We arrived in Allakaket in August 1974. The Athabascan name for Allakaket, Aalaakkaakk’et, meant, ‘mouth of the Alatna River.’ It was the first week of August and the weather was unbelievable. The area surrounding Allakaket resembled Holy Cross with birch and spruce trees galore, as well as several rolling hills below majestic mountains. While the plane circled and started to land, we had our first glimpse of the Alatna and Koyukuk Rivers. Both flowed with clean, clear, blue waters that bordered the area of the village. The headwaters of the Koyukuk River were above the Arctic Circle in the Endicott Mountains that was part of the Brooks Range. The Koyukuk was 425 miles long, the last major tributary entering the Yukon before the larger river emptied into the Bering Sea.
Adjacent to Allakaket, on the north bank of the Koyukuk River, was the Inupiaq Eskimo village of Alatna. The village was situated on a bank above the river and had a high bluff behind it. Alatna was considerably smaller than Allakaket, nonetheless its residents needed access to Allakaket for the airstrip and the school. During fall freeze up and again when spring break up occurred, getting across the river could be delayed or blocked for a few days. Students who lived in Alatna were brought across the river in a boat or snow machine depending on the weather.
The School Board President, Sam, had explained this to Jed in one of their conversations. When visiting with the previous teaching couple we were told that part of our responsibility as teachers was to be prepared to give students extra work during these specific times of the year. They also added, little of the work was done but we still had to send it home. Sam explained the school population was a mixture of Athabascan and Inupiaq Eskimos students. After being there for a few months we understood it was not an even divide of the two groups, and some people were a mix of both groups. Our perception was the Athabascan cultural traditions seemed to be the stronger of the two.
Jed had been assigned the Principal Teacher position for the year so he was anxious to see the school and get a grasp on his responsibilities. After lunch he went up to the school for a few hours. Upon his returned, he shared the big surprise he found with me. Someone had broken into and vandalized the school. The incident was recent since the maintenance people had only been gone for two weeks. With no one checking the school people in the village knew nothing about the break-in. This type of activity was a first for us in Alaska.
The school was a mess and it was up to him to handle the situation. He had authority to hire four people from the village to do the immediate cleanup, but he knew that a mechanic was needed to inspect the generator. The repairs and replacement damage were discussed by the fellows that helped with the cleanup and estimated to be at least $3,000, maybe a lot more. There was speculation of who did the dastardly deed, which was eventually narrowed down to three students. With the continuous daylight, adults and kids were outside at all hours of the day and night with very little supervision so determining who really did it was difficult. And, at this point it wasn’t the important problem.
When Jed reported the incident to the Regional Superintendent and explained the full scope of the damage, he had the Allakaket School declared a disaster. This action at first seemed a little overboard. Interestingly, we learned this was needed to actually get state funds flowing to correct the issues and make the school safe for students and staff. If he had waited it would have been six months or more and there was barely a month until students would arrive. The damage had involved the school’s main boiler and generator so a full assessment needed to be done, materials ordered, and maintenance workers arranged. None of these steps were easy in a rural village.
Enough of the school repairs were completed allowing school to start on the designated date of August 29. A few students were still at fish camp, but that was the date we were given to start. The total student population was fifty-two students. Genie taught kindergarten, first, and second, I taught third, fourth, and fifth, and helped Jed with the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. His responsibilities as Principal Teacher were a bit more than we expected. As school started there was no one hired to help him with the generators and overall maintenance of the $750,000 school building and teacher housing. There were 20 school staff members, mostly part-time, but still each required a piece of Jed’s time.
We felt personally overwhelmed, but confident we could do the job. Both the Regional Superintendent and School Board were engaged and willing to jointly reinforce Jed in decisions and the staff in implementing the decisions. The 19-member School Board, three of which were students, took their responsibility seriously. They had been given the power to hire the teaching staff and share in the school authority, as a result of the changes that were happening in Alaska. The Alaska Federation of Natives was working with the first Commissioner of Education for Alaska to write the regulations and structure for village schools. One thing was clear to everyone — Native people’s voices were not to be ignored anymore. Now they were being asked to be involved. Time would tell how these changes in responsibility and local authority would affect the students and the communities.
During the first week of September, the Allakaket School Board had their first meeting for the year. Jed shared information about the school break-in and the process in getting enough repairs completed in time to start school. The Board thanked Jed for those efforts and nothing else was said about investigating who might have caused the damage. It was done and over with, time to move forward. The three students on the School Board reported plans for a Halloween Carnival, a pancake breakfast, and making gifts to sell for Christmas. These positive interactions from the students were well received by the Board members. As parents everywhere, they were proud of the students’ enthusiasm and eager for a positive student report. This type of information was easier to hear and more welcome than the destructive summer behavior.
Before the meeting adjourned, Jed shared a new, added element for the 1974-75 school year. He shared how it would aide in the students’ education and would be available to the community one night each week. Most people in the village knew something had been going on at the school over the summer, but they weren’t sure what it was. A satellite TV had been hooked up in one of the classrooms and Jed had received some training on how to manage it.
