future for conservation if there are no conservationists."
Connecting kids with nature helps turn them into adults that care about nature, she added.
"That first year it was a perfect combination, and it still is, of Elders coming and teaching about fish and then the biologists that were up here at the time working on white fish sharing what they were learning," said Lee Anne Ayres, the refuge manager for the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge. "The camp has continued and evolved since then."
The idea of combining Inupiaq traditions and culture, with Western science is part of what makes the camp so successful, she added.
"The people that are living out here are really the stewards of the land," Ayres said. "Really, the link is these kids. We've all got to be in this together.
"This going to go on for a long time because the kids want it to."
For Peter Greist and Braden Berry, both 11, who were busy scraping the scales off a freshly caught siulik (pike), harvesting and processing fish is one of their favorite parts of culture camp, they both agreed.
And fish, namely white fish, is what brought the culture camp to fruition in the first place.
Hannah Loon was one of the founders of the camp and wrote a proposal more than a decade ago, which she brought to various agencies, including Fish and Wildlife.
"Lee Anne was very receptive to white fish and the people and why we live on it," Loon said.
Together with local agencies, including NANA Regional Corporation, Fish and Wildlife with Loon got the small project underway to teach the biology of the white fish to students.
"It started real small but everybody from the school engaged in it," Loon said. "It's grown since then and each year is different, and each day is different."
These days, the camp is funded largely by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which contribute around $10,000 to the cause. NANA Regional Corporation, NANA Management Services, the Native Village of Selawik and the Northwest Arctic Borough also help financially. This year, Alaska Airlines also jumped on board.
"This is the ultimate way to draw in all members of the community," said Georgette.