The community was well aware of the Satellite ATS-1 Broadcasting system that provided radios to villages, one at the school and one for the health aide. The satellite radios were the only communication to the ‘outside world’ of Allakaket when an emergency happened. The health aide had one in her home for that specific purpose. A person on the other end of the radio was also able to give advice to help in emergency situations. Land radios had been tried in Allakaket with no luck, maybe because of the mountain ranges or the extreme cold in the winter, we really didn’t know. The second ATS-1 Radio was installed in the school so there was regular contact with a school’s Regional Superintendent. Access to the radio had been helpful when Jed needed to call Joe, the Regional Superintendent about the student break-in to get repairs started. It would have taken three weeks to let Joe know about the incident if a letter had been mailed and who knows when work would have started.
A year prior to our arrival in Allakaket the federal government launched a nation-wide program, the Satellite ATS-6 television system. Three regions of the United States, the Appalachian Mountains, the Rocky Mountains, and 15 rural Alaska sites were designated for “the experiment,” the name given to the project at the federal level. The TV “experiment” was only to last for one year, a super shock to anyone who knew the cost of setting it up across the nation. We felt confident that after the one-year “experiment” the TV equipment would be added to the pile of other never-to-be-used-again, broken items in buildings and back rooms of schools in all 15 sites in the state.
We were not impressed with the quality of the programs or the politics in selected sites. The weekly schedule consisted of two programs for students, one for family and community, and an in-service training for teachers. These were educational-focused television, not sitcoms, news stories, or even National Geographic specials. The satellite system cost the federal government $111,000,000 and was only to be used in remote areas that had no access to telephones and daily airplanes. Of the 15 Alaska sites, only three were really remote, the others had access to phones and airplanes on a regular basis.
The school staff, both full and part-time, had met before the School Board meeting to discuss having a coffee shop open during the family TV evening. We all agreed that the students had to operate it. Jed wanted to be sure the part-time staff were willing to help support the coffee shop idea since he knew how much work all three of us already had on our plates. Genie suggested the funds could be used for another end-of-year trip. The students were thrilled and motivated, asking if they could also sell some food. Somehow Jed found some funding to order a popcorn machine. We were all excited about the community evening plans that we felt would help build pride in the school, business skills in the students, and community involvement. Hopefully, the ordering and math used to sell the products would help with their academic work.
One added perk about having the satellite radio for Jed was the opportunity to hear conversations and even join in on some of them with other countries. The satellite gave him an escape and an ability to talk to people in the United States, but also other places in the world. He listened to programs in the South Pacific, Australia, Fiji, and even the British Isles. Wellington and Fiji were especially interested in Alaska, and asked about the types of problems there were living in such a harsh cold environment. The fringe benefit Jed enjoyed from the satellite TV helped him de-stress from the endless maintenance and supervision responsibilities. He shared the conversations and interactions with me from his bi-weekly chats with various groups. Keeping Zach entertained in the evenings, fixing food and cleanup was a never-ending evening task for me, so I enjoyed hearing about what he was learning. Once in a while Zach and I would join him at the school.
Students in Allakaket had very positive and strong self-images. We attributed this to a concentration on a Native culture curriculum by previous teachers. While this approach was a welcomed change from the previous villages, we observed an interesting drawback. Many of the students had no interest in academic skills or in the books at the school. In a way we couldn’t blame them since the books were generally textbooks used across the United States depicting pictures of places that had no significance to them. Another problem we encountered was lack of respect for any school structure and self-management skills when in school. We could see we had our work cut out for us.
Based on her year of experience with the students, Genie provided some guidance. With many students still struggling to even read, she had started pairing older and younger students to read together. In this way the older students looked like they were helping the younger students. The benefit was that she was able to use reading skill development for both groups at one time. It was a great idea. Students didn’t feel belittled. Genie and I collaborated our reading, language engagement, and story writing lessons. Students moved between classrooms with focused tasks. Storybooks were created about village life. Word lists were developed and used to build vocabulary in both classrooms.
The coffee shop and food preparation had sparked an interest in math skills. We used the work tasks involved in preparing for the weekly community night as reading and writing exercises. Progress was slow but we were feeling encouraged. When I was setting up my classroom before school started, I discovered some education catalogs in a closet. They must have arrived over the summer because they were current. With the school in such disorder I kept finding little surprises.
Interestingly, as I began to plow through the catalogs, I found a comic book reading program. We knew kids liked comic books because we had some at our apartment and they would look at them when visiting us. The reading comic book program was not expensive which helped Jed to obtain funds to purchase the series. Another factor in securing the books was that they would be shared across two classrooms. I was hopeful the books would help. With Jed’s facility maintenance issues, I was responsible for all of the third through eighth grade reading classes. I was excited and hoped it wouldn’t take too long for them to arrive. They were coming from Texas to an Alaskan village so it could be a while. I created a bulletin board to generate interest and enthusiasm